Scandal has engulfed Boston police, presenting Acting Mayor Kim Janey with one of the first major tests of her crisis management skills as city executive.
The chief controversies swirling around the nation’s oldest police force are threefold. The city’s police commissioner, Dennis White, is on paid administrative leave while an independent investigator probes a 1999 domestic abuse allegation.
In addition, a recent Globe investigation revealed the department determined in 1995 that Patrick M. Rose Sr., the onetime president of the city’s powerful patrolmen’s union, had more than likely molested a 12-year-old child. The department had repeatedly refused to release the case files or discuss why Rose, who is now charged with sexually abusing five additional children, continued as a patrolman and had access to children. Janey released 13 pages from a 105-page internal affairs file for Rose earlier this month. The remaining 92 pages were withheld by the city to protect the identity of the victims, officials said.
And in March, federal authorities arrested and charged a retired Boston police captain with pocketing more than $12,395 in fraudulent overtime earnings, escalating a yearslong probe into payroll abuse at the department’s evidence warehouse.
That trio of problems predates Janey’s tenure as acting mayor. But navigating the political currents churning the department’s future ranks among the most immediate challenges she faces in her new role, and underscores the potential political peril that serving as acting mayor carries, even with all the advantages the post brings to Janey as she simultaneously runs for a full term.
“In a tight primary, when most candidates are trying to run under the moniker of most progressive, mishandling a police issue could definitely be an issue,” said Erin O’Brien, a University of Massachusetts political science professor. “That’s true for all the candidates. Most candidates, their calculus is being tough on police is good policy and it’s good politics.”
Janey said in early April she expected the White investigation to conclude before the end of that month. And while the final report from that probe has been submitted to City Hall, as of Sunday Janey had yet to be briefed on the matter. A decision regarding White’s future is likely to come in early May, a Janey spokesman said.
Another UMass Boston professor, Kevin Wozniak, said that the issue of policing is “likely going to matter” at the ballot box this fall, adding that Janey, no matter what she does on the issue is likely to please some voters and alienate others. Some advocates will always want more drastic reforms, while police unions may bristle at substantial department changes.
At a time when there is continued erosion between communities and police across the nation, Boston leaders and its police department need to “convince members of the public in actions as well as words that they do not tolerate inappropriate behavior from members in that department,” said Christine Cole, executive director of the Crime and Justice Institute in Boston, a nonprofit that seeks to improve criminal and juvenile justice systems.
“Covering up prior bad acts is not consistent with that expectation,” she said.
Janey has a history of calling for substantial overhaul of the police as a city councilor and recently unveiled a $3.75 billion operating budget that includes cuts to the police department, although the cuts do not go far enough for some critics. She also revealed that she was budgeting $1 million for a new independent city watchdog that will probe officer misconduct.
The proposed budget also calls for another $1 million for racial equity training for police and $2 million for additional clinicians that will help police respond to calls involving people with mental health problems and other difficult situations.
Rosanna Cavallaro, who teaches criminal law and evidence at Suffolk University, said it was Janey’s responsibility “to figure out what’s broken and what’s going to fix it” regarding Boston police. The mayor has an opportunity to convey that not disclosing or properly addressing information about misconduct will have significant consequences, said Cavallaro.
“Obviously, the cumulation of these things suggest that the mechanisms that are there in that institution for oversight are deeply flawed and that may be part of a larger conversation about institutional reforms, and the need for greater transparency,” she said.
One option for Janey, said Deborah Ramirez, a law professor at Northeastern University: The acting mayor could declare the city will no longer pay 100 percent of legal costs, judgments, and settlements associated with civil suits alleging on-the-job police misconduct and require officers to have professional liability insurance.
That way, she said, “if they engage in misconduct, they will be priced out of policing.”
Police unions, said Ramirez, held too much power in the city. The provisions in contracts that allow for an arbitration process for misconduct too often hampers the ability of the department to discipline or fire officers, she said. Boston police brass are also handcuffed in terms of whom they hire and promote by the state’s civil service exam, according to Ramirez.
“Right now, there is no way to get bad cops off the streets,” she said.
Larry Calderone, who is president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, rejected that argument, saying other union contracts with the city include a grievance and arbitration provision and that his union’s contract is no different. Arbitration does not protect bad employees, he said, but helps ensure good management.
“Unions historically have given up their right to strike in exchange for an agreement from management to submit disputes to binding arbitration,” he said. “Arbitration provides union members with a fair, due process forum which only requires an employer to show that it had ‘cause’ or a good reason to terminate an employee.”
Thomas Nolan, a retired Boston police sergeant who now teaches criminology and criminal justice at Emmanuel College, did not think the police unions, or officers themselves, were the potent political force they were in the city in decades past. Many officers live outside Boston, he said.
But with White, Janey is in a bit of bind, said Nolan. If she reinstates him, she will likely anger domestic violence prevention advocates in the city, and if she replaces him, she may alienate people within the department.
Still, if she wanted to make a bold stroke, allowing White to stay in the department in a position other than commissioner and impaneling a search committee to look for a new commissioner could make political sense, said Nolan. White, he said, is not seen as a change agent for the department.
“She’s definitely got her work cut out for her,” said Nolan of Janey’s handling of the police department.
Some political observers in the city, including Paul Parara, a local radio host known as Notorious VOG, maintain that the commissioner decision is not Janey’s call to make.
Janey, said Parara, is hamstrung by the city charter, which states that an acting mayor “shall possess the powers of mayor only in matters not admitting of delay, but shall have no power to make permanent appointments.”
Parara argued that Walsh appointed an interim police commissioner, Gregory Long, who can serve in that role until city voters elect a mayor this fall. If Walsh hadn’t made that appointment, it would be a different story, he said.
”Kim Janey doesn’t have the authority to even touch it,” said Parara.