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Dennis White’s scorched-earth strategy

The embattled Boston police commissioner is fighting with all his might to keep his job, dragging his troubled family into the spotlight. They’re not the only ones getting hurt.

Dennis White was sworn in as Boston police commissioner on Feb. 1.
Dennis White was sworn in as Boston police commissioner on Feb. 1.Jim Davis/Globe Staff/file

Sybil Mason did not go looking for any of this.

She did not drop a dime on her ex-husband, Dennis White, after former Mayor Marty Walsh made the mistake of naming him police commissioner without the vetting that would have revealed domestic abuse allegations against him.

Nobody dropped a dime on White. After he was appointed, the Globe’s Andrew Ryan did a public records search and the 1999 allegations came up. Even then, Mason didn’t want to talk about it, refusing Ryan’s requests for an interview.

Who could blame her, given the circumstances? Mason is a patrolwoman in the same Boston police department White was named to lead. What could she possibly gain from speaking up?

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An independent investigator interviewed witnesses who corroborated her abuse claims, uncovered more allegations of abusive behavior by White, and ran up against a blue wall of silence. The investigator found that multiple allegations of abuse leveled by White’s former wife went mostly unheeded at the time, until a judge granted Mason a restraining order against White.

In the wake of the damning report, Acting Mayor Kim Janey tried to take the department’s top job from him, but White and his lawyer have been fighting his termination, first in courts of law, and now in the court of public opinion.

White and his allies, including the former police commissioner, say Walsh knew of the abuse allegations when he named White. Walsh vehemently denies that claim, with backup from another former police commissioner.

And they have gone after White’s ex-wife. Hard.

White is not just denying the abuse allegations, or arguing that investigations failed to support them: He now says his wife was the abuser, and he her victim. And he has offered supportive video testimony from one of the couple’s daughters, and Mason’s sister. Another daughter supports Mason’s claims.

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It is beyond sad to watch this horror show of family dysfunction play out publicly like this. The damage to them all will be deep and lasting.

There is another kind of damage being done here, too.

Imagine being an abuse victim in Boston, watching this: Seeing White make this all about Mason; naming her in court documents, alleging abuse by her, dragging the whole family into a dispute over her character, and demanding her internal affairs files, all in the hopes of being reinstated as police commissioner — or compensated handsomely.

Are you going to be confident that police will take you seriously? That coming forward won’t destroy your life?

“This scorched-earth destruction of the woman claiming victimhood sends a message to all victims out there that this can happen to them, too,” said Andrea Kramer, a litigator who is working on legislation to protect domestic abuse victims from workplace discrimination. “They’re seeing it as, ‘This is what a powerful person does when somebody comes forward, and if I ever try to do this, I will be destroyed.’”

Even if the abuse allegations weren’t disqualifying, the slash-and-burn strategy White has deployed since his suspension should be. Also troubling: His attempts to cast himself as a victim of racism here — “a Black man who has been accused falsely of crimes [in] a pattern that has been repeated in this country for centuries,” according to a recent statement — making common cause with Black victims of injustice, plenty of whom have been racially profiled and jammed up by his own department over the years. But his alleged victim here is also Black, as is the mayor who is trying to unseat him. Of course White experiences racism, but that is not what brought him here.

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White isn’t trying to get reinstated at the reference desk at the local library. He wants to be the top law enforcement officer in the city, a job that requires him to be miles above reproach. It’s hard to see how he stays in the job, but if White is going down here, he appears prepared to take others down with him: Walsh, Janey, and especially his former wife.

But the damage goes far beyond that stormy circle, to a city which deserves better, a city where some who are watching this spectacle are seeing their worst fears realized.



Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.