In the space of a few hours Friday, Acting Mayor Kim Janey went from planning to announce an interim police commissioner and a search committee, to asking the public for “patience” while speaking vaguely about “reimagining” policing.
If that reflects the current state of Boston city government — and it certainly seems to — things are feeling shaky.
The Dennis White fiasco is not of Janey’s making. But she isn’t doing much to unmake it, either.
White, of course, is the titular head of the Boston Police Department. But the commissioner has been on leave since shortly after being appointed to the post in February, after the Globe reported that he has been investigated for allegations of domestic violence in the late 1990s.
That report led to an independent investigation whose results became public Friday.
The outside investigator, attorney Tamsin Kaplan of Davis Malm, found that White has been implicated in not one, but two, alleged instances of violence against women in the 1990s, as had been whispered around town since shortly after White was placed on leave. He denies both allegations, despite considerable evidence in Kaplan’s report.
Almost as disturbing, the report laid out multiple efforts to cover up and impede investigations into White’s conduct. From the allegations in 1999 to Kaplan’s investigation this spring, White has enjoyed the protection of a wall of silence within the Police Department.
Investigators in the 1990s were discouraged from asking too many questions. One investigator was transferred out of her unit for trying to conduct a real investigation.
And in March — when then-mayor Marty Walsh was incited to reinstate White on his way out the door — his corporation counsel, Eugene O’Flaherty, actually sent word that he wanted Kaplan to shut down her investigation before coming to his senses a few days later and asking her to continue.
This sordid mess reflects terribly on Walsh, now the US Secretary of Labor. He named White commissioner with no discernible vetting process. Under pressure he announced an investigation, then apparently tried to blow it up, rather than waiting for its findings.
The issues don’t end there. White declined to cooperate with a background check. Kaplan’s report says most of the witnesses she and her team approached refused to cooperate. One unnamed BPD officer is in the report saying he got five calls telling him not to talk. (Props to Kaplan for putting all this on the record.)
So what does Janey do now? For starters, she should do pretty much the opposite of everything she did Friday.
In search of a positive headline, she was poised to announce an interim commissioner who herself does not appear to have been vetted. (Yes, Janey’s apparent choice — reportedly, Superintendent Nora Baston — is well-regarded and has been in the department for years. But the same was true of Dennis White.)
Furthermore, Janey should not launch a search for a new commissioner, because the acting mayor probably does not have the legal authority to appoint a commissioner. Naming a police commissioner is the single most important personnel decision a mayor makes, and it should wait until there is an elected mayor who has the legal authority to make it. Superintendent Greg Long is a perfectly good interim.
But the biggest head-scratcher was Janey’s announcement of some new committee to rethink policing.
That was disturbing for two reasons. One, mayors appoint committees as a substitute for taking action.
But also, a robust committee on policing reform, chaired by former US Attorney Wayne Budd, concluded its work less than a year ago, with a group of recommendations that were signed into law by Walsh earlier this year.
Instead of appointing another committee to study things that were just studied, maybe Acting Mayor Janey should do the thing she has the authority to do right now?
That’s not dramatic, but it would be, you know, substantive. And they are changes which Janey is already on record supporting.
“The allegations from the ’90s are concerning,” said Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston NAACP, and a member of the previous policing reform task force. “The fact that both the courts and BPD ‘addressed’ the allegations over 20 years ago speaks to why reforms and culture change are so important.”
Sullivan called on Janey to implement the reforms suggested by that panel, including strengthening the Internal Affairs Oversight Panel and appointing new members to the Civilian Review Board — steps that could be taken without further study.
“This should be done without delay,’' she said. “This has to be about more than one person or appointment.”
What’s starting to bother me about the Janey administration is its eagerness to elevate the appearance of action over the real thing.
Yes, policing in Boston does need to enter a new era — and I seriously doubt that Dennis White can be part of that transition.
But the issues of the Boston Police Department — shown vividly in the report released Friday — aren’t a secret. Neither are many of the steps needed to address it. What’s needed is not another committee. What we need from the mayor’s office now is clear thinking and strong resolve.
We’ll find out soon enough whether Acting Mayor Janey can bring that to the table.