The release of the findings of an outside investigation into the decades-old domestic violence allegations against suspended police commissioner Dennis White on Friday triggered a flood of reactions from community and political leaders, who questioned how White was able to rise through police ranks and head the nation’s oldest police force.
The failure by former mayor Martin J. Walsh and his advisers to properly vet White before handing him the reins renewed calls for greater transparency and accountability within the Boston Police Department, amid a national reckoning over policing that has put reforms at the forefront of political discourse leading into the fall elections.
Mayoral candidate Jon Santiago, a state representative, said the allegations in the report by an independent investigator, which also describes the lack of cooperation by the police department, were “incredibly disturbing” and “disgusting,” adding that “a code of silence” in the department needs to be broken.
“[These allegations] represent a troubling pattern of behavior of a man in power against multiple women. Survivors of domestic violence deserve better. They deserve decisive action from their leaders,” said Santiago, who is a medical doctor.
City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, who is also running for mayor, stressed that the White case demonstrates that “those that are tasked with keeping us safe should be held to the highest possible standard.”
“Domestic violence is never OK. This case speaks to the critical need for greater transparency and accountability in the Boston Police Department and our other city institutions,” she said. “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.”
Gina Scaramella, executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, called the allegations against White “horrifying” but praised Acting Mayor Kim Janey for releasing the report and also for her pledge to reform the department’s policies.
“We look forward to learning more about the policy. Sexual assault, harassment, and abuse thrive in silence, and people in power rely on that silence to perpetrate harm,” Scaramella said. “The culture of silence identified in the report into Commissioner White must be changed. More so than any other organization, police departments must be comprised of, as Mayor Janey put it, ‘people of integrity.’”
However, a few mayoral candidates criticized Janey for her thwarted plans to terminate and replace White, which they say has injected another element of turmoil into a troubled department and could complicate Janey’s call for a new look at the police department.
Shortly before Janey’s planned afternoon announcement, White filed a motion in Suffolk Superior Court requesting a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction against his dismissal, according to the commissioner’s lawyer, Nicholas B. Carter. The filing forced Janey to change course and delay her announcement of a new commissioner.
“It is time to move the department forward,” she said. But Janey’s handling of the independent investigation and her attempt to fire White have prevented that, some said.
“Instead of moving forward to tackle the systemic reforms the people of Boston want, Acting Mayor Janey is in a standoff with Dennis White — and it’s not even clear who’s currently leading our police department,” said City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who is also running for mayor. “The city needs leadership that brings clarity and stability to this situation, not chaos and confusion.”
Another mayoral candidate, City Councilor Michelle Wu, noting the chaos of the day, said the city needs “leadership that can build trust with community without question,” and noted that even the release of the files was “filtered through the lens of politics.”
“It’s disappointing for Boston residents to continue to have no clarity about who will steer this department over the next six months as interim police commissioner,” she said.
John Barros, Walsh’s former chief of economic development who is running for mayor, also said that Janey handled the matter poorly, adding that the public needs to see the full police internal affairs files and records related to the investigation into White.
“Leadership matters and good management is essential. The residents of Boston and Commissioner White deserve transparency and clear reasoning around the decision to terminate without a hearing,” Barros said. “Trust is rooted in transparency. Any progress around police and public safety reform cannot begin without that foundation.”
The neck-turning pace of events had some longtime political and law enforcement observers scratching their heads over whether the acting mayor miscalculated how White would respond to her planned decision and whether her handling of the matter demonstrated a lack of experience on the job.
Willie Bradley, an adjunct criminal justice professor at Curry College, said he believes Janey was “ill advised” about terminating White, noting that as acting mayor she might not have the authority to change Cabinet leaders.
“There’s a procedure that has to take place before she can make that change. I think Commissioner White may have a very good [court] case,’' said Bradley.
White has been suspended since shortly after taking office in early February, leaving the department in limbo for more than three months as political pressure mounted on a new administration at City Hall.
Janey, who took office in March after Walsh departed for a Cabinet post in President Biden’s administration, said Friday that the “cloud” hovering over the police department “cannot continue if we want to move the department forward.”
Walsh had appointed White, a close confidant of former police commissioner William Gross, in February in the waning days of Walsh’s tenure. Gross, who said at the time that he was stepping down for health reasons, recommended White, a department veteran of two decades who had served as his chief of staff.
But days after White was sworn in as Boston’s 43rd commissioner, Walsh hastily placed him on administrative leave after the Globe raised questions about a past domestic violence case; court records showed that he was accused of pushing and threatening to shoot his then-wife, and that he was ordered to stay away from his family and surrender his service weapon.
White was never charged with a crime and denied the allegations in court filings, but the police department refused to turn over its related internal affairs investigation. Walsh commissioned the independent investigation that Janey released Friday, saying he had not known about the allegations, though he recognized he should have.
A separate Globe review outlined Walsh’s scramble to appoint Gross’s successor before he left for Washington, D.C., without completing a full vetting process, which has historically been conducted for such a high level post in Boston.
At the time, leaders in Boston’s Black community, including Black and brown police officers, questioned the rush to place White on leave before the investigation could be completed. They argued that white leaders in the department had not faced similar discipline before a proper investigation was done.
On Thursday, before the report was released, Gross defended White, calling him an “excellent choice” to lead the nation’s oldest police force.
Globe reporter Danny McDonald contributed to this report.
Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617. Meghan E. Irons can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons. Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.