scorecardresearch Skip to main content

The Boston Police Department’s moral rot

From crimes to cover-ups, the nation’s oldest police force is being driven and defined by its toxic culture.

In February, Dennis White was sworn in by then-Mayor Marty Walsh as the 43rd Commissioner of the Boston Police Department. Two days into his tenure, White was placed on leave by Walsh for past allegations of domestic violence, which BPD officials knew about for years.Jim Davis/Globe Staff/file

When Suffolk Superior Court Judge Robert Ullmann recently threw out the last charge against Sean Ellis, he called the infamous decades-long case “a very sad chapter in the history of our criminal justice system.”

Arrested at 19, Ellis spent 22 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit — the 1993 murder of John Mulligan, a Boston police detective. Evidence of prosecutorial misconduct and, especially, police corruption eventually led to the dismissal of most charges. After tossing out a remaining gun charge, Ullmann said, “Thankfully, this chapter seems to be nearing its conclusion.”

But that’s not the case for the Boston Police Department, which keeps adding chapters to its litany of misconduct. The same moral rot that forced an innocent man to languish behind bars for most of his adult life continues to corrode the nation’s oldest police force.


Here are some of the latest entries on the BPD dishonor roll:

A Globe investigation published last fall revealed “that racial discrepancies are baked into the operations” of the BPD, with Black officers facing tougher inquiries for alleged misconduct and “harsher discipline than their white counterparts.” It also found that Boston cops accused of crimes usually find favor in “a system where justice takes a back seat to protecting officers.” Rarely are they fired or charged “even when the department concludes that officers broke the law.”

After William Gross, the city’s first Black police commissioner, abruptly retired in January, then-Mayor Martin J. Walsh quickly named Superintendent Dennis White as Gross’s successor. It was so quick, White wasn’t vetted. Two days into his tenure, White was placed on leave by Walsh for past allegations of domestic violence, which BPD officials knew about for years.

An independent investigation released last week not only exposed the depth of the accusations against White but also how Boston police officers “were discouraged from cooperating with the investigation.” Now Acting Police Commissioner Gregory Long’s leadership is garnering scrutiny.


White is suing the city to stop his removal. Acting Mayor Kim Janey is scrambling to clean up a mess she inherited, but she needs to start flexing instead of flinching, as she did last week.

Another Globe investigation revealed that for decades BPD officials mostly ignored allegations that Patrick M. Rose Sr., one of its officers, was a pedophile. Rose stayed on the force, worked on child sexual assault cases, and led the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association. He also allegedly molested five more minors. He’s now in jail, charged with 33 counts related to abusing six children.

And Joe Abasciano, a 13-year Boston police officer, is under investigation for attending the deadly Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6.

In a Vox/Data for Progress poll, 55 percent of respondents said that Derek Chauvin’s conviction in April for murdering George Floyd makes the need for police reform “more urgent.” Police lawlessness begins within the station’s walls; unchecked, it endangers communities.

Permissive attitudes for Boston police have passed from one commissioner to the next, from one mayor to another. Dour perceptions of the BPD only deepened last June when the Justice Department tweeted a photo of Gross smiling with William Barr, then Donald Trump’s attorney general.


“Defund whatever the hell this is,” Andrea Campbell, a Boston city councilor and mayoral candidate, tweeted about the picture.

That photo, taken during Barr’s visit to Boston, came a few weeks after Barr had peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters tear-gassed and forcibly removed from Lafayette Square, near the White House, so Trump could get a photo op in front of a church. Gross was also criticized for the BPD’s rough treatment of protesters in the South End. That Gross permitted a photograph of his meeting with Barr seemed tacit approval of Barr’s brutal tactics.

“That’s on me, and if it gave people the wrong image, that’s on me,” Gross said after the photo drew criticism.

That’s not all that’s on Gross or Walsh, now the Biden administration’s labor secretary. As various BPD scandals have become public, both have remained as silent as they are complicit — which mimics the response they had in their respective positions. That systemic obfuscation is now unraveling the police department, and the public’s already wobbly confidence in it.

Yeah, I know — not all cops, right? With Boston police, these aren’t bumps in the road; it’s the road itself. Citizens demand transparency, accountability, and justice. Yet to the city’s detriment, the BPD seems just as wedded to its “blue wall of silence” and the toxic culture of crimes and cover-ups it allows to persist.

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @reneeygraham.