MALDEN — A decade ago, Brenda James lost her job at the Boston Police Department after nearly 20 years as an officer. Despite myriad legal setbacks, she never abandoned her fight to be reinstated and finally tell her side of the story in full.
Two weeks ago came the moment James, 59, had been awaiting for years, as she stood before a panel at the state’s Division of Administrative Law Appeals in Malden and gave her version of the night Captain Paul Russell allegedly stormed up behind her in his office and tried to wrestle her gun out of its holster.
His behavior “did not follow protocol,” James testified. “As a Black woman, I felt extremely nervous and uncomfortable in that situation.”
After that altercation in June 2012, James was never permitted to return to work. In a department where Black officers are disciplined at a disproportionate rate, James worries her ouster is another example of a culture that reflexively defends high-ranking, white male officials. Her prolonged legal fight, she said in an interview, is evidence of the department’s determination to “keep sweeping things under the rug so they never get properly addressed.”
“Patrick Rose was my classmate at the academy,” James said, referring to the former Boston police officer who remained on the force for decades despite evidence he had sexually assaulted a child. “The department chose not to follow protocol, both to protect his job and to take mine away from me.”
On the night in question, Russell called James into his office around 1 a.m. to give her a five-day suspension, saying she had been absent without leave earlier that year. (The Civil Service Commission later rescinded the punishment after finding Russell lacked sufficient grounds to suspend her).
James was hesitant to meet with Russell without a union representative to advise her of her rights, standard procedure for conversations between officers of different ranks. Captain Steven Sweeney, a lieutenant at the time, assured her she would not have to speak and that he would also be present, James testified.
But once she entered Russell’s office, it became clear he expected her to respond to direct questions, she testified. When she demurred, he became frustrated and ordered her to remove her badge, radio, and gun, which had a live round in the chamber. As she did so, Russell came out from behind his desk and wrangled her gun from its holster, according to James’ testimony.
Russell testified that he warned James he was going to take her weapon before he approached her calmly and pulled the gun off her side. But Sweeney said James complied with Russell’s instructions throughout the meeting and that Russell gave no forewarning, moving toward her quickly before trying to grab the gun. Because police holsters are designed to keep weapons firmly in place, Russell’s actions “caused James’ body to move,” Sweeney said.
In previous court proceedings, he and a detective said Russell’s behavior was “a deviation from protocol, highly dangerous, and that they had never seen an officer remove another officer’s loaded firearm” before that night.
However, Russell’s interaction with James was allegedly not the first time he abruptly seized another officer’s weapon. Another Boston officer, John Bergquist, testified in 2015 that Russell once forcibly took his weapon as well.
Shortly after the 2012 incident, James filed an internal report, but court records show the department never transferred James to a new unit or otherwise separated her from Russell.
After serving the five-day suspension, James did not return to work. For nearly two years, she was left on “no duty” status without pay. She became homeless, often changing addresses, but did her best to meet the responsibilities expected of officers on leave.
Sergeant Detective Joseph Gallarelli testified that in July 2013, a department superintendent denied James the opportunity to take her annual drug test although she had tried to complete the test within the allotted time frame, which he “had never heard of” happening. Nearly two years later, James was fired by commissioner William Evans, who cited her missed drug test and alleged untruthfulness about the incident with Russell as reasons for her termination.
James appealed her termination to the Civil Service Commission. But two days into a hearing, her daughter was abruptly hospitalized with a serious medical condition that prevented James from testifying. The hearing was rescheduled multiple times as she attempted to juggle surgery and emergency room visits, but the commissioner eventually ruled in favor of the police department without hearing James’ testimony, a decision that was later overturned in Superior Court.
That ruling moved the case to the Division of Administrative Law Appeals so a new arbitrator could hear the case. A ruling is expected later this month.
“We are grateful that Ms. James is finally being given the opportunity to prove her case before an impartial fact finder,” James’ lawyers, Tara Dunn and Max Stern, said in a statement. “This is the culmination of a ten-year struggle of a determined and courageous woman to find justice after being hounded out of the Boston Police Department for having the audacity to complain about abusive treatment by a powerful senior officer.”
Lawyers for the Boston Police Department declined to comment, citing the ongoing proceedings.
For years after she was fired, James was unemployed. She was initially denied unemployment benefits, but a judge ruled to grant her benefits after determining police officials could not establish that her termination “was based upon the employee’s knowing violation of a reasonable and uniformly enforced rule or policy, or due to deliberate misconduct in willful disregard of the employer’s interest.”
Only in recent years did James develop a “second passion for real estate,” in addition to holding numerous temp jobs to make ends meet. If she wins the case, James will be kept on the department payroll until her nearly 10 years of back pay and retirement funds are paid out.
James said she would love to return to policing but fears putting herself “in another unsafe situation” by rejoining the department and hopes to find other ways to serve the community, particularly young people of color.
“I didn’t think it would take 10 years, but people need to know that you can’t ruin someone’s life just because of your power and your influence and your connections,” James said. “I’ve always liked the boots-on-the-ground approach to mentorship, so I’d love to teach kids in the community how to negotiate, how to defend themselves, how to understand the systems they live in and advocate for their rights. That’s what’s always been most rewarding for me.”