In choosing Michael Cox as Boston’s new police commissioner, Mayor Michelle Wu is putting her faith in someone who is both a victim of the institution he will now lead — and a creature of it.
It’s an unusual combination — and a big gamble for Wu.
Back in 1995, Cox was beaten unconscious by his fellow Boston police officers while working undercover in the gang unit. He brought a successful civil rights lawsuit against the department, and through a book written by former Globe reporter Dick Lehr, he publicized that experience and others to reveal the dangers faced by the department’s handful of Black officers, especially those working undercover.
Despite that harrowing history, Cox remained on the force until he left Boston in 2019 to become chief of the Ann Arbor, Mich., police department.
During his 30 years in Boston, he worked in nearly every department of the BPD. According to a press release put out by Wu’s office, he last served in Boston as bureau chief and superintendent of the Bureau of Professional Development overseeing the Boston Police Academy, the Firearms Training Unit, the Police Cadet Unit, recruit training, and in-service training for all personnel. He also served in many different leadership roles — including a stint with internal affairs, a department infamous for its lack of transparency.
For sure, he’s experienced and knowledgeable when it comes to the inner workings of the BPD.
But that long tenure in Boston also raises questions about his professed commitment to reform. He was part of the culture he is now charged with changing. For just one example, what did he know about Patrick Rose, the police officer whom the department allowed to remain on the force for years after investigators determined he had probably molested a child?
During a press briefing, Cox said his priority is letting the department know “we have a leader.” He said he wants Boston police to “get back out and introduce themselves to the public.” As far as what he called “the culture of cover-up,” he said it “stems a lot from a lack of professionalism. The reality is you need to develop your entire team, not just at the top and bottom, but at every command level in-between.”
Those are fine words that don’t say much. Cox was most revealing when asked how he managed to move past his beating at the hands of fellow officers who looked at an undercover brother in blue who happened to be Black and saw a suspect. “At the time, it was a personal struggle for me. It was a tough time,” he acknowledged. But his love of public service won out. “Part of my healing process,” he said, was to question, “what do I want to do with my life?” He said he decided to see what he could learn from the experience and teach others from it.
His life experience can help the BPD restore trust with the community it polices — but first he must get the institution he leads on board with that trust agenda.
As for Wu, she said she felt an immediate connection with Cox. “As soon as we started chatting, I knew he was the one,” she said. “There was just such a sense of hope and excitement and joy about what we could get done together. . . even when tackling very complex and entrenched systems.”
Cox was also asked to address his placement on administrative leave over allegations that he created a hostile work environment as chief of the Ann Arbor Police Department and exerted undue influence over an internal investigation related to parking enforcement. He explained the issue as a cultural problem exacerbated by his coming from a big city department to a smaller community in the Midwest.
Wu said she had read every document available on him in Boston and Ann Arbor and spoke to the mayor of Ann Arbor and town administrator about the work-related incident. “Those conversations confirmed what we already knew. He is a leader of great integrity, who takes every step of leadership very seriously,” she said. Her selection of Cox follows a six-month search, involving a committee, several community listening sessions and a multilingual survey.
When Cox was asked what has changed about Boston and the BDP since 1995 and what is the same, he said: ”Expectations are very different.”
They are — and Wu has a lot riding on his ability to meet them.