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After Dennis White, Boston could launch its first external search for a new police commissioner in 15 years. It won’t be easy

Acting Mayor Kim Janey has said she won’t make a permanent appointment before the election.
Acting Mayor Kim Janey has said she won’t make a permanent appointment before the election.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Dennis White may be gone, but as scandal swirls around the Boston Police Department, the process of choosing a permanent replacement is just beginning.

It has been 15 years since the city launched an external search for a new commissioner, and after the ill-fated White appointment, the stakes are high. But with police departments across the country under intense scrutiny and the proper role of law enforcement in sharp debate, finding the right candidates will be no easy task.

“We’re in a different environment now, where expectations have never been greater, so it’s a challenge to get a police chief in any city in the country,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C. “But we find that there are people who look forward to the challenge.”

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Acting Mayor Kim Janey, who fired White four months after he was placed on leave following the reemergence of decades-old domestic abuse allegations, said Tuesday that she will not make a permanent appointment before the November election. Janey, who succeeded Martin J. Walsh in March after he was named US labor secretary, is one of six major candidates running for mayor. Her opponents are urging her to also postpone the search for a permanent replacement until after the election.

Janey did not lay out a timeline for the nationwide search but said she plans in the coming weeks to form a committee of residents, public safety advocates, and law enforcement professionals to lead a community engagement process meant to define what residents want from police leadership. With the public eager to play a role, such wide-ranging discussions are increasingly pivotal in selecting a police chief, specialists said.

“Community expectations cannot be understated in our current environment,” said Brian Higgins, a former police chief and adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Like never before, the community wants involvement in their policing. And it’s not just, ‘Hey, let’s meet with the cops and like their Facebook page.’ ”

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Community involvement in police commissioner searches is becoming the norm, said Brenda Bond-Fortier, a Suffolk University professor who has studied police reform. Some cities ask for the public’s help on what attributes a candidate should have and even the wording of the job description. Finalists are sometimes interviewed in community forums, while elsewhere, members of the public serve on hiring panels.

“Come into the community, roll up your sleeves, and tell us what the plans are to make a better police department,” said Andrea James, founder of the Roxbury-based Families for Justice as Healing. James said the neighborhoods most entangled with the criminal legal system should be given a clear say in the process.

Christine Cole, executive director of the Boston-based Crime and Justice Institute, said large cities undertake different kinds of national searches. Some hire a firm to perform the search, which typically yields a wider array of candidates with a diversity of experience, gender, race, and ethnicity. Others have in-house city personnel conduct a search.

Louisville’s recent appointment of a new police chief came after officials considered 28 candidates and consulted with a national firm that specializes in police executive searches. But in Newburgh, N.Y., Mayor Torrance Harvey is overseeing a grass-roots search, with employees reaching out directly to recruit candidates.

“Many minds and one goal makes for a good decision,” he said. “The George Floyds, the Breonna Taylors, those circumstances make it a high priority to thoroughly vet the candidates for police commissioner, because that person is going to set the tone.”

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Whoever is finally chosen to lead Boston’s force will inherit a department buffeted by controversy in recent months.

White was placed on leave in February after the Globe reported past domestic abuse allegations. He was accused in 1999 of striking and threatening to shoot his then-wife, also a Boston police officer, as well as of hitting a 19-year-old woman in a separate incident in 1993. White has denied wrongdoing and his lawyers have said he plans to continue his legal battle against the city.

On Monday, the city’s attorneys filed a motion to move his civil complaint from state court to federal court, stating that White is claiming due process rights under the US Constitution.

Gregory Long, Boston police superintendent in chief, has served as interim commissioner since White was placed on leave.

In April, a Globe review found that a former Boston patrolman had remained on the force for two decades after police investigators determined he likely molested a child in 1995. The officer, Patrick M. Rose Sr., who later became president of the patrolmen’s union, would allegedly abuse five more children over the course of more than two decades before his arrest last summer. Rose has pleaded not guilty and maintains his innocence, according to his lawyer.

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Federal investigators, meanwhile, have been unfurling evidence of a sprawling overtime fraud scheme in the department. To date, 14 current or former Boston police employees, almost all from the evidence unit, have been charged with falsifying time sheets in order to collect more than $300,000 in fraudulent overtime. Another five members have been implicated.

Given the severity of the scandals, many observers say it would be politically difficult to promote from within.

“If you really want to send a message that things are going to be done differently, it can be very helpful to bring somebody in from the outside,” Higgins said.

The last three Boston police commissioners — White, William Gross, and William Evans — were promoted from within the department with no outside search. White’s appointment, in the waning days of Walsh’s administration, was made with no vetting and no public input.

The city last went outside its own ranks to hire a commissioner in 2006, when it chose Edward Davis of the Lowell Police Department after a national search that included interviews with a half-dozen candidates.

On Tuesday, Davis recalled meeting then-mayor Thomas Menino in Washington, D.C., to interview for the job and said “there was an enormous amount of due diligence done behind the scenes,” including background checks, which Janey has said will now be mandated for police leadership positions.

“They were everywhere asking about me,” Davis recalled.

Davis said a national search “is more common than not” for large American cities. Choosing an outside candidate carries pros and cons, he said. While they are not beholden to the department’s culture, they are also unaware of crucial internal dynamics, he said.

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“It takes a while for them to get up to speed,” Davis said.

Internal candidates, by the same token, may find it difficult to implement reforms without “affecting the people they’ve worked their whole lives with,” he said.

Gary Peterson, a retired Bay Area police chief who currently works as a consultant for Public Sector Search, has helped find leaders for police departments in San Francisco, Nashville, and Dallas. Searches are often customized to fit the individual city’s needs and demands although they are becoming more standard, he said.

“In order to find that out, you have to engage the city, its leadership, its stakeholders, its community, to figure out what they really want in the next police chief,” he added. “Historically it’s been different things to different cities, but post-George Floyd, it’s pretty much the same thing.”

Most cities are looking for someone progressive “in terms of equity and inclusion and procedural justice,” who reflects the demographics of the community in terms of appearance and values.

“Candidates should mirror the community you’re serving,” he added, “so people feel that you’re legitimate.”

Wexler, who assisted with Boston’s commissioner search in 2006 and is currently working to find the new head of the US Capitol police, said the appeal of living in an urban center would attract many candidates, internal and external, despite the recent scandals.

“Whichever way [the administration] goes, I think you’ll see a lot of interest,” he added.

Andrew Ryan and Dugan Arnett of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald. Ivy Scott can be reached at ivy.scott@globe.com.