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A student of history, Willie Gross made some

After 37 years on the job, Gross is leaving with the mayor who made him Boston’s first Black police commissioner.

Boston, MA - 8/6/18 - After William G. Gross (cq) was pinned by his mother Deanna Gross (cq), he put the badge around her neck and then gave her a bouquet of flowers. He was sworn in as Boston's 42nd Police Commissioner by Mayor Martin J. Walsh (cq) at the Morning Star Baptist Church in the Mattapan neighborhood of Boston on Monday, August 6, 2018.Pat Greenhouse

Willie Gross is many things, one being a student of history.

His office does not have what he calls “dig me” walls, covered with his many commendations. Instead there’s a lot of history.

A portrait of the Tuskegee Airmen, including one of his mentors, Willis Saunders, who returned from World War II to become one of the greatest cops to ever serve the city.

This is a tough cop with a fountain pen collection.

On a credenza, there is a display of biblical history, King Solomon and the Ark of the Covenant.

There’s a photo of Pope Tawardros II, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, whom Gross met a few years ago.


Gross rose from the most modest position in the police department, as a cadet, to chief of the department, earning a reputation as a streetwise cop for whom others would run through walls. He also happens to be a really nice guy.

By becoming Boston’s first Black chief of the department, then police commissioner, Gross made history. He would have made even more if he became the city’s first Black mayor. But while he seriously considered throwing his hat in the ring, the more he thought about it the less appealing a prospect it seemed.

He’d certainly have made a formidable candidate, one with an inspiring life story. He knows people in every corner of the city and is extremely affable and very well liked, even loved, by many.

After Marty Walsh, the mayor who appointed Gross commissioner, was tapped to become Joe Biden’s labor secretary, many people approached Gross and suggested he run for mayor.

“How many? Thousands,” Gross told me Thursday. ”People I really respected. I had to consider it.”

Gross was flattered, but he is a thoughtful guy and the more he thought about it, the more the idea of becoming an overnight politician felt wrong.


“I wouldn’t say the job wasn’t appealing. And I am so respectful that so many people wanted me to be a candidate,” he said. “But my conclusion was my heart, my desire, was in law enforcement, not politics.”

When Jim Brett, the former state representative from Dorchester who is friendly with Gross, spoke with him Thursday, Gross told him: “I came in with Marty. I’m going out with Marty.”

Gross disputed suggestions that his resignation was abrupt. He was only staying as long as Walsh was, and maybe not as long. He had told his family that he was going to retire by January 2022, even if Walsh was reelected.

The truth is Gross can make a ton of money in the private sector and have none of the headaches that come with being a public figure. After 37 years in the trenches, that sounds very appealing.

Even before but certainly since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year, police all over the country have been on the defensive, including in Boston, where scrutiny of misconduct, even some from years long past, is being reexamined in a new light.

If Gross ran for mayor, he would be asked to answer not for just what Boston police may have done wrong, but for the actions of police officers everywhere. Sticking up for cops these days isn’t exactly popular.

Not that he would have shrunk from doing so.


“I would have factored that in,” he said, referring to widespread criticism of police and demands for widespread reform when considering a mayoral run.

The bottom line is, he said, he would have run “if I had a burning desire.”

If he had run, he would have questioned those who questioned him, especially politicians who demand police reform while saying nothing about political reform.

“You want to talk about reform?” he said. “I would love to be on the Ethics Committee at the State House.”

But for now, and probably forever, Willie Gross the could-have-been politician will never supplant Willie Gross the can-do policeman.

“I’m going to be 57 on Monday,” he said.

The cake will taste especially sweet.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe reporter and columnist who roams New England. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.