Boston’s new police commissioner is uniquely qualified by virtue of his personal history alone to make long-overdue changes in a department that has proven particularly resistant to reform.
But Michael Cox, himself a victim of fellow officers decades ago and of the blue wall of silence that attempted to deny him justice as a young officer, is surely no naïf about the problems that persist — from lack of transparency to out-of-control overtime spending.
This is a department that cries out for leadership, for a new sense of mission, and for a force that commands both respect and trust from the people it serves.
Cox gave every indication at his inaugural news briefing that he gets both the leadership and the mission part of the job — and that the mission will include bridging what has become a wider gap between police and communities of color in the two years since the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis policeman.
“We’re going to do community policing in a way we haven’t done it in a number of years,” Cox vowed.
“It needs to start with me and our command staff, going to locations, doing peace walks again, things we did prior to COVID to build trust in the neighborhoods so people get to see us, so they get to know some of these officers before an incident happens,” he added.
The now 57-year-old Cox was a member of the anti-gang squad in 1995, who, while in plainclothes and chasing down a murder suspect, was severely beaten by fellow officers.
“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,” he said Wednesday.
Cox has spent the last three years as chief of police in Ann Arbor, Mich., but before leaving Boston he had risen through the ranks serving in internal affairs and various posts within the command staff, including those centered on recruiting, the police academy, and professional development.
In short, he knows — or certainly should know — the good, the bad and the ugly within the department. The question remains what will the new commissioner do or what can he do to make sure the bad and the ugly become part of BPD’s past and not its present. What can he do to make sure a child molester never again continues to be protected by an ineffectual internal affairs process. What can he do to head off the next overtime fraud scheme before it becomes a federal case.
And what can he do to bring order to a scheduling system that as Globe reporter Ivy Scott wrote this week required at least five officers to work 24-hours shifts in recent days, according to Larry Calderone, head of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association.
“Do you need to issue the permit for the parade? Do you need to shut down 1.7 miles in Jamaica Plain for a block party, if you know you don’t have the police officers to safely fulfill the mission at hand?” he told Scott. “The answer is no. Shorten the parade, shorten the block party. You have to tell somebody no.”
Calderone would also find the answer in a larger police force. But others point to an outmoded system that relies on mandatory minimum staffing levels baked into the union contract that rob the system of flexibility.
Why are there mandatory minimum hours of overtime for court appearances or the routine cleaning out of evidence lockers? Well, because it’s in the police union contracts — something then candidate Michelle Wu railed against.
Mayor Wu has made a good choice in naming Cox the next police commissioner. But she also knows full well that he can only be as good and as efficient a manager as the next contracts she signs with the police unions allow him to be. All four contracts expired in June of 2020.
If she and the City Council want police to share those lucrative paid details with civilians — and the council has amassed evidence that there are more than enough such detail jobs to go around — then that has to be part of a negotiation. If she wants to bring the overtime budget under control, that too requires contractual changes.
If she wants to require any officer involved in a use-of-force incident where a civilian is killed to submit to a psychological exam and a drug or alcohol test (a recommendation of the last police reform task force), that needs to be in the contract.
Michael Cox has the potential to be the kind of change agent within the Boston Police Department that it sorely needs. But he can’t do it alone. He will need strong backup from an administration that has talked a good game about reform and now has the opportunity to make it happen.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.