Domestic violence is a daily challenge for the Boston Police Department, which responded to an average of 34 calls a day from households in crisis last year, according to department data.
Now, with revelations about officers engaged in the same cycle of violence, advocates are calling for a new era of accountability within the department and for sharpened policies against abuse. A report investigating the handling of past domestic violence allegations against newly named Police Commissioner Dennis White vividly illustrated why many victims don’t trust the police, one specialist said.
“Here’s an organization that’s committed to protecting the public but what they actually did is protect someone who had multiple allegations of severe domestic violence from multiple victims. As someone who’s done this work, I’m not surprised and I’m horrified,” said Margo K. Lindauer, director of the Domestic Violence Institute at Northeastern University School of Law.
With ugly details of past domestic violence allegations against him exposed, White continues to fight for his job — and his predecessor as police commissioner, William Gross, is defending him. The legal debate has focused on who-knew-what-when: Both men claim former mayor Martin J. Walsh knew about the allegations before he appointed White. (Walsh denies this.)
But either way, domestic violence advocates are not impressed by the defense that the claims were immaterial since White never faced criminal charges for the decades-old allegations. The independent investigator’s report found that two women — including White’s ex-wife — had been granted protection from abuse orders against the man who would be police commissioner.
“A judge found by a preponderance of evidence that he abused his wife. That’s the standard,” said Lindauer. “Is that the type of behavior — even if he wasn’t convicted — that we would want a commissioner of the Police Department to have?”
At the same time, other allegations involving police violence have shaken public confidence. The department refused to release records on former officer Patrick M. Rose Sr., for whom Internal Affairs had sustained an allegation of sexual assault against a child in 1995. Rose was not convicted after the child declined to testify and kept his job after the union filed a grievance. He went on to head the patrolmen’s union — and now faces five more allegations of sexual abuse of children. Rose has maintained his innocence.
And last week, a sergeant was arrested and charged with physically assaulting a 10-year-old boy with mental health and neurological conditions while repeatedly taunting him. The scene was captured on cellphone video. The sergeant had previously been the subject of multiple citizen complaints and investigated by internal affairs for attacking a Black man while investigating a domestic disturbance, the Globe has reported.
The recent allegations of abuse have added to the calls for more police accountability that began last year, when the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked nationwide protests and a police reform movement. Boston is forming a new Office of Police Accountability and Transparency, with a civilian review board that will operate independently of the Police Department to investigate complaints of misconduct.
Councilor Andrea Campbell, who first proposed the reformed civilian review board last year by ordinance, had called for the development of a “disciplinary matrix” outlining the penalties the commissioner could impose for particular infractions by police.
“My goal was to make sure there was transparency,” said Campbell, who is running for mayor, “so everyone was on the same page as to when we could expect someone to be disciplined and for what.”
However, Walsh proposed an alternative plan, and the city did not ultimately adopt the matrix.
In order to restore public confidence, the Police Department — and its union — should examine its own culture and commit to accountability, said Hema Sarang-Sieminski, policy director for Jane Doe Inc., the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence.
“There are examples of unions who have spoken very clearly and frankly about the need to undo abuse of power,” she said.
A Police Department spokesman pointed to the seriousness of the force’s efforts against domestic violence and highlighted the alerts issued since the pandemic stoked concerns about victims being confined at home with abusers. “There is no excuse for domestic violence,” one such alert noted.
But advocates are concerned about the message sent to victims by the independent investigation into White. The investigator’s report noted that individual officers refused to participate in the probe and were discouraged from divulging information about one of their own.
The report also said that the Police Department’s domestic violence unit no longer had reports that White’s ex-wife said she’d made over the years; that the investigators who handled the case faced retaliation; and that White got an internal affairs finding downgraded after telling his commanding officer he didn’t agree with it.
“Seeing the extent to which harm may be concealed within institutions like this” could discourage victims already wary of reporting abuse by police to police, said Sarang-Sieminski.
White maintains that the allegations are false, and that he can’t legally be fired by Acting Mayor Kim Janey. On Tuesday, a judge denied White’s request for an injunction. His lawyer said he plans to appeal and also suggested the firing had an element of racism since White is Black.
As White and his defenders spoke up for his leadership in recent days, some advocates worried that they were effectively minimizing the kind of violent domestic situations that police respond to every day.
Lindauer, who is supporting Campbell in the mayor’s race, also runs a domestic violence clinic, where Northeastern students help victims seek restraining orders. She said she found such defensive deflection familiar.
“That idea that I’ve done nothing wrong, that I was framed, I was acting in self-defense, or my wife is crazy: These are tropes that I hear all the time to question our clients’ credibility,” Lindauer said. “Typically in violent situations, it’s not that a victim is perfect or has acted perfectly. But that doesn’t mean someone deserves to be strangled or have a TV thrown at them.”
The investigator’s report said White had thrown a TV at his former wife; strangled her; stepped on her face; and stomped on her legs when she crawled under the bed to escape his kicking. Though White did not face criminal charges, his former wife got a restraining order to keep him away from the family after he’d allegedly spoken of shooting her in 1999.
White had acknowledged “physical abuse in the relationship” in 1999, but in his interview with the investigator, he characterized it as “pushing” that was sometimes initiated by his wife, the report states.
The report also revealed a second restraining order had been filed against him by a 19-year-old woman who was living with his family in 1993 and who claimed he threw her down the stairs and out of the house, calling her a “whore.” He acknowledged engaging in “heated fisticuffs” with the young woman but claimed he hit her in self-defense after she kicked his injured knee.
Still, some advocates hope this episode could prove to be a turning point for transparency.
Janey announced plans to strengthen the Police Department’s domestic violence policy, which is now more than 15 years old, and to create the department’s first sexual assault policy.
An existing policy details how Boston police should handle sexual assault cases they’re investigating but doesn’t outline potential discipline for an officer who is accused or facing criminal charges. The International Association of Chiefs of Police recommends that departments adopt zero-tolerance standards for employees and policies that make clear that abuse of authority is grounds for discipline.
“What I heard from Mayor Janey was a genuine commitment to putting into place accountability measures,” said Sarang-Sieminski. “That, to me, sends a really positive message for survivors.”