On the morning of Friday, Jan. 22, Mayor Martin J. Walsh pulled together a small circle of aides to hear some very big news: Police Commissioner William Gross, who made history just over two years ago as the first Black officer to lead the Boston force, abruptly wanted out.
Gross had quietly confided to Walsh that he had suffered a significant health concern. With Walsh likely to decamp within weeks for Washington, D.C., and a post in President Biden’s Cabinet, Gross decided it was time to retire.
And Gross had a clear idea of who should succeed him. The Walsh aides heard that morning that Gross had recommended that his chief of staff and close confidante, Superintendent Dennis White, replace him and become the second Black head of the nation’s oldest police force. Walsh had concurred — and that was that. The changes, it was decided, would be announced to the public less than a week later, according to two people familiar with the process.
No one else was considered for the commissioner job. White, a 32-year veteran officer little known outside the department, wasn’t even interviewed. And no one asked questions or offered insight. The sole scrutiny of the city’s new commissioner, according to one official, came via a quick Google search and a read of past Police Department press releases.
The decisions made — and the steps not taken — in the week leading up to White’s appointment would lead to a major embarrassment in the mayor’s final days in office. Within days of the announcement, Walsh would sideline his newly sworn-in commissioner amid revelations of allegations that White had pushed and threatened to shoot his then-wife, also a police officer, 22 years earlier.
These allegations, outlined in internal police files and publicly available court records, were attainable if officials had simply asked. But the Walsh administration hadn’t.
The process played to Walsh’s long-held impulses to keep a tight-knit inner circle, promote from within, and to brush off skepticism from outsiders.
Now, the mayor who seemed not so long ago poised to coast to a third term in office, finds himself engulfed in local controversy as he’s set to leave for a national stage.
The press release went out at 10:15 on the morning of Thursday, Jan. 28, and carried a banner headline: Gross was retiring, and White would be the city’s top cop. The news sent shock waves throughout the city’s political establishment.
Gross had publicly said only weeks earlier that he was mulling whether to enter the race to replace Walsh. With his sudden retirement, Gross dropped the idea of politics, too.
City Council President Kim Janey, whose office had been working with the mayor’s team to facilitate her planned transition to interim mayor, had been alerted only an hour before the press release e-mail was sent out, according to one person close to her team. She declined to comment for this story. Other city councilors and local law enforcement officials learned about White’s appointment from the news release.
There would be no acting or interim designation for White — he was the new commissioner. Under state law, Boston police commissioners serve five-year terms, though it is not clear whether White will serve a full five years or fill the remaining tenure of Gross. Regardless, he is set to serve as commissioner for several years. The new interim mayor, as well as the person elected later this year, would have to deal with it.
In a brief interview on the day of his appointment, White told the Globe he looked to rebuild trust with community partners, though he had no immediate plans for change.
“The main thing is to just get in the door and make sure the ship is running straight,” he said.
Some reporters scrambled to assess the impact of Gross’s retirement on the mayoral race, while others sought to learn more about the new commissioner. Within three hours of the announcement, the Globe asked the department’s communications office for more biographical information on White, as well as a list of White’s awards and his internal affairs history.
The Globe published late last year a database of Boston police commendations and internal affairs cases, and chronicled the department’s systemic failure to properly investigate its own. Records show that White, who spent seven years on the department’s top command staff, had been subjected to three internal investigations stretching back decades, including one in 1999 for an alleged violation of the law.
But the records said nothing more.
The department has not responded to multiple requests for additional information on White.
White has not responded to requests for comment. And Gross has kept a low profile.
Regarding his departure, Gross said he “had an agreement” with Walsh. “I was planning on leaving whenever he left,” Gross said. “And my family — I have an obligation to my family as well.”
Later, he issued a brief follow-up statement to the Globe, acknowledging he had discovered a serious health concern in the lead-up to his decision, but he did not release details. While he is doing well, he said, he decided “in the end I needed to concentrate on my family and my physical and mental health.”
Gross has not addressed the past domestic violence allegations levied against White, or said whether he had known about them.
“In the interest of continuity and a smooth transition, the mayor and I agreed that Dennis White would be an excellent candidate for the role of Police Commissioner,” Gross said. “I have tremendous respect for Dennis and all that he has done to improve the Boston Police Department.”
Walsh once viewed the process for picking a police leader much differently. As a mayoral candidate in 2013, he outlined his vision for a thorough, transparent vetting process for the job, considered one of the highest profile, and most demanding, positions within city government.
“People need a comfort level with the police,” Walsh said at the time. “There has to be an opportunity for the public to have some input.”
But that sort of search process never happened when he was in office. The last time Boston thoroughly vetted a new police commissioner was in 2006, when then-Mayor Thomas M. Menino launched a high-powered, secretive search committee to scrub dozens of candidates from coast to coast.
“Usually for an appointment of public trust, you go through a third party vetting process,” David D’Alessandro, the former CEO of John Hancock Financial Services Inc. who led the 2006 search, said in a recent interview.
The process for finalists left no stone unturned: national criminal background checks, driving records, credit histories, academic transcripts, and even medical records for at least one of the candidates. Then the search committee dug deeper inside the candidates’ respective police departments, sifting through internal affairs records and citizen complaints, and making discreet phone calls to size up a finalist’s reputation.
The intense scrutiny helped nix one highly qualified finalist, a high-ranking and decorated Los Angeles police official: He had a persistent history of citizen complaints.
“The key was always that the appointing authority not be blind-sided,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C., who helped with Boston’s 2006 search. “In any kind of search process — especially when it comes to jobs where there’s enormous credibility and issues that can come up — you don’t want to be surprised.”
Former Boston police commissioner Kathleen O’Toole recalled a thorough vetting process when she twice applied for the job — in 1994 and 2004 — including intense questioning by a committee of community leaders and representatives from various neighborhoods. Later, she said, she and the other finalists had to go to the Francis Parkman House on Beacon Hill for a one-on-one interview with the mayor.
During her later bid to become the police chief in Seattle, the process was even more intensive; she was required to attend community meetings and appear before the City Council.
“I always wanted a rigorous process, so that nobody could question it,” said O’Toole, who held the post in Boston from 2004 to 2006, before heading departments in Ireland and Seattle.
In 2013, when Menino was planning to step down and former police commissioner Edward Davis decided to retire, Menino appointed then-Superintendent William Evans to serve in the interim until the next mayor could make a decision on his own. Within days of taking office, Walsh named Evans, known for his effective response to the Boston Marathon bombings, permanent commissioner.
And in 2018, when rumors of Evans’s pending retirement had circulated throughout the city, Walsh made the historic appointment of Gross, Evans’s superintendent in chief. It was a choice that made history in Boston, and came as little surprise to those who track city affairs. But again it was choice made without a meaningful search process.
At White’s swearing-in ceremony at Faneuil Hall on Feb. 1, Walsh heaped praise on his new police leader. He noted that White had served as a firefighter before joining the police, later worked in a number of districts, and even had a stint in Internal Affairs.
Most recently, as Gross’s chief of staff and third-highest ranking member of the department, White served on a city task force that analyzed the department’s shortcomings and proposed sweeping reforms.
“I am confident he will continue the Boston Police Department’s reputation as a leader in community policing and advance the department’s commitment to accountability and transparency,” Walsh said.
Standing steps away from his second wife, also a police officer, White vowed to “get the job done” and rebuild trust between police and Black and brown communities. He thanked Walsh for his commitment to police, saying it made for a safer city and more inclusive department. “I will forever appreciate your friendship,” he said.
Around this same time, a Globe reporter sat in Suffolk Probate and Family Court awaiting a batch of files related to White. After two hours, a clerk handed over a thick file — almost 200 pages of documents that included police reports and a restraining order, all connected to domestic violence allegations.
In 1999, White’s then-wife — also a Boston police officer — accused him of pushing her and hitting her once, records show. A restraining order signed by a judge forced White to vacate his home, stay away from his wife and children, and surrender his service weapon.
A friend of the couple had told police that White — after a confrontation with his wife and another acquaintance — said he “wanted to shoot her and him,” according to a summary of an interview by a Boston police detective, which was included in a probate and family court file.
The Globe could not find evidence that White was charged with a crime. At the time, he denied the allegations in court filings. His attorney argued that the restraining order and abuse allegations were an attempt to alienate White from his children and “humiliate him personally and professionally.”
The records raised some basic questions: Were these allegations at the root of the department’s 1999 internal investigation into White? Had the city known about any of it before White’s appointment?
The Globe shared these findings with the city and the Police Department on the morning of Wednesday, Feb. 3. The department didn’t respond, but the Walsh administration did.
Walsh announced that evening he had placed White on leave, and Superintendent-in-Chief Gregory Long would serve as acting commissioner. The city would hire an outside lawyer “to conduct a full and impartial investigation” into the allegations.
Walsh said in an initial statement that these “disturbing issues were not known to me or my staff, but should have been at the forefront.”
“In hindsight, we absolutely should have performed a thorough vetting process,” the administration said in a later statement. “We were attempting to create a smooth transition and honor Commissioner Gross’ desire to retire and spend time with his family, but in our haste to do so we failed to ask all of the necessary questions.”
Wexler, of the Police Executive Research Forum, said that background investigations for high-profile positions — often conducted by former FBI or Secret Service agents — are meant to be so thorough they would catch a traffic ticket or a pattern of unpaid bills.
“Anything that you think people could question or make an issue, you’d [be able to say] ‘We knew about that,’” he said.
Still today, little is known about the initial allegations against White and the thoroughness of the investigation in 1999, even as supporters have come to White’s defense.
Boston police officials continue to refuse Globe requests to turn over his full internal affairs or personnel file. The department has refused to say whether the domestic violence case the Globe discovered is the same incident that caused the 1999 internal affairs investigation.
That information was provided by the department to the city’s corporation counsel a day after the Globe presented its findings, but few, including Janey, the incoming mayor, have seen it.
White’s former wife, who remains on the police force, has declined to comment.
At a news conference in Dorchester Wednesday morning, local Black clergy members called on Walsh to reinstate White, saying he had been treated unfairly and differently than other white supervisors who were accused of domestic violence.
The Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers also said White was mistreated, and suggested he had to have been vetted as he rose through police ranks over the last two decades. “We fail to understand why a known accusation has now resulted in the Commissioner being placed on administrative leave ‘pending an investigation’,” the statement said.
Walsh’s office did not directly respond to the criticism, pointing to the ongoing independent investigation. The mayor has not set a deadline for the completion of the independent investigation, though it could take several weeks.
Walsh will likely be gone by then.
A US Senate committee approved his appointment as labor secretary on Thursday and final approval may come any day.
Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617. Andrew Ryan can be reached at email@example.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan. Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.