In the short term, the ruling in state court on Tuesday that allowed Acting Mayor Kim Janey to fire Boston Police Commissioner Dennis White was a victory for the mayor and for the public. But the ruling, and indeed the whole White affair, also highlighted how many unnecessary hurdles a mayor of Boston has to clear to change police commissioners — barriers the Legislature ought to dismantle in the spirit of police reform.
Janey moved to terminate the commissioner after an investigator’s report documented allegations of domestic abuse against White in the 1990s. That is — or at least, should be — the mayor’s prerogative. As the highest official in Boston directly accountable to voters, the mayor should be on the line for what happens at the agency charged with protecting public safety. Especially at a time when police accountability has never been more crucial, mayors need the clear, unlimited authority to steer the city’s police force by hiring — and, when necessary, firing — its leader.
Yet White — who says the abuse allegations are false — mounted an unusual defense, rooted in a state law that applies only to the Boston police commissioner. He accused the city of depriving him of the due process requirements spelled out in that 1962 statute.
If that sounds like odd language for a senior public official to use — well, it is. Most city department heads serve at the pleasure of the mayor. There is no “due process” when a new mayor chooses to move in a different direction, just as cabinet officials don’t get to go to HR if the president fires them. That’s as it should be: When voters pick a mayor or governor or president, he or she should be fully empowered to put their own team in place to deliver on the agenda voters chose.
In Boston, though, the police commissioner is protected by the vestiges of laws passed by largely Protestant legislatures, now widely believed to be efforts to reduce the power of Irish Catholic city officials in Boston. In particular, legislators sought to restrict Boston’s power over liquor licensing and policing. Beginning in the late 19th century, Massachusetts governors, not the city’s mayors, appointed the police commissioner, ostensibly to ensure that liquor laws would be enforced. Even when the mayor was finally granted appointing power in 1962, the law required the mayor to show cause at a hearing before firing the police commissioner. That’s the law White cited in his effort to block Janey’s firing.
Tying the mayor’s hands was never good policy, but just imagine the mischief that rule could cause today. While the White imbroglio revolves around alleged skeletons in his closet, the next clash between a mayor and police commissioner could be over body cameras, use-of-force policies, or other substantive policy differences. Policing is bound to be a central issue in this year’s mayoral election, and voters should be certain that the mayor they choose will be able to install a police commissioner who shares and supports their vision.
The fact that Janey is an acting mayor, rather than elected, doesn’t change the fundamental logic: The city’s mayor should be in charge of the police.
The soap opera around White has been an unnecessary distraction and has left the department’s future in limbo. Blame for that lies squarely at the feet of former mayor Marty Walsh, who installed White without adequate background vetting and then scooted off to Washington to become President Joe Biden’s labor secretary, handing the mess he created off to Janey to clean up. The ruling on Tuesday left open the possibility that the city may need to pay damages to White, and that would be appalling. But this whole debacle could also have a silver lining if it prompts the Legislature to remove this vestige of Yankee prejudice.
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