Michael Cox, then a young member of the Boston police gang unit, was beaten unconscious in 1995 by fellow officers who mistook him for a murder suspect. For years, the department tried to cover it up, with nearly two dozen officers denying they saw the attack at all.
On Wednesday, Cox was named Boston’s next police commissioner, a triumphant return that will call on him to transform the department that wronged him decades ago.
Cox, 57, worked for the Boston police for 30 years before becoming chief of the Ann Arbor Police Department in Michigan in 2019 and arrives back at a pivotal moment for the department, which faces widespread calls for reform from community leaders, activists, and Mayor Michelle Wu herself. He will be the department’s third Black commissioner when he begins on Aug. 15, and will immediately confront the challenge of instituting reforms while maintaining the good will of a 1,600-strong force known for resisting change.
“This is a homecoming for me . . . [and] a fairly emotional moment,” Cox said at a news conference, his voice quivering. “Since that time in 1995, I have dedicated my life to making sure that both the Boston Police Department and policing in general has grown and learned from the experiences that I went through way back when.”
A strong advocate of community policing, the Roxbury native said he is determined to “revitalize” police efforts to rebuild relationships with residents, particularly in neighborhoods of color where mistrust of law enforcement often runs deep. He cited consistency and humility as the best tools to build trust, saying that “if folks have issues — historical issues — we need to listen and show we can take that criticism, and more importantly, that we hear them.”
A former Boston police superintendent, Cox has earned a long list of accolades in his career but is perhaps best known for the successful civil rights lawsuit he brought against the department after the 1995 attack. Cox’s decision to publicize his experience drew attention to the dangers faced by the department’s few Black officers, particularly those in plainclothes units.
Cox’s appointment marks a striking new chapter for a department that once punished him for speaking out. He spent years fighting it in state and federal courts, demanding to know who harmed him and insisting that those who attacked him should no longer carry a gun and a badge.
The appointment closely follows Wu’s selection of a new fire commissioner and a new school superintendent, cementing her mark on city leadership, and comes as the city has gone well over a year without a permanent commissioner.
“Chief Cox leads with that sense of possibility, a deep faith in what we can achieve together, and a deep love for the city that he grew up in,” Wu said, adding that she was thrilled to appoint a leader who “brings decades of experience working at every level within our police department.”
Cox’s appointment, which followed a seven-month search, drew widespread praise. Jeffrey Lopes, president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers and a Boston police detective, said Cox’s return marks a “historic moment of empowerment, hope, healing, and promise for all who revere notions of both safety and social justice.”
Suffolk District Attorney Kevin Hayden congratulated Cox and praised him as a “strong partner.”
”The journey of Michael Cox from being beaten by fellow Boston police officers to his appointment as commissioner of the Boston Police Department is emblematic of criminal legal reform,” Hayden said in a statement.
Cox’s time in Ann Arbor, a small city that is home to the University of Michigan, was not without controversy. In February 2020, less than a year after becoming chief, Cox was placed on a brief paid administrative leave over allegations he had created a hostile work environment and exerted undue influence over an internal investigation related to parking enforcement.
A city-commissioned investigation by a law firm found “no evidence” that Cox’s behavior created a hostile work environment and Cox was reinstated after less than a month. Yet in a report, investigators concluded “there is no question” that many police department employees “were made very uncomfortable by the chief’s actions and that they fear retaliation.”
The probe came after a lieutenant indicated she had felt pressure from Cox not to recommend termination of a parking supervisor she had concluded had lied about voiding tickets. After conducting interviews with police officials, including the lieutenant and Cox himself, investigators determined Cox had characterized the ticket voiding as an unimportant matter and made jokes that some “interpreted as belittling.”
Asked about the incident Wednesday, Cox said he has “learned from that quite a bit and I wish it didn’t happen.”
“I’ve always tried to coach all officers on good practices to make good decisions and sometimes I can be intimidating to some folks, but I apologize for how I was perceived,” he said. “It was not my intention whatsoever.”
Wu said she had spoken with the mayor and town administrator of Ann Arbor about the incident and was confident Cox “is a leader of great integrity, that he takes every step of leadership very seriously, and that he has taken full ownership over any miscommunication and used that as a learning opportunity.”
In a statement Wednesday, Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor said ”like so many in Ann Arbor, I have enjoyed working with [Cox] and believe that we are a much better place due to his service. I am sorry to see him go, but the pull of home is strong and I wish him every continued success.”
In Boston, many community activists praised Cox as a well-known local figure whose personal experience with the police carried great symbolic value.
“We know him and he knows the city,” said Michael Kozu, a community activist. “And his return sends a message that the code of silence is no longer acceptable in the department.”
Jamarhl Crawford, who served on the city’s police reform task force in 2020, said he had known Cox for decades.
“He is certainly a good man who checks off a lot of boxes,” Crawford said. His selection “puts to bed concerns of having somebody who’s not from here, or a lack of diversity in leadership,” he added.
As likely “the only commissioner in the country who was beaten by police while he was part of the police,” Cox has a unique and valuable perspective, he said, but whether that translates into effective leadership remains to be seen.
“Will he really be that guy who moves the needle, a true vision of change?” Crawford said. “Well, to whom much is given, much is required.”
Larry Calderone, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, also celebrated Cox’s return, saying he “has a working understanding and intimate knowledge of the changes needed to better the BPD.”
Such support from law enforcement marks a striking reversal from what happened decades ago after the mistaken police attacks on Cox. Back then, the union sided with the officers who had beaten him as department officials worked to cover up the incident, and the city dragged its feet on an apology while fighting tooth and nail for a low settlement.
Stephen A. Roach, one of the Boston attorneys who represented Cox during his years of litigation against the city, the department, and the officers who beat him, said the city had made a “very, very intelligent decision” in tapping Cox.
“My feeling is if this hadn’t happened to him originally, he probably would have been a commissioner before this,” he said. During the many years of litigation, he learned that Cox was widely respected inside the department, and even by some of the people he arrested. The man Cox was chasing when he was attacked, Robert Brown, was acquitted of charges connected to the Roxbury murder and testified on Cox’s behalf during the federal civil rights trial, Roach said.
Cox takes over a department that has been without a full-time leader for more than a year.
Previous commissioner Dennis White was placed on leave two days after being appointed by former mayor Martin J. Walsh, following a Globe investigation into allegations that White had been accused of domestic abuse. White was later fired and Superintendent-in-Chief Gregory Long has served as acting commissioner since February 2021.
On Wednesday, Long and members of the search committee stood alongside Wu beneath a sweltering midday sun to celebrate Cox’s arrival at the Gertrude Howes Playground in Roxbury. Cox recalled fond memories of playing there as a child before his mother sent him off to boarding school in Connecticut for high school.
After graduating from Providence College — with a semester-long detour at Morehouse College, where he met his wife — Cox joined the Boston police at 24. Now, he is their leader.
“The men and women of the Boston Police Department will step up, both civilian and sworn, to make sure that we serve the public well in this city,” he said. “[I’m] going to support you to death . . . but the reality is we are going to do some things in a different way.”
John R. Ellement of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Kate Selig contributed to this report.
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