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Mayor Walsh’s swift, behind-closed-doors police commissioner appointment a departure from how other cities handle major move

Dennis White was sworn in Monday by Mayor Martin J. Walsh as the new police commissioner.
Dennis White was sworn in Monday by Mayor Martin J. Walsh as the new police commissioner.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The news came in a press release issued last week by Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh. His police commissioner, William Gross, was out, abruptly retiring after two-plus years atop the department. And Dennis White — a veteran officer largely unknown outside the agency — was in, tapped as Gross’s permanent replacement.

There would be no national search. No list of finalists. No public input.

Now, just days later, Walsh is facing a barrage of criticism over his administration’s handling of the appointment, as well as the vetting of White, who was named to one of the city’s most prominent positions with no scrutiny of a past domestic abuse allegation.

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Walsh placed White on administrative leave late Wednesday, named an acting commissioner, and pledged an outside investigation after the Globe presented the administration with allegations in court documents that White in 1999 pushed and threatened to shoot his then-wife, also a Boston police officer, and was later ordered to stay away from his family.

“This is why you don’t rush an appointment like this,” said Brian Higgins, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor and former police chief in Bergen County, N.J. “They dropped the ball, and now they got egg on their face.”

Though Boston has often stayed in-house in its search for new police leadership, the swiftness with which Walsh appointed White represents a significant departure from the approach of many American cities, which have often cast wide nets and increasingly sought community input during searches for police leaders.

In Dallas, for instance, officials led a national search for a new police chief last year that spanned three months and included interviews with seven finalists. Louisville’s appointment last month of a new police chief, meanwhile, came after officials had considered 28 candidates and consulted with a national firm that specializes in police executive searches.

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Boston, too, has previously been far more discerning, at times conducting sweeping searches and interviewing numerous candidates.

In 2006, the city went outside its own ranks to hire Edward Davis of the Lowell Police Department, following a nationwide search that included interviews with a half-dozen candidates. Two decades earlier, then-Mayor Raymond Flynn made multiple trips to other Northeastern cities in an attempt to replace Joseph Jordan.

While there’s no single standard for how departments go about filling their top position, conducting a thorough search is integral, several experts said.

“That’s your fundamental responsibility to the community — to do your due diligence,” said Suffolk University professor Brenda Bond-Fortier, whose work focuses on criminal justice and public administration. “A failed or illegitimate process and selection can have a significant impact on the future of a city.”

Walsh’s decision to switch commissioners came as he was about to depart himself. He could step down within days, if the Senate approves him as labor secretary in President Biden’s administration.

The details surrounding White’s appointment remained unclear Thursday.

Walsh said Wednesday night that he was unaware of the 1999 domestic violence allegation levied against White when he appointed him. Walsh’s office has declined to answer specific questions about his selection, though spokesman Nick Martin acknowledged in an e-mail that the vetting process “admittedly should have been more thorough.”

Meanwhile, others in City Hall raised pointed questions Thursday about how such an oversight could have occurred.

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“What kind of process was put in place to decide whether or not this man was ready to assume this position?” Councilor Julia Mejia said in an interview. “I don’t understand how this slips through the cracks.”

Three of the mayoral candidates — Councilors Andrea Campbell, Michelle Wu, and Annissa Essaibi George — called for investigations or demanded increased accountability from police.

The Globe first pressed the Police Department last Thursday about White’s work history, including three internal affairs cases, just hours after Walsh announced his selection. The department provided some basic information, but declined to provide internal affairs cases.

The Globe could not find evidence that White was charged with a crime. At the time of the domestic abuse allegations, he denied them in court filings.

Walsh, who had the option to appoint White on an acting basis while the city conducted a search, named White as the permanent replacement to Gross. During White’s swearing-in ceremony Monday, Walsh praised his new commissioner, assuring that he would “advance the department’s commitment to accountability and transparency and help lead the Boston Police Department into a new era.”

Amid increasingly frayed relations between police and the communities they protect, several larger cities have conducted commissioner searches in a far more transparent manner, soliciting community feedback and holding public meetings.

In addition to hiring a local, minority-owned search firm to help find a new police chief, city officials in Albuquerque read through more than 2,000 responses to a public survey seeking community input on candidates, and held more than 40 virtual meetings with local groups in an effort to bring transparency to their search.

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Last month, the city’s three finalists appeared on a public webinar, effectively pitching themselves to the community at large.

“I just felt I owed it to the city to look around outside, even if we end up right back home,” said Tim Keller, Albuquerque’s mayor. “If your department’s great, then yes, hire from within. For us, no matter who we pick, they’re going to have much more community buy-in, because I think we went through a thoughtful process and looked around.”

But even smaller communities, with budgets far more modest than Boston’s, have devoted considerable time and resources to reviewing and vetting potential hires.

In its recent search for a police chief, Medfield’s Board of Selectmen appointed a nine-member committee to review potential candidates. Officials in Newton, meanwhile, have hired a national firm to aid in their current search; as part of the process, the city also issued a public job posting and an 11-page brochure detailing the city’s needs and makeup.

“The best candidate might very well be within our department,” said Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, who said the city hopes to make an offer to a new chief by the end of March. “But it will serve our community well to look wide and far as well as close and near.”

The importance of thoroughly vetting candidates, added Higgins of John Jay, is paramount.

“Really, the only basis you have for having a glimpse of what somebody will do once they become a cop is to look at the way they’ve acted leading up to here,” he said. “It’s why we don’t think it’s a good idea for cops to have criminal records, or allegations of physical assault.”

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As for Boston, Higgins described the decision for an outgoing mayor to appoint a new commissioner as potentially unfair to the next mayor, or interim mayor, who could take office in mere days.

“I really think they should’ve at least made the effort, even if they ended up going with the one they made permanent,” to let the new mayor and community have a say, Higgins said.

“Especially with what’s going on now [in policing],” he added. “Why go down that road?”

Danny McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com. Andrew Ryan can be reached at andrew.ryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.