Growing up on his grandmother’s farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, William G. Gross was determined to serve in law enforcement or join the Air Force.
When he was 12, his mother moved him and his two sisters to Dorchester. It was 1975, and Boston was in the throes of the busing crisis. Racial tensions were high, and police were feared in black neighborhoods.
Still, 10 years later, Gross became a Boston police officer, and on Monday he was named the city’s first black police commissioner. His rise to the top marks a moment of personal triumph for the 33-year veteran of the police department, as well as a turning point for a city that still bears the scars of its violent racial history. Gross said he hopes his appointment will serve as an inspiration and a catalyst to move the department forward and improve relations between the police and the community.
“If you want change, be the change,” Gross, 54, said at a press conference at City Hall. “That’s why I became a police officer.”
An ubiquitous presence at community gatherings and crime scenes, Gross is known for his affable, low-key style. But he will face pressure to diversify the ranks, improve trust in the police, and drive down the homicide rate, which has crept upward in recent years.
“It will be important for Willie Gross to continue to work vigorously to create and maintain safe neighborhoods across the city, irrespective of ZIP code, and that is a tall order,” said Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston NAACP.
Gross’s supporters said he is well-equipped for the challenge, given his strong ties to the neighborhoods and deep experience in the department.
“There’s no reason to do a nationwide search when you have the best guy for the job sitting right there,” said Sergeant Mark Parolin, president of the Boston Police Superiors Officers Federation, which represents sergeants, lieutenants, and captains.
“His race doesn’t even play a part in it — he’s the best cop for the job,” Parolin said. “He’s done everything, he’s worked in every type of outfit in the department, he works well with the community, and he’s not afraid to speak out when things need to be brought up.”
The middle of three children, Gross (pronounced as rhyming with “ross”) was raised on Esmond Street by his mother, Deanna, who worked three jobs but still attended her son’s football games and ensured that he stayed in school and avoided troublemakers.
“When I came down the street, if there was anybody on my porch, they left,” she recalled Monday, after she watched her son be promoted to commissioner. “They knew I was coming. I was not going to play.”
Gross said he was guided by his mother’s strong presence as well as the football coaches, Vietnam veterans, and neighborhood elders who looked out for him.
“That’s who helped raise me,” he said.
A self-described “true street cop,” Gross became a police cadet in 1983, after graduating from Boston Technical High School, now the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science.
‘If you want change, be the change. That’s why I became a police officer.’— William Gross, at Monday’s City Hall press conference
He scored 99 percent on the police exam and was fast-tracked for a promotion, he recalled in a 2014 interview on Suffolk Sheriff Steve Tompkins’s television show.
After officially joining the force in 1985, when he was 21 and a patrolman, Gross served in the gang and drug units and as night commander before being named deputy superintendent in 2008, under Mayor Thomas M. Menino.
In 2014, Mayor Martin J. Walsh named Gross the department’s first African-American second-in-command. In that role, he has been frequently called upon to help defuse tensions between police and the community.
Last August, when Boston was bracing for potential violence from a “free speech rally” held on Boston Common days after the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Gross immersed himself in the sea of about 15,000 counterprotesters who marched from Roxbury to the Common to denounce hate.
Working the crowd like a veteran politician, he thanked marcher after marcher for coming out to make their voices heard. He complimented activists on their creative signs. And he took dozens of photos with marchers.
“This is how we do it in Boston,” he said at the time. “We exercise our right to free speech, but we do it peacefully.”
Gross also helped ease tensions in 2016, when a Boston police sergeant was caught on video waving a replica gun at a man who was taping him during a police stop in Roxbury. After attending a meeting at the Boston NAACP’s headquarters, where the officer apologized to the man, Gross called the incident a “teachable moment.”
“We’ll move forward letting our officers know, and letting the public know, that it is your constitutional right to film officers,” Gross said at the time.
Larry Ellison, a Boston police detective who is president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, said Gross will face added scrutiny as the first black police commissioner.
The association, he said, is hoping that Gross will improve the department’s disciplinary process, which the association says has unfairly punished officers of color during the tenure of his predecessor, William B. Evans.
“It’s always tough when you’re the first,” said Ellison, who has known Gross since 1983, when they were part of the same cadet class. “You’re in a position where, whatever you do, it’s going to be looked at in the negative or the positive. It’s a fine line that you walk.”Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.