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Cox is the man of the moment

Boston’s new police commissioner, brutalized by colleagues three decades ago, is exactly the leader the BPD needs right now

Michael Cox, Boston's new police commissioner, spoke on Wednesday.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Already, it is one of the most remarkable Boston stories ever.

A Black undercover police officer is beaten half to death by fellow officers who mistake him for a murder suspect, then leave him without medical care when they realize what they’ve done. He spends years trying to hold his attackers accountable, staring down intimidation, overcoming a massive coverup, and refusing to be hounded out of the job he loves.

Almost three decades later, he is named to lead the force.

On Wednesday, Mayor Michelle Wu introduced Michael Cox, now 57, as the city’s next police commissioner, surely the most extraordinary and improbable appointment in that department’s — or perhaps any police department’s — long and checkered history.

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Cox’s story, as a victim of its brutal, racist, and dishonest side, embodies all that is wrong with the Boston Police Department. In his brave refusal to give in to his abusers, he embodies its best. As BPD’s new leader, he signals the potential for transformation. Given a fair chance and the right circumstances, he could be a historic leader for the city.

Who better to lead the force at this long overdue time of reckoning in policing and racial justice than someone who has seen his colleagues at their worst, yet still believes in what cops can be at their best?

“There isn’t another candidate for this office who has experienced police violence and racism the way Michael Cox has,” said Tom Nolan, a former Boston police lieutenant and an expert on policing who worked with Cox when he came on the job in the late 1980s. “He is the leader we need in this moment.”

The most intriguing thing about Cox is his faith. Even after he was brutalized by some colleagues and mistreated by others, he stayed committed to the force then and in the decades since. In the months after the attack, that faith was misplaced: Cox kept quiet and waited in vain for those who beat him to come forward and apologize, he told former Globe reporter Dick Lehr and others who have written about his ordeal. But the blue wall of silence shot up: Dozens of officers who were on the scene that night filed remarkably similar reports claiming they’d seen nothing. Their superiors seemed reluctant to investigate.

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Cox eventually brought state and federal suits to hold responsible those who had beaten him. In court documents, Cox said he had been subjected to similar brutality by his colleagues who had mistaken him for a suspect three times before the 1995 attack. After he sued, he was harassed with threatening calls, his tires were slashed, and he became a pariah on the job.

The city eventually settled with Cox for $1.3 million. It took years for the officers who took part in his beating to be disciplined. Cox, meanwhile, stuck it out and moved up the ranks. He worked in mostly administrative positions, because, Nolan said, “there was the very real possibility that he could come to some harm at the hands of fellow officers.”

Now Cox will have direct control over the culture that did him so much harm.

Whether he can transform it is the question.

“The culture has been broken for decades,” Nolan said.

Obviously, policing in general is better, and the force more diverse and accountable, than it was 30 years ago. But the BPD is still prone to reflexive secrecy, as the Globe’s strenuous, months-long efforts to extract information about disgraced former officer, union chief, and sexual abuser Patrick Rose laid bare.

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And it is still nearly impossible to move most cops who shouldn’t have badges — let alone guns — out of the department, given the strength of the union and the use of arbitration, which overwhelmingly favors officers accused of misconduct.

Exhibit A in that respect is David C. Williams, one of the officers eventually fired for beating Cox on that cold Mattapan street in January 1995. In 2005, an arbitrator decided that Williams had been unfairly terminated, even though he had lied in his account of that night. He got his job back, plus $550,000 in back pay.

In 2012, the BPD fired Williams again, this time for putting a man in a choke hold on a North End Street in 2009 (The department did not properly investigate the incident until the victim filed a federal lawsuit, winning a $1.4 million settlement). Williams appealed that firing too, and yet again, an arbitrator ruled he should get his job back.

Now a detective, Williams earned $244,000 last year, according to city records.

As of next month, he works in his victim’s police department. Williams and the rest of BPD’s problems are now Cox’s to solve, and they’ve bedeviled many a predecessor. To make any headway, he will need his own leadership team, made up of trusted colleagues who share the belief that public safety and social justice should not be mutually exclusive goals. And he will need the unrelenting trust and backing of the mayor who made the inspired choice to appoint him.

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Cox will also need the support of communities whose faith in the police is more shaken than ever. His career hasn’t made him a public figure in town like a Willie Gross or a Bill Evans, who often showed up at community events and crime scenes. Cox must start working on those ties right away, and to forge them he must do something he has long been loath to do: Talk about his experience as a victim of police brutality, what he sacrificed to hold those who hurt him accountable, and why he still has faith in the force.

With his appointment, we have arrived at an extraordinary moment. If Cox succeeds, his story — and Boston’s — will be one for the ages.


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