ANN ARBOR, Mich. — When Ann Arbor City Councilor Jack Eaton stumbled across Michael Cox’s application in late 2018 to be the city’s new police chief, he wondered if there might be some mistake.
“A little town like this doesn’t typically get that kind of talent,” he said, perched on a stool in a downtown cafe. At the time, residents were clamoring for a reformer to repair the Police Department’s relationship with the city’s communities of color, badly frayed since a police officer who fatally shot a young Black woman wielding a knife outside her home in 2014 was allowed to keep his job.
Cox, who is Black, offered a compelling resume. He was a veteran of the Boston Police Department: a superintendent with years of experience overseeing operations, internal affairs, and professional development who routinely supervised hundreds of officers and rose through the ranks despite suing the department after he was beaten by fellow officers in 1995. His interest in moving from a major city to a Midwestern college town with a police force of just under 150 officers raised more than a few eyebrows.
“I mused to people at the time, ‘Is this some kind of setup?’ Because how could we not have chosen him,” said Lisa Jackson, chair of the city’s police oversight commission, which reviewed the three finalists for the position. “He was far and away the most qualified, and I think a lot of us wondered why he’d want to come to Ann Arbor.”
Cox, appointed by Mayor Michelle Wu on July 13 to be Boston’s next police commissioner, recalled last week in an interview at the Ann Arbor Justice Center that he had wanted a change of pace and imagined he might one day retire in the town where his son played college football years ago. His appointment was widely viewed as a win-win situation: a victory for the city to bring in a reform-minded leader with decades of experience, and a chance for Cox to facilitate meaningful change at the helm of a small department in a liberal town.
Yet his three years in Ann Arbor would prove anything but problem-free. City officials, community leaders, and residents told the Globe that Cox’s efforts to transform the police force were met with resistance at nearly every turn, from City Hall to his command staff.
It was a challenge heightened by the pandemic, coming less than nine months into his tenure. And leading a smaller department required new skills of Cox; his authoritative yet soft-spoken demeanor sometimes failed to translate vision to action. Cox made it a priority to improve the department’s reputation with the people it serves, but throughout his three years he was consistently undermined by political interference, many said.
“Pretty uniformly, he was mistreated here, and I’m sorry for what we put him through,” said Eaton, who was voted off the City Council in 2020. “If you want to bring in a reformer, he needs to have either the support of his subordinates or the support of his city council. Cox didn’t have either.”
Cox, 57, declined to comment on his feelings toward city officials and the Police Department’s upper management, saying only that he realized during his tenure that he may not have been “a good fit here. Not because I can’t do the job, not because I don’t understand it, but just because of fit.”
”When I first came here, I was excited about the job. Lot of unknowns, tons of unknowns,” he said. “And as I’ve gotten to learn what the unknowns were, some of the answers were a little disappointing.”
Eric Ronewicz, former president of the Ann Arbor police union and current board member of the statewide police union, said Cox was routinely undermined by his second-in-command, Deputy Chief Jason Forsberg, who was a finalist for the chief’s position. Unlike in Boston, the Ann Arbor police chief cannot appoint his or her own command staff, which Ronewicz said can pose a challenge if the views of the two deputy chiefs don’t align with those of the boss.
“The two deputy chiefs supported each other, but neither of them really supported him,” he said. Part of the difficulty was Cox’s “big-department” communication style, he added. Cox often relied on the chain of command to relay instructions to rank-and-file officers, but Ronewicz said in a small department, it can be more effective to deliver the message directly.
“Cox has vision, but it seems like he never tells you what the plan is,” Ronewicz said. “I told him often, ‘If you tell our guys what to do, they’ll do it.’ But he always kept everything close to his chest.”
Forsberg declined to comment on whether tensions existed between him and Cox, but called the past three years “a great chance for me to learn from him.”
”I have valued his insight, mentorship, and experience,” Forsberg said.
The most notable challenge to Cox’s leadership came early in his tenure, in February 2020, when he was placed on brief leave over allegations he had created a hostile work environment for the rank and file and also exerted undue influence over an internal investigation related to parking enforcement.
While Mayor Christopher Taylor later said he stood by the city’s decision to place Cox on leave while officials launched an independent investigation into the complaint, other city officials and community leaders condemned the decision as a major overstep by then-city administrator Howard Lazarus, who was fired by the City Council shortly after the investigation ended.
Councilors signed a nondisparagement agreement with Lazarus, preventing them from discussing their reasons for his termination. But Eaton, the former city councilor, said Cox’s behavior was “at most worthy of a reprimand.”
Lazarus, now the executive director of Delaware County, Pa., declined to comment.
For Cox, the controversy revealed the kinds of political challenges he would face in a city where, during his short tenure, multiple officials would resign after making racially offensive remarks to their co-workers and the public. First to go, in 2019, was the city’s human resources director, who resigned over inappropriate text messages that included calling Black Lives Matter protests “dumb … bull[expletive].”
In early 2021, a city councilor repeatedly used the n-word in an interview defending his previous use of a homophobic slur, telling news outlets these words are “used to express feelings and that’s allowed under the Constitution.” And last July, another city administrator was forced to resign after a series of racially insensitive remarks came to light, including that the city should “be careful hiring minorities” and that police reform was pointless because “when only 10 percent of the people in Ann Arbor are Black, I don’t see why we have to worry about it.”
Despite the difficult political terrain, Cox worked to overhaul the department’s archaic data management system, quickly gaining a reputation among councilors as a data-driven champion of community policing.
In 2020, violent and property crime decreased by 22 percent from the year before, dropping below 500 criminal incidents for the first time since the city’s CrimeMapper tracking system began in the 1980s. Numbers increased modestly last year to 581 violent and property crimes, with an uptick in every category but robberies.
Cox earned measured praise for his efforts to build trust in communities of color. Mashod Evans, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, recalled how Cox made a point to attend neighborhood events before the pandemic and made himself available to anyone in Evans’s congregation who had “questions or concerns about an encounter with law enforcement.”
But in November 2020, an officer’s misjudgment erased that momentum. While responding to a call for a possible intruder, police broke down the door to the wrong home, waking two Black women who were asleep inside.
Sarah and Shallan Wimberly, who emerged from their room to see the intruding officers with guns drawn, sued the city for violating their civil rights and received $50,000 in a settlement in March 2021. One of the defendants named in the lawsuit, Sergeant David Ried, had shot and killed a 40-year-old Black woman in 2014. Cox apologized to the Wimberly family after the settlement but did not fire Ried, who remains on the force to the dismay of many residents.
“It is by the grace of God that [one of those women] is not Breonna Taylor,” Jackson said, in reference to the young Black woman killed by the police in Louisville, Ky., during a botched raid on her apartment. “This feels no different than [what happened to Cox in] Boston — they were just going to act like nothing happened until the lawsuit was filed.”
Cox called the break-in “a legitimate mistake” made by the entire team of responding officers and said he doesn’t “necessarily know if someone’s history has anything to do with that particular incident,” a response that elicited fiery rebuttal from some Black residents.
“Chief Cox asked me what he could do to make the department better and I told him, ‘Fire Officer Ried,’” said Shirley Beckley, 80, a Black historian whose family has lived in the city since the 1800s. “Our community is hurt and we don’t trust the police” since the 2014 shooting, she said, a mistrust that only deepened with last year’s civil rights suit.
Still, Beckley said Cox’s efforts to build trust in the Black community have not gone unnoticed.
“The thing we could do with him that we couldn’t do before is call him and talk to him,” she said. “I don’t know of him ever denying someone a meeting.”
Among Asian American residents, the city’s largest ethnic minority, Cox admitted the work of building and maintaining strong lines of communication did not come as naturally.
“It was not for lack of trying,” he said. “It’s a lot harder [to build trust] if I don’t speak the language or know the customs, and even when we reach out, it might take awhile for them to reach back.”
But Cox said representation and consistency are key, both strategies he plans to hone in Boston where existing community partnerships and a more diverse police force will be to his advantage. Among Ann Arbor’s 140 sworn officers, only two are Asian.
Julie Kim, a Korean immigrant and mother of three, said the harassment of Asian Americans has become an “almost daily” occurrence in Ann Arbor since the start of the pandemic, with children and the elderly the most frequent targets.
“People in our community are afraid to go to the police and it seems like they want us to do the work, instead of them doing the work to reach out to us,” she said.
But several city officials praised Cox for boosting racial diversity in a department that has traditionally been almost entirely white. Borrowing a page from Boston, Cox introduced a cadet program to recruit more officers of color and partnered with the Fire Department to launch a summer camp for middle- and high-school girls interested in a career in public safety. The program filled just a week after registration opened.
Dwight Wilson, a former member of the city’s human rights commission, said Cox deserved praise for what he was able to accomplish. But he warned that Cox’s tenure in Ann Arbor indicates his performance in Boston will depend in large measure on how much support he receives.
“People are looking over the hill for a messiah on the horizon, but there’s no messiah coming. It’s on us — the community has to put its foot down and say, ‘This is what we want,’” he said. “So is Boston ready for him? Are Boston’s residents ready to support him? That’s the question we ought to be asking.”