Michael Cox knows he has to talk about what happened, if only to set the record straight: The brutal beating he endured at the hands of fellow officers more than 25 years ago — and the subsequent fight to expose its coverup — is only a fragment of his story.
“Most of you all might know me from newspaper clippings about an incident that happened in 1995,” Cox told a crowd gathered last month to witness his introduction as Boston’s next police commissioner.
“Clearly, I was a victim of some unconstitutional policing, no different than incidents that have happened throughout the country to Black and brown people,” he continued. “But the reality is ... that’s not who I am.”
Cox, 57, was sworn in as police commissioner Monday at City Hall, resuming his lengthy law enforcement career in Boston after three years as chief in Ann Arbor. He returns with a clear mandate from Mayor Michelle Wu to transform a department buffeted by scandals and without a permanent leader for more than 16 months.
It’s a long way from the winter night in 1995, when he was beaten unconscious by a group of officers who mistook Cox — then a young plainclothes officer in the gang unit — for a murder suspect. In the ensuing days, Cox waited for an apology that never came. Once he realized the plan was to sweep the attack under the rug and threaten him into silence, he sued the department for violating his civil rights, ultimately winning a $1.3 million settlement with the city.
But as Cox begins his tenure as commissioner, he has made it clear that neither the attack nor its aftermath defines him or his agenda. While standing his ground against the department helped make him “resilient,” he said, it was the decades he spent climbing the ranks that prepared him to lead Boston’s force. Starting in 2005, Cox served as a deputy superintendent, and later superintendent, within numerous bureaus, overseeing operations, internal affairs, and forensics.
“When I first came on the job, it was not the nicest place in the world, and I deliberately stayed away from certain people and things because I didn’t want to run the risk of running across some of that [racist] stuff, which I did anyway,” he said of his early career in Boston, during an interview last month. “But during my career I realized if you want to get stuff done, you have to take risks. I certainly try to control the risk, but at some point I learned to be more of a risk-taker than when I was younger.”
Cox’s reserved demeanor has caused some to question his ability to reform a department known for resisting change, but the new commissioner said he is confident he can put his game plan into action.
“Being soft-spoken is just kind of who I am, but what are the words that come out of my mouth when I speak? Are they bold? Do they get to the point of the matter?” he asked. “I like to think they do from time to time.”
Cox acknowledged he has been reluctant in the past to clamor for reform, fearing it might be perceived as lingering bitterness over the attack.
“I was hoping not to carry the weight of that old stuff here [and have people think] ‘he’s just mad because of that thing that happened,’” he said, adding that as commissioner, he knows it’s crucial to be “more active in speaking up about the changes that we need to make in the department.”
Many who have known Cox for years describe him as a quiet, thoughtful leader, more likely to quietly build consensus than trumpet the department’s flaws.
“He’s not one of those loud guys, one of those over-the-top guys,” said Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins, who interacted with Cox at crime scenes and public safety meetings over the years. “If there’s reform that needs to be done — and some people will say that there is — when he and the mayor and his command staff sit down and chart a course, I think it could be effectuated in a very productive way.”
While he declined to outline his list of priorities, Cox said he plans to take a methodical approach to problem-solving and focus on one major issue at a time.
“It’s possible to do multiple things at once, but you need to assemble a good team to do it,” he said. “In my experience, if you try to make lasting, effective change in 10 different areas, you end up doing none of them well.”
Cox said building trust with the rank-and-file, however incrementally, will be central to his success.
“When people hear the word change, they get scared not of the change itself, but of all the things they associate with change: force and discomfort and punishment,” he said. “It’s really important that you have some success early on showing them small changes, so they can see it’s not so bad.”
From May 2009 to January 2012, as commander of the department’s internal affairs division, Cox oversaw all internal investigations into police misconduct. Cox entered that role around the time former commissioner Ed Davis enacted a new policy that any officer found to be lying would be terminated.
Davis said Cox supported that policy and he saw Cox as a good fit for the role, in part because “after all he’s been through in policing, he had a really good sense of why it was important to have a robust internal affairs process.”
“Michael has come to terms with what happened,” Davis said. “He will demand appropriate behavior and the type of policing that is expected across the country today. He also doesn’t dwell on what happened to him. He oftentimes said to me he didn’t want that incident to define him, and I think he’s been successful in that.”
During Cox’s tenure, just over a third of complaints were found to be “sustained,” meaning there was evidence of misconduct by the officer, a Globe review found. That is similar to the proportion of complaints sustained from 1993 to 2018, suggesting that Cox did not fundamentally change its review process.
“I fired officers, and that’s happened [in Ann Arbor] as well because discipline is part of the job. Whether it’s for coming to work late or for more severe things, this is not an atmosphere where you come through and get to do whatever you want,” Cox said.
However, Cox said he disagrees with the notion that police are incapable of growth or progress.
“That ‘dunce cap’ has been put on law enforcement during this period [by activists and academics] that we can’t learn, and the reality is we can,” he said. “We have to get out of our idea of normal and start realizing internally that we are just an organization, like any other place, and then look to other places and people to help us change.”
Some police reform activists have questioned whether Cox will be able to reform a department that he helped lead for years — and, if he wanted to, why he didn’t make bigger changes sooner. But to the extent that Cox wants to reimagine the department, only now does he have that authority.
“He wasn’t the commissioner” before, Tompkins said. “You can be in upper management, but the final call is not yours. The final call is his now.”