Michael Cox seems just as stunned by his homecoming — a striking triumph over adversity — as everyone else.
He was a late entry into the race for Boston police commissioner. Not because he didn’t want the job of running his hometown department — of course he did — but because it took some time to get his head around the idea that, after everything, he could emerge as the man in charge.
Yet that’s exactly what he became this week, on the playground where he grew up, accepting congratulations after being named by Mayor Michelle Wu as the new head of the BPD.
“I was highly emotional,” Cox said Thursday. “And I didn’t even know it would be like that.”
Despite a stellar career in policing, Cox was best known until this week as a victim of an act of police brutality seared into the city’s history.
Early one morning in 1995, Cox was working an undercover assignment when he was brutally attacked by fellow officers who mistook him for a suspect, then abandoned him, beaten and unconscious.
Those officers added insult to injury by falsely claiming afterward that no one had seen anything. Two lawsuits went on for years, with Cox eventually receiving a $1.3 million settlement from the city.
Yet in a feat of perseverance bordering on the biblical, Cox stayed on the force. He didn’t merely survive, he thrived — working in every unit, being promoted to the command staff, and leaving as a superintendent three years ago to become police chief in Ann Arbor, Mich.
How did he stay? Why would he stay?
The decision to keep going wasn’t easy, but it was simple.
“I’m not going to be intimidated,” Cox said in an interview. “I’m not going to leave. I’m going to stay, and make it better.”
While his story has been well-chronicled, Cox has always been reticent, nearly silent, about the trauma he suffered. Most of his public comments have come in the form of court testimony.
He told me Thursday that the beating, which occurred six years into his career, stripped away any romantic ideas he had about being a young Black police officer.
“That event opened up my eyes to the real world of some of this stuff,” he said. “And I guess the thing for me was, I’m putting my life on the line, I’m working hard, and these folks treated me like I wasn’t a human. I mean that’s hard for anybody. I don’t care if you’re in a police department or you’re a citizen, that’s hard.”
He spent years coming to terms with what fellow officers had done to him.
“When you go through trauma around violence, you struggle,” he said “Why? What were the reasons? Will it happen again? I struggled like anybody. That’s why I don’t like to talk about it. I’m older now, but there’s trauma involved.’
Cox said he spent years trying to make sense of what happened to him, and what lessons it carried for how to make policing better.
But there may have been something else at work, besides his keen, analytic nature. Cox has never wanted to be defined by what he refers to today — if he has to discuss it all — as “the event.”
He stayed in the Police Department, I think, to write a different life story.
When then-commissioner Kathy O’Toole called to offer Cox his first management post, as a deputy superintendent, Cox initially turned it down. He didn’t want to be some kind of symbol or martyr, he says, or promoted as some kind of peace offering.
O’Toole explained to him that her offer wasn’t that, that Cox was widely respected for the way he had continued to go about his work, and was someone she needed to achieve her goal of diversifying the BPD’s leadership.
She told him he was a role model, particularly to Black officers. The idea that he could be an example to others got his attention and a leader was discovered.
“He has all the qualities you want in a leader — humility and authenticity and courage and honesty,” O’Toole, who served as police commissioner from 2004 to 2006, said in an interview. “I think he’s just the right person at the right time.”
Cox didn’t know Wu when he applied for the commissioner post. But they clicked immediately, sharing the same ideas about how to make the department more transparent and responsive.
“Forget mayor for a second — she’s a wonderful, genuine person,” Cox said of Wu. “She’s pretty direct. She knows what she wants. And when she described her vision, it was everything I was already trying to do. I didn’t expect that.”
Wu was attracted by Cox’s deep experience in the BPD, coupled with his time running a department elsewhere. That’s become a pattern for Wu. Besides Cox, both school Superintendent Mary Skipper and development chief Arthur Jemison are hires who spent many years rising through the ranks of the agencies they now run, before leaving for bigger jobs elsewhere. They all combine deep knowledge of Boston with the breadth gained from working somewhere else — outsiders who know the culture of these agencies from the inside.
Cox said he is wary of discussing what’s good or bad about the BPD, after three years away from it. But he said he believes the dispiriting isolation of the pandemic has generally frayed the ties between police and the communities they serve.
He also worries about morale, in an era where police practices have widely come under fire, for reasons he understands all too well.
“I want us to be the example for the rest of the country about how we can get our officers engaged, how we can have contact with the public again, and actually rebuild relationships in the community,” Cox said. “There’s a lot we can do.”
Cox’s introductory announcement had a strong feeling of homecoming, with an air of good feelings that’s rare for a bureaucratic appointment. There were a lot of happy people, many of them cops, gathered in that playground to be part of the moment.
Michael Cox’s story is already part of Boston history. But the best part may just be unfolding.