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Contradiction by Gross of Walsh exposes a frayed relationship between a former mayor and police commissioner

Boston Police Commissioner Willie Gross and Mayor Martin J. Walsh crossed paths during a press conference on Dec. 30, 2020.
Boston Police Commissioner Willie Gross and Mayor Martin J. Walsh crossed paths during a press conference on Dec. 30, 2020.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

The claim takes up a few quick sentences in a two-page affidavit, written on behalf of a close friend. Former police commissioner William Gross swore under oath that he reviewed the internal affairs history of his hand-picked successor Dennis White for a previous promotion in 2014. Those findings, he said, were also presented to then-mayor Martin J. Walsh.

“There is no way anyone is brought onto the command staff without such a briefing to the mayor and approval by the mayor,” Gross asserted.

The allegation, a direct rebuttal of Walsh, was first disclosed last week in White’s failed court motion to thwart his firing as commissioner, and it raised new questions about what Walsh knew of White’s history of domestic violence allegations before he appointed him to lead the police force four months ago.

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It also laid bare what has become a strained relationship between the former mayor and his former commissioner, whose tendencies to stray from Walsh — especially on political matters — while top cop often caused troubles for the mayor. Some of those controversies trailed Walsh right up to his confirmation as US labor secretary in March.

“I think he [Walsh] felt he couldn’t control him politically, and didn’t,” said City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who has clashed with both men over police reforms.

Just three years ago, they made history together when Walsh appointed Gross as Boston’s first Black commissioner in a moving ceremony at Mattapan’s Morning Star Baptist Church, a new chapter for a city still dealing with its racist past. At public events, they were quick to hug and back slap. They’re self-described longtime friends, former Dorchester kids who knew each other before either of them rose to their positions of power. Walsh often jokes during political stump events of a secret encounter he had as a young mischievous man with Gross, then a mere police officer.

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Newly appointed Boston Police Commissioner William Gross hugged Mayor Walsh during a press conference at City Hall in 2018.
Newly appointed Boston Police Commissioner William Gross hugged Mayor Walsh during a press conference at City Hall in 2018.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“They seemed to get along and have each other’s back,” said Edwards, who said the mayor would brush aside her calls to rein in Gross’ political activity. “The mayor seemed to hold his water; he seemed to hold the mayor’s water.”

Now, they’re not speaking — not since Walsh placed White on leave in early February pending an independent investigation into the domestic violence allegations, according to one Walsh associate. Walsh said at the time, and continues to insist, that he did not know about the allegations against White, and his police commissioner at the time said he had not known either.

And the political fallout continues. Senator Elizabeth Warren, the highest profile member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, has called for more clarity on the allegations that Walsh knew about White’s alleged domestic violence before appointing him commissioner. Representative Seth Moulton, Democrat of Salem, said Walsh should consider resigning from his new post, if the allegations are true. And Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins said more credibility should be given to Gross’s claim about what Walsh knew and when because his statement was made under oath.

“That has to trump somebody just saying, ‘yeah, that never happened,’” Rollins said during a GBH radio interview, adding that Walsh “left a very big mess for our acting mayor.”

Gross has not responded to multiple requests for comment on the allegations in his affidavit, which were part of White’s motion to block Acting Mayor Kim Janey from removing him. White argued that the domestic violence allegations — which he denied — had been known to the city all along, and cannot be grounds for terminating him. That effort was rejected by a Superior Court judge last week, and that ruling was upheld on appeal.

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Walsh, through a Labor Department spokeswoman, has deferred to a previous statement denying that he knew about the White allegations or that White’s internal affairs record was shared with him. “Had I known, I would not have chosen him for police commissioner or any other role,” he said, declining to comment further.

By Walsh’s own accounts, the appointment of White in late January was rushed, and the mayor has acknowledged he failed to properly vet his new commissioner, a process that has historically preceded such a high-profile appointment. Both Walsh and Gross said the decision was made quickly after Gross suffered a health scare, which he confided to the mayor. They both said Gross had recommended White for the post, and that Walsh agreed with the choice.

But Walsh placed White on leave days after he was sworn in — as his high-profile Senate confirmation hearing was about to take place — after the Globe unearthed the old domestic violence allegations. Walsh then commissioned an independent investigation, whose findings led to Janey’s attempt to fire White.

Gross has continued to defend White, while Walsh has moved on to his new post.

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They are “not on good terms,” said one City Hall insider familiar with the workings of their relationship. Walsh’s team feels Gross betrayed his old boss, who had been loyal to police in the face of demands for reforms over recent years, by failing to provide a full account of White’s past and then alleging in court records that the mayor knew or should have known.

Walsh’s claim that he did not know about the allegations against White is supported by William Evans, who served as the police commissioner when White was promoted to deputy superintendent in 2014. Evans said that Walsh did not review command staff appointments, and that neither he nor the mayor knew about the past allegations.

Sam Tyler, former head of Boston Municipal Research Bureau and a longtime City Hall observer, said the very public rift between Walsh and Gross is uncommon for a Boston mayor and his commissioner, given the serious and vital role of policing.

After he was elected in 1968, former mayor Kevin White had a public falling out with then-commissioner Edmund L. McNamara, who refused to resign. White also clashed with commissioner Robert di Grazia, who at one point was speculated to be considering a mayoral run himself. Di Grazia resigned in 1976 after failing to secure a pay raise from White.

After former mayor Raymond L. Flynn was elected in 1983, then-commissioner Joseph M. Jordan refused his request to resign and stayed on for more than a year, leaving them at odds.

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Still, the public nature of the spat between Walsh and Gross is “highly unusual,” said Tyler.

“Generally, it’s been a good relationship and a trusting relationship,” he said.

Not so long ago, Walsh called Gross “America’s best police commissioner” and an “amazing human being.”

“I needed a new police officer that understands the streets, and somebody that can take the work to the next level,” Walsh said during a Mothers for Justice and Equality Conference in 2019, where he presented Gross with a Courage and Conviction Award.

“He was the right guy and the most qualified guy for the job,” he said.

But, in the three years since he took the top job, Gross has proved to be more willing to wade into political matters than his predecessors, often stirring local controversies that pulled Walsh between embracing an agenda to overhaul policing in the city, and supporting the police and his commissioner.

As top cop, Gross often took a tough-on-crime approach, and lambasted judges who released suspects back to the streets. He blamed street violence on young gang members — comments that community members called insensitive and that fail to recognize broader social justice issues.

He used social media to lash out at public officials and city councilors who criticized him. He blasted advocates with the American Civil Liberties Union and called them “paper warriors” in a post that he later took down.

Gross caused the greatest stir last June when, amid the Black Lives Matter movement and the national reckoning over policing, he met with then-Attorney General William Barr, who quickly emerged as a lighting rod when he joined the Trump administration in 2019, drawing the ire of the left for denying the existence of racism in policing, among many other controversies. Gross and Barr posed together, smiling, in a photo that was posted to White House social media platforms. The image sent shockwaves throughout Boston.

That day, Walsh disclosed during a press conference that he had not known about the meeting beforehand; he learned about it from the media. While saying Gross had the right to meet with whom he chooses, Walsh expressed his annoyance, and Gross held a news conference later that night defending his decision to meet with Barr.

Several Walsh associates, speaking privately because they were not authorized to speak on the matter, said Gross had alerted the mayor about the possibility of a meeting with Barr several days before it occurred, and that the mayor questioned whether the meeting would be appropriate. But, the matter was left unresolved, and Walsh never moved to rein in Gross’s political activity, either, said the associates, who called the event a tipping point in their relationship.

“Marty Walsh could get along with a rock wall,” one associate said. But frustration had been mounting. For the first time, speculation grew in Boston’s political circle last summer that Gross might soon be out as commissioner.

“You just don’t feel you could trust him to go out and say the right thing,” a Walsh associate said.

The Rev. Jack Ahern, pastor at Saint Gregory Parish in Dorchester, said he worked closely with each of them: with Gross, through his partnership with community police officers, working with youth in the Bowdoin Geneva neighborhood; with Walsh, when Ahern was a pastor at St. Margaret’s Church, where Walsh was a parishioner. Their worlds also intertwined more than a decade ago when Walsh, then a state representative, was involved at the Saint Gregory teen center, and later when he became mayor.

In the years following Walsh’s decision to elevate Gross to police commissioner, Ahern would attend neighborhood peace walks with them regularly. They were a team. “They were open to each other’s ideas, they collaborated well. It was an open dialogue, even when they disagreed,” he said.

He has no direct knowledge of the circumstances of White’s promotion and how much of his internal affairs history was disclosed, though he doubts Walsh knew of the domestic violence allegations.

“It’s been a difficult situation between them,” he said. “Hopefully, down the line, they’ll rekindle that relationship, because the city is in a bad place right now.”



Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia. Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.