Reforming the Boston Police Department may have to start at the top.
It isn’t as if the department hasn’t had bad weeks before. But after all the charges and countercharges sparked by Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s attempt to fire Police Commissioner Dennis White, the BPD’s dirty laundry is now plain for all to see.
Just a couple of months ago, the debate about “reforming” the department seemed mainly to be about whether to reduce its budget. But the controversy gripping it now is raising even more basic questions about how it operates.
White, of course, was named by then-mayor Marty Walsh to lead the department after Willie Gross abruptly resigned. Shortly thereafter, the Globe reported that White had been the subject of at least one serious Internal Affairs probe — as well as a court case, in which he was cleared — for domestic violence against this former wife.
Walsh placed White on leave and ordered an independent investigation. That investigation by attorney Tamsin Kaplan, released just over a week ago, detailed not only multiple prior investigations of White but also various attempts to stonewall or even shut down Kaplan’s probe itself. In fact, most of the would-be witnesses Kaplan approached refused to talk to her.
That’s not exactly stellar conduct on the part of people who investigate things on a daily basis.
Walsh appointed Gross commissioner, but it’s pretty clear that there isn’t much love lost at this point. Although Walsh has insisted that he knew nothing about White’s internal affairs history prior to promoting him to commissioner, Gross insists that isn’t true. He claims Walsh would have been informed in 2014, when White was promoted to the department’s command staff, a move that traditionally requires mayoral approval.
White has maintained that Janey is trying to fire him without due process. Crucial to his defense is the notion that the city — specifically, the former mayor — knew everything in his record when he was promoted, and that the city cannot fire him now for things that were known all along.
He also maintains that none of the allegations against him have been substantiated, a detail that’s almost gotten lost in all this.
I’m not convinced that Walsh had known everything since 2014. From what I’ve been told over the years by multiple mayors and police officials, the mayor’s oversight of promotions to the command staff tends to be mostly pro forma: A mayor would expect to be alerted of problems, but probably wouldn’t sit down and read a personnel file before signing off on a promotion. Mostly, they’ve trusted the judgment of commissioners to decide who should move up.
And indeed, former commissioner William Evans has also stated that he didn’t know about White’s alleged history when he promoted him back then, and has no reason to believe Walsh knew either.
Regardless, Walsh’s real mistake was not vetting White before appointing him to the top job this year. And that’s a mistake he actually made twice. Because he previously appointed Gross commissioner in 2014 without anything resembling a normal search process, a move I suspect he now regrets.
At the moment, White’s future is in the hands of a Suffolk Superior Court judge, who is pondering whether Janey actually has the needed grounds to fire him. Maybe Janey does; maybe she doesn’t.
But what’s clear is that, internally, the BPD is a train wreck. The commissioner has been on leave since seemingly 15 minutes after he was appointed. His interim replacement, Superintendent Greg Long, is said to be dying to leave the job. Meanwhile, Janey’s choice for next interim commissioner, Superintendent Nora Baston, is in limbo.
Here’s a thought for the winner of the mayor’s race. It’s time for a real commissioner search, by a committee appointed by whomever holds office in November. It’s time to fundamentally rethink how leadership of the city’s most sensitive department is selected.
Because mayors keep going with their gut. And we’re seeing right now what a reckless approach that can be.