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How not to pick a police commissioner

Marty Walsh bungled the process, choosing Dennis A. White as the city’s top cop without a search or serious background check. The next mayor shouldn’t repeat that mistake.

Dennis A. White was Boston's second Black police commissioner. The controversy around his appointment is raising issues of race and equity.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s rush to replace Police Commissioner William Gross created a mess that never should have happened. It not only casts a cloud on Walsh’s legacy as he leaves for the position of labor secretary in the Biden administration but also unfairly clouds the reputation of Dennis A. White, the commissioner named to replace Gross. It should never happen again, on any mayor’s watch.

According to Globe reporting, Walsh learned on Jan. 22 that Gross wanted out as commissioner. Gross also wanted Walsh to replace him with White, his chief of staff and longtime friend.

Walsh went along with Gross’s wish, no questions asked, and the rest is Boston history. Without a job interview or background check, White’s appointment was announced on Jan. 28 and he was sworn in as commissioner on Feb. 1. Two days later, he was put on administrative leave, after the Globe reported that a judge had issued a restraining order against White 22 years earlier, after his wife accused him of pushing and hitting her once. The Globe found no evidence that he had been charged with a crime. The couple is now divorced.

Gross was the city’s first Black police commissioner; White was its second. So, now the controversy around his appointment is raising issues of race and equity. Local Black clergy, and the leader of the state’s minority police officer’s association have called on Walsh to reinstate White, criticizing the administration’s handling of the past domestic abuse allegations and saying White was unfairly targeted because he is Black. The Massachusetts chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, led by Suffolk County Sheriff Steven W. Tompkins, expressed support for White in a full-page ad in the Globe.


White’s family has also been dragged into the controversy. In an interview with GBH, his daughter said the domestic violence allegation made against her father “was a lie.”


When the allegations came to light through the Globe’s reporting, the mayor said, “These disturbing issues were not known to me or my staff, but should have been at the forefront.” Yet the allegations were easily accessible through internal police files and publicly available court records. A cursory check would have revealed them.

“The vetting process is extraordinarily important, even if you pick someone from the inside,” said David D’Alessandro, the former CEO of John Hancock Financial Services Inc., who led a 2006 police commissioner search for then-Mayor Thomas M. Menino. It took 90 days, and involved checks into credit, bank, and medical records. The job ultimately went to Edward Davis, the superintendent of the Lowell police department. During the search process, D’Alessandro said the executive search committee scoured public and personal records and had permission from Davis to “talk to anyone we wanted to.” Said D’Alessandro: “If something else came out that we missed, it wasn’t because we didn’t try. Menino was very tough with me. He said, ‘I don’t want any problems with this guy. None.’ ”

Gross’s exit was unexpected and Walsh is basically on his way to Washington. Given those circumstances, said D’Alessandro, the mayor could have appointed an interim commissioner. “Then, run him through the checks. It’s not rocket science.” If Walsh followed that course, he might have decided the long-ago allegation was not a deal-breaker. Instead, he rushed right into a permanent appointment, and the embarrassing disclosure about White.


It’s a painful lesson for everyone involved in how not to pick a police commissioner.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial said GBH did not identify the daughter of Dennis A. White by name. It did. The Globe regrets the error.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.