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COMMENTARY

Fighting the blue wall of silence, Cox persevered

After his lawsuit was settled, Michael Cox stayed with the Boston Police Department.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Before anyone knew the names of George Floyd, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and too many others to count, before police treatment of Black Americans triggered a national movement, Michael Cox felt the fury of police officers brutalizing a Black man, and the callous indifference of the blue wall of silence.

The fact that Cox was one of their own, a fellow Boston police officer, was more than a bitter irony for what transpired on that cold January night in 1995. It was evidence that whatever gains made since the civil rights movement, too often race remained a deciding factor — sometimes to the point of life and death — when it came to crime and justice.

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Cox, then 29 and a member of the force’s anti-gang unit, was working in plainclothes, wearing jeans and a hoodie, when officers mistakenly took him for a fleeing murder suspect. They beat and kicked him unconscious on a dead end in Mattapan, one of the worst known cases of police brutality in the city’s history.

Worse, he was abandoned that night on the street, and again by his own department when investigations went nowhere, as officers succumbed to the gravitational pull to lie that is the hallmark of a blue wall of silence. No one came forward to identify Cox’s assailants even though dozens of officers were involved in the chase . The incident reports those officers filed described police everywhere but at the scene of the beating itself. The assailants stayed silent, and the official explanation for Cox’s injuries became that he had slipped on ice.

The beating became Exhibit A in a police culture gone wrong, of lies and coverup, which I reported extensively about, first as a member of the Boston Globe Spotlight Team and later for a book. But what also makes the case remarkable is Michael Cox himself. After being pummeled to the point where his two young sons did not recognize him, he remained a member of the Police Department.

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Who could have blamed him for walking away? Instead, he stayed.

Not only that, in true-blue fashion, he initially expected justice from within. The excessive force was not acceptable but mistakes made in the heat of the moment were understandable. So he waited during months of recovery for his beaters to apologize.

But when none came, and when there was no accountability, he took a stand. Teaming with attorneys Stephen A. Roach and Robert S. Sinsheimer, Cox took on Mayor Thomas M. Menino, the Police Department and Commissioner Paul Evans, and a handful of officers in a federal civil rights lawsuit. For that, he was victimized again, shunned by some in the department and even, at times, terrorized. More than once his tires were slashed and he received anonymous, threatening phone calls late at night at his Dorchester home.

He stayed the course, though, and won a verdict against several officers. And then the city settled his other claims: $900,000. With Cox, it never seemed to be about the money, but about justice and accountability. Verdict in hand, he easily could have walked away once again. And who would have blamed him? But, again, Cox stayed, winning promotions and committing to changing toxic parts of policing from within.

Mike Cox grew up in Boston on Winthrop Street just outside of Nubian Square (then Dudley Square). His father owned a landscaping business and his mother worked as a wire sorter at Raytheon. From early on, from knowing some of the officers who worked his neighborhood beat, the young Cox dreamed of being one of them. It’s what he aspired to — being a police officer in the city where he was born and raised.

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And by the mid-1990s, the tall, athletic Cox was living his dream, married to a fourth-year medical student and with two young boys and living in a brick house on Supple Street. Teamed with Craig Jones in the gang unit, the two became known by some street hustlers as the “Jump Out Boys” for the way they came up fast in their unmarked car to interrupt a drug deal or other wrongdoing.

During my years of reporting about his case, others on the force would tell me they thought Cox possessed the right stuff to be police commissioner some day — integrity, fairness, and humility. Qualities that might well have been beaten out of him that nightmarish moment in Mattapan. Except they weren’t, and now Cox is back, his story running full circle, taking the top job some had once predicted for him.