Uncertainty and controversy atop the nation’s oldest police force continues, as the legal standoff between Boston Police Commissioner Dennis White and Acting Mayor Kim Janey remained unresolved Thursday after lawyers for both sides squared off in a Suffolk Superior Court hearing.
White, who was placed on leave in February, two days after he was sworn in, is seeking a preliminary injunction to block Janey’s efforts to hold a hearing to terminate him. He is still technically the police commissioner, and Judge Heidi Brieger on Thursday took the matter under advisement, saying she would rule as soon as possible.
White was accused in 1999 of striking and threatening to shoot his then-wife, also a Boston police officer, as well as allegedly hitting a 19-year-old woman in a separate incident in 1993. He was never convicted of any crime and has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
At Thursday’s hearing, his attorney, Nicholas B. Carter, said there was no cause to fire White and “no actual evidence” to back up the accusations. He also disparaged a report last week that detailed the allegations against White, saying it was “highly defamatory” and relied on “unidentified witnesses, perhaps entirely on hearsay.”
“We need to pause in the rush to judgment here,” Carter said. “We’re talking about a person’s life.”
Brieger peppered Carter with pointed questions that challenged the premise of his arguments throughout the hearing.
“I’m not sure you’ve convinced me,” she said at one point.
White could be seen watching the hearing, which was conducted via Zoom and lasted more than 50 minutes, dressed in a collared shirt and tie.
Carter said that Janey “has a political preference, in my view, in our view, and would prefer not to have Dennis White as commissioner. But that is not adequate cause.”
Carter also said that former mayor Martin J. Walsh, who is now the nation’s labor secretary, knew of the domestic violence allegations when he appointed White to the top police job. Walsh, Carter said, did not think the allegations were reason enough not to appoint White and that he was qualified for the post.
“As a legal matter, the city cannot hire him knowing something and then fire him for the things they knew about,” he said.
The city’s attorney, Kay H. Hodge, said Janey had not violated any rules and pointed out the mayor is both the appointing authority and the removal authority for the post of police commissioner. Hodge did not think White was entitled to a more robust opportunity to cross-examine people who feature in the city’s investigative report. White has an opportunity via a hearing to tell the mayor she is wrong and bring any evidence he feels he is relevant, she said.
“This is not a difficult case; it is a fairly common case,” she said during the hearing.
The hearing came a day after news broke of an explosive assertion from former police commissioner William Gross regarding the White appointment. In an affidavit, Gross said that Walsh was briefed on White’s internal affairs history when White was a candidate in 2014 for promotion to deputy superintendent, a command staff post.
“There is no way anyone is brought onto the command staff without such a briefing to the mayor and approval by the mayor,” Gross said in the affidavit. “The city, including Mayor Walsh, was aware no later than January 2014 of White’s IA [internal affairs] record.”
Walsh has vehemently denied knowing about White’s alleged history of domestic violence when he appointed him.
Hodge argued it did not matter what Walsh did or did not know about White’s history before he was appointed commissioner.
Brieger said her role is to focus on the legal issues raised by White and not on the political fallout his appointment has caused. She asked Hodge what legal significance Walsh’s knowledge, or lack thereof, of the domestic violence allegations has in the litigation.
“Nothing,” Hodge replied.
Janey, in a statement released after the hearing, said she respects the judge’s decision to take more time before ruling.
“The people of Boston and the Boston Police Department deserve leadership that shares our goal of safety, healing, and justice,” Janey said. “We look forward to the court’s ruling.”
At this stage in the litigation, Brieger must decide two broad issues: Does she believe White has a chance of winning, given the legal arguments and information known as of Thursday? And would White suffer “irreparable harm” if the city is not stopped right now from firing him?
The case leaves leadership of the Boston Police Department in limbo for the time being. Gregory Long is serving as acting commissioner. while White remains on leave.
Jack McDevitt, director of the Institute for Race and Justice at Northeastern University, said the police force needs “true leadership” at a time when Americans are looking for police to address concerns about racial justice and equity.
“With all of the turmoil the department is facing,” he said, “it’s incredibly unfortunate for them to be dealing with a leadership vacuum at a time when we need to be looking toward change.”
Priscilla Flint-Banks, a Roslindale community advocate and cofounder of the Black Economic Justice Institute, criticized Walsh after the latest revelationsm saying he had not properly vetted White.
“I lay this at Marty Walsh’s feet, I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s a mess.”
Tom Nolan, a former Boston police lieutenant who teaches at Emmanuel College, said every promotion to the command staff is a political appointment. It’s clear, Nolan said, that the only claim White has to the commissioner’s post is a legal one. He expected there to be a “negotiated monetary settlement to ease him out the door.” Any inkling that White has of returning to the job of commissioner is not grounded in reality, he said.
The rushed appointment by Walsh earlier this year, he said, was clearly aimed at undermining Janey’s ability to choose the head of the Boston police.
“Certainly the leadership of the department is in turmoil and chaos,” Nolan said. “What has been exposed is the haphazard way these appointments to command staff are made.”
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