His name barely appears in the document, but the independent report into former mayor Martin J. Walsh’s troubled appointment of the city’s police commissioner raises numerous unanswered questions about the choice made in the waning days of Walsh’s City Hall tenure and its aftermath.
The new revelations from an investigation Walsh ordered up are surfacing as he settles into his role as US labor secretary in President Biden’s Cabinet.
Numerous critics note that the report by attorney Tamsin Kaplan provides fresh evidence of commissioner Dennis White’s background of domestic violence allegations — and underscores why Walsh and his administration should have more closely examined White’s candidacy for the top police job. Critics also point to the Police Department’s culture of protecting its own.
The report “really raises questions about the vetting process and priorities of the department and the city as a whole,” added Toni Troop, spokeswoman for Jane Doe Inc., a statewide advocacy and membership organization addressing sexual assault and domestic violence.
“It’s really important survivors have confidence in a system they may choose to turn to,” she said.
In the report, Kaplan wrote “it was confirmed” that White’s former wife “repeatedly reported both physical and mental abuse” to the Boston Police Department but internal affairs did not investigate until she sought a restraining order in May 1999.
The substance of the allegations contained in Kaplan’s report “is very serious,” said Rosanna Cavallaro, who teaches criminal law and evidence at Suffolk University. ”Serious enough where there should’ve been a process where these things should have been brought to light,” she said. “It makes the lack of due diligence that much worse.”
Late Friday night, a spokesperson for the US Department of Labor issued a statement saying, in part, that “When the allegations arose, then-Mayor Walsh immediately placed the individual on leave and commissioned an independent, outside investigation into the matter.’'
Walsh’s seven-year tenure as mayor got new, national attention on another front as well this week. A critical Wall Street Journal editorial Friday took Walsh to task for his refusing to release the internal affairs file for Patrick M. Rose Sr., a former head of the city’s patrolmen’s union who is alleged to have sexually abused children over the decades.
Friday’s report on White details how Kaplan’s investigation unfolded, with numerous instances of a lack of cooperation from city and police officials, prompting concerns about the culture of the Police Department as a whole.
“I think stonewall is the appropriate term,” said Tom Nolan, a retired Boston police lieutenant who teaches at Emmanuel College.
The “level of cooperation [from the city authorities] was less than ideal,” said Cavallaro. She noted that there was no opportunity for a second interview with White and the investigator had “very limited access” to other officers .
“The investigation was limited by the access she was not able to get,” she said.
The police commissioner post is among the most important appointments any mayor can make, said Sam Tyler, former head of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, and this one was not researched thoroughly enough before Walsh made his decision.
“So here’s where we are,” he said.
“Here” would be a standoff between Acting Mayor Kim Janey and White. Janey wants to “move the department forward” and name a new commissioner, something White is trying to block by requesting a restraining order and a preliminary injunction in court. Janey said Friday that she can’t name a successor until a court resolves the dispute.
Some of the mayoral candidates vying to replace Walsh for a full term aimed oblique criticisms at the former mayor, though none called him out by name. “It is imperative that anyone appointed to high positions must be subjected to a rigorous vetting and thorough background checks. That clearly wasn’t the case here,” said City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George in a statement.
Walsh decided to appoint White to the top job back in January, without going through a vigorous vetting process, at the urging of then-commissioner William Gross, who had unexpectedly decided to retire just days earlier. Two days after White’s swearing-in, Walsh abruptly placed him on leave after a Globe story revealed a 1999 domestic abuse allegation.
Walsh then ordered the outside investigation.
The investigation took a strange turn on Feb. 22, 2021, when Kaplan was notified by a city attorney that the investigation was to be terminated two days later and she was asked to provide a final report of the probe “to the extent possible.” She had only been engaged by the city to conduct the investigation 10 days before.
“As the investigation was in a preliminary phase, I was unable to make any findings at that time,” Kaplan wrote.
Christine Cole, executive director of the Boston-based Crime and Justice Institute, said it was “deeply concerning” that Walsh’s administration would ask for the investigation to be wrapped up in such a short time period.
“It speaks to a lack of genuine interest in the findings,” she said.
Kaplan, though, was contacted March 1 by a city attorney and informed that the investigation was back on. What made the city change its course regarding the investigation in those intervening days is unanswered in the report.
In a statement late Friday night, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor said, “In late February, Walsh requested an update on the status of the investigation, in the hopes of sharing its findings with the public and resolving the issue before leaving the mayor’s office. When it became clear that the investigation was ongoing, Walsh directed the investigation to continue, which ultimately led to the report issued today.”
The report said Kaplan was able to speak with only seven of the 21 witnesses she reached out to. She was unable to obtain contact information for former police officers from the department or from the state’s retirement board. According to her report, when a city attorney connected her via e-mail to Acting Police Commissioner Gregory Long, Long declined to help her facilitate interviews with current and retired officers after conferring with Janey’s chief of staff.
“To my knowledge, the city did not communicate to Commissioner White or his counsel at any time a requirement that the commissioner cooperate in the investigation,” Kaplan wrote.
Councilor Michelle Wu, who is running for mayor, said Friday that from the investigator’s account the probe was “clearly from the beginning filtered through the lens of politics.”
“It was on-again, off-again, stopped and started,” she said.
Wu added, “We need structural changes to this department and we need cultural changes to ensure transparency and to build trust with community.”
On Thursday, Gross, during an event where he endorsed Essaibi George for mayor, defended White, who was his chief of staff and longtime friend, calling him “an excellent choice” to lead the nation’s oldest police force.
During a brief phone interview on Friday, Gross doubled down on his defense of White.
“’Allegations are allegations,” he said. “There’s people in the White House with allegations.”
Gross said that the public should be able to hear White’s version of events and that he should be allowed to bring forward witnesses to corroborate what he says.
“I think that would be a fair process,” said Gross.
Nolan said extensive vetting for police leadership positions is “critical.”
Prudence would dictate a national search be undertaken, said Nolan. The next commissioner may be in the current command staff at BPD, but it might be time to bring in someone from the outside who is a change agent, he said.