Before Mayor Marty Walsh leaves his beloved Boston for the Beltway, there is one particularly awkward piece of business left to be resolved.
Namely, that Police Commissioner Dennis White remains in limbo, having been placed on leave just days after being appointed a month ago.
White was forced to step aside temporarily after domestic abuse allegations from 1999 surfaced. According to court records, White’s then-wife — also a Boston police officer — accused him of pushing and hitting her. A restraining order forced White to stay away from his home, as well as his wife and children, and surrender his service weapon.
Records show that White was also the subject of an Internal Affairs investigation in 1999. Walsh and other city officials have declined to say whether that investigation was related to the domestic abuse allegation.
The Walsh administration’s apparent failure to vet White in any significant way has gotten a lot of attention, and rightfully so. Apparently, outgoing Commissioner Willie Gross essentially selected his successor, with Walsh’s quick assent. No search committee, no real questions asked, not even a review of White’s personnel record. That’s no way to fill one of the most powerful jobs in town.
Though it isn’t clear whether White would serve the traditional five-year term for a commissioner, or the remaining three years of Gross’ tenure, he figures to head the department for several years — if he returns. In White’s absence, Superintendent-in-Chief Greg Long is filling in as acting commissioner.
The past couple of weeks have seen a quiet surge of support for White, a 32-year veteran of the department who had served as Gross’ chief of staff. First, a group of Black clergy held a press conference calling for his reinstatement. Then, his daughter, Tiffany White, gave an interview to GBH insisting that the allegations against her father were untrue. On Friday, a group of Black law enforcement officials — including Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins, Sheriff Steve Tompkins, and Gross — took out a full-page ad in the Globe noting that White had never been charged with anything and calling for his reinstatement.
“Commissioner White has earned the trust of his fellow officers, along with civic and clergy leaders and countless families in each of our neighborhoods,” the ad stated.
After White was suspended, Walsh enlisted an outside law firm to review the allegations, and hopes they will deliver their findings before he is confirmed as secretary of labor, which could be as early as this week. Walsh is said to be eager to resolve White’s fate himself, rather than leaving it to his successor, Council president Kim Janey.
Without question, if White is found to have been credibly accused of domestic violence, he unequivocally cannot run the Police Department. But if Walsh receives a report that delivers less clarity than that, what then?
Although White is not well known to the public, those who have dealt with him describe a man with both the internal support and public skills to succeed in the job. To them, it’s no mystery that he was picked, and continues to garner support.
“If the review of this matter shows that it was appropriately handled by the judicial system, then the question becomes whether an allegation of wrongdoing is an automatic disqualifier from serving in this role,” said Boston NAACP president Tanisha Sullivan, who stressed that she takes all allegations of domestic violence seriously. “In the interest of justice, an unsubstantiated allegation should not be a disqualifier.”
Sullivan served with White on a police reform task force, and found him to be a champion of greater accountability and transparency in the department.
That’s ironic, considering that accountability and transparency are exactly what his appointment lacked.
But trashing the inadequate selection process will get us just so far. One day soon, someone is going to have to decide yes or no on the question of whether Dennis White is fit to run the BPD.
And it’s going to come down to one question. There’s no doubt that a domestic abuser can’t run the BPD.
But do we know that Dennis White has ever been one?
Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.