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Kim Janey, Dennis White, and the politics of race

Janey is doing the right thing by firing Commissioner Dennis White.

Acting Mayor Kim Janey at a May 14 press conference regarding Dennis White and the leadership of the Boston Police Department.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The first Black person to sit in the mayor’s office plans to fire Boston’s second Black police commissioner.

That’s a painful choice. But in making it, Acting Mayor Kim Janey is doing the right thing as she tackles the very big mess left behind by former Mayor Marty Walsh, and complicated by the politics of race.

The saga began when William Gross, the city’s first Black commissioner, mysteriously quit just as Walsh was leaving to become US labor secretary. Walsh chose Dennis White — who is also Black — to succeed Gross. But two days after White’s swearing-in, Walsh put him on administrative leave after allegations of domestic abuse from more than two decades ago surfaced in the media. Then Walsh left office. After releasing the findings of an independent report that details serious accusations against White by his former wife and another woman, Janey said the Boston Police Department needs new direction. White denies all wrongdoing, but Janey is right. The allegations against him are old but troubling, and so is the blue wall of silence that kept them hidden for so long.

White, who is fighting to keep his job, is charging that Janey’s move to oust him presents, in his lawyer’s words, “an all too familiar circumstance for a Black man. Any charge of violence against him is presumed to be true, allegations are made up to control and punish him, and he is not afforded due process when accused. The Acting Mayor and City’s actions have deeply harmed him and his family.”


Walsh faced a similar accusation of racism when Black clergy members and the leader of the state’s Black police association called on him to reinstate White, saying he faced undue scrutiny because he’s Black. “Give the man justice, give him his job back. Do the right thing, Mayor Walsh,” the Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III said at a February press conference.


That was before the findings of the independent investigator. After those findings, should White remain as commissioner? “Absolutely not,” said Rivers in a telephone interview on Wednesday. As for Janey’s situation, Rivers said, “She’s in a difficult to no-win position, thrust upon her by Walsh, unjustly; he left this hot potato in Janey’s lap.”

Walsh definitely handed off a tough one. Janey’s tenure as acting mayor features a lot of stage-managed public relations events, such as hyping up the crowd before a Bruins playoff game. But police matters are turning into a real testing ground, and while she hasn’t been perfect, she has gone further with transparency than previous mayors. She released some, though not all, of the internal affairs file on Patrick Rose Sr., a retired Boston police officer and former head of the patrolmen’s union, who has been charged with molesting children. Now if she follows through with White’s firing, she will be doing much more than playing a ceremonial role.

To some extent, Janey was pushed by rivals to take on White. But if she’s the one who actually fires White, she’s the one who pays the price with voters who may sympathize with him, including some Black voters who make up her political base.

White isn’t going quietly. After a judge denied his attempt to block his firing, White called for a public hearing with witnesses. It’s too bad he’s putting ego and desire for revenge ahead of the city he served as a police officer for 32 years. The system protected him from public scrutiny for years, so of course he now feels maligned. But after the release of the report, it’s hard to imagine how he could lead a police department so desperately in need of a fresh start. He must know that too, which makes this quest look like it’s all about a cash settlement.


Walsh can and should be blamed for leaving behind a toxic mess, which now sullies his reputation as mayor and standing as labor secretary. What Walsh knew or didn’t know about White is a story unto itself.

The same judge who said Janey could fire White now says he must be given time to appeal her ruling.

For Janey, that delays, but should not stop, a painful choice. Firing White is the right thing to do.

Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.