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OPINION

How a commissioner changed the culture within the Boston Police Department

As the BPD faces a new credibility crisis, there are lessons from the corruption crisis of the 1970s.

Boston Police Commissioner Robert di Grazia stands outside Charlestown High School on Sep. 8, 1975, the first day of school after the federal court-ordered desegregation of Boston public schools.
Boston Police Commissioner Robert di Grazia stands outside Charlestown High School on Sep. 8, 1975, the first day of school after the federal court-ordered desegregation of Boston public schools.Phil Preston

The Boston Police Department is facing a credibility crisis. Many are wondering what can a police department do to regain credibility. What does it take to change police culture? Where should city leaders go for guidance?

For answers, look no further than the Boston Police Department of the 1960s and 1970s.

In November 1961, CBS broadcast “Biography of a Bookie Joint,” a documentary that revealed illegal gambling operations, payoffs to police officers, and organized corruption in the police department. Police commissioner Leo Sullivan resigned, but problems in the department persisted.

In 1972, Mayor Kevin White was able to select a new police commissioner, and he chose a reformer: Robert di Grazia, a little-known police superintendent from St. Louis County, Mo. I can report what happened next, because I was a graduate student at MIT doing an internship in the BPD. (The internship led to a full-time job overseeing investigations of racially motivated crimes.)

Di Grazia did two things that immediately got the department’s attention. First, he transferred the detective sergeants in each district to new assignments. The importance of this was recognized by the rank-and-file officers, who knew that the detectives controlled the illegal bookmaking that permeated the department. That one gesture sent a message that this longstanding corruption would no longer be tolerated.

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Second, di Grazia brought in what came to be called “the whiz kids” — civilian professional staff who were given senior management positions reporting directly to di Grazia. The group included Robert Wasserman, who was developing a national reputation as a creative problem-solver and expert on police training and policy development. Another was Gary Hayes, a student of policing and an iconoclast who had been working closely with Herman Goldstein, a University of Wisconsin–Madison professor who would later pioneer the concept of problem-oriented policing.

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One of the most influential whiz kids, Michael Gardner, was an expert on the complexities of civil service. The Boston Police Department had a civil service system that based promotions on two crude factors: knowledge of what was called the “blue book,” summarizing Massachusetts laws, and the number of years served in the department. Gardner was instrumental in changing these requirements. Instead of memorizing the text of laws, officers hoping to be promoted had to study issues like management theory, personnel administration, and problem-solving.

These changes resulted in an entire generation of future leaders who otherwise would not have been promoted. The most famous example was a young officer named Bill Bratton, who had been planning to leave the Boston Police Department, frustrated with its corruption and incompetence. Instead, Bratton became one of the youngest sergeants ever promoted, the start of his meteoric rise in the department and the policing profession. In addition to winning the top job of commissioner in Boston, he later led the New York City Police Department (twice) and the Los Angeles Police Department.

Change can be threatening, as Bratton found out when he was repeatedly challenged by those who were trapped in the past. And overhauling the BPD certainly wasn’t clear sailing for di Grazia. His reform efforts were complicated by upheavals in Boston over school desegregation. And di Grazia was unpopular with the police union and senior managers in the department, who resented his innovations and the involvement of professional civilian employees. But he was respected by many aspiring good cops, like Bratton, who otherwise never would have stayed.

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Di Grazia’s reforms taught us about the qualities necessary in a change agent. Reformers need to make tough decisions and face brutal facts. They can’t be afraid to be unpopular. They need to surround themselves with bright people who share their vision. And they need to prepare the organization not only for today’s challenges but for tomorrow’s as well.

Di Grazia was instrumental in breaking the cycle of corruption and creating an environment that embraced new thinking about what it takes to get promoted. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to sustain reforms over time, so reformers need to identify future leaders to build on the changes they want to achieve. That may be the challenge of changing police culture. Criminologist George Kelling once told me that police culture is like an elastic band that tends to revert to its original shape after being stretched.

Di Grazia came from outside the Boston Police Department. Some have argued that only an outsider can change a culture, even in the short term, and in di Grazia’s case, that was true. But there are also cases of some outsiders who could not overcome resistance to change. In some cases, insiders who already have an intimate knowledge of the department and have the courage to make difficult decisions may have a better chance of making permanent progress.

The Robert di Grazia experience has taught us that reform takes time — and that reforms don’t last forever. Once again, the Boston Police Department is facing a crisis, and a new commissioner will have to restore public trust. He or she would be wise to look to the past for ideas on how to build the future.

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Chuck Wexler is executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C.