Former Boston police commissioner William Gross Thursday endorsed City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George for mayor, the latest turn in a fast-moving and crowded race where policing has been a front and center issue.
“It was an easy decision,” said Gross, who was the first Black police commissioner in the city’s history before he abruptly retired in February.
Essaibi George held him accountable as commissioner, said Gross, “but she was fair about it.” He recalled that whenever she had a question about policing she would call to ask, while other politicians “run straight to the media without allowing us to quantify or contextualize anything.” He recalled her calling to check in after a police officer died or a first responder was hurt on the job.
“This lady goes to every neighborhood,” said Gross at a news conference outside Brothers Deli & Restaurant in Mattapan early Thursday afternoon. “This is a time where we should be having conversations and bringing our entire city together.”
Gross, who was speculated to be mulling a mayoral run of his own before announcing he would not run this year, added, “If you think you get votes off of us versus them, ‘We’re going to save you from police,’ you really need to get out and talk to people about crime.”
The endorsement of Gross, known as a cop’s cop during his two-and-a-half years in charge of the department, comes amid continued discussion regarding police reform in the city. Indeed, several of the half-dozen major mayoral candidates have tried to frame themselves as progressive agents of change when it comes to public safety.
Councilor Andrea Campbell, for instance, wants to slash the city’s Police Department budget by about $50 million and reroute that money toward public health, economic justice, and youth development. Councilor Michelle Wu recently issued a plan for police reform through union contract negotiations. She committed to fight “for clear steps for systemic reform through the collective bargaining process as Mayor of Boston.” Both Wu and Campbell have refused to accept campaign donations from the police union.
But since announcing her candidacy in February, Essaibi George has been more open to sustaining relations with police, and has been open to accepting campaign donations.
Acting Mayor Kim Janey, who is also in the race, recently unveiled an operating budget that looks to cut the department’s overtime budget by roughly one third. That budget proposal also included a $1 million investment for racial-equity training for police and an additional $1 million for the new Office of Police Accountability and Transparency, a watchdog agency that will probe officer misconduct.
Gross’s endorsement is the latest signifier that Essaibi George is charting a different course when it comes to policing.
While Essaibi George has spoken about the importance of implementing some changes to policing, including the new watchdog, she has also spoken of the need to support police officers and said Boston needs to hire more officers. She was among the minority of councilors who voted last month against restrictions on the police use of military-style deployment tactics to quell crowd disturbances.
At Thursday’s news conference, Essaibi George framed herself as a collaborator and unifier. She said she was “anxiously awaiting” the results of the investigation into Boston Police Commissioner Dennis White, who was placed on leave after a 1999 domestic abuse allegation surfaced earlier this year.
A report from that investigation has been delivered to City Hall, and Janey has been briefed on it, although she has yet to announce her decision regarding White’s future as the city’s top cop.
Gross said White, who was his handpicked successor as commissioner, was an “excellent choice” to lead the nation’s oldest police force. White has been promoted six times by four different commissioners and recently served on a police reform task force, said Gross.
“Let’s use some common sense here folks,” said Gross. “Why was this man placed on administrative leave when a judge decided on that 21 years ago?”
Gross’s retirement earlier this year is what triggered then-mayor Martin J. Walsh to pick White to be commissioner. Two days after White, a veteran officer little known outside the department, was sworn in as Boston’s 43rd police commissioner, he was placed on leave amid revelations of allegations that he had pushed and threatened to shoot his then-wife, also a police officer, 22 years earlier. White was never charged with a crime, and in court records at the time he denied the allegations.
Gross, who kept good standing with the hundreds of police officers in the politically powerful Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association before he stepped down for health reasons in February, was no stranger to controversy during his time as commissioner. He publicly traded barbs with a city councilor on social media over how law enforcement should respond to protests against police abuses. He opposed a City Council initiative that would have placed restrictions on the police use of chemical agents such as tear gas and projectiles such as rubber bullets in crowd control situations.
Gross also drew criticism last year for meeting with controversial US Attorney General William Barr, prompting the then-commissioner to repeatedly defend his decision to use the visit to discuss race and police relations.
Months after he was sworn in as a leader of BPD in 2018, he used a Facebook post to criticize the ACLU of Massachusetts as a band of “paper warriors” more concerned with filing lawsuits than helping police combat crime. That move drew a sharp rebuke from the civil liberties organization, whose executive director said Gross was trying “to divert attention from the serious issues raised by an ACLU lawsuit” regarding the department’s treatment of immigrants and people of color.
Milton J. Valencia of Globe staff contributed to this report.