When Willie Gross moved from rural Maryland to Dorchester as a 12-year-old in 1975, he and his mother had the Boston version of “The Talk.” She had to explain to her son how to survive in his new and alien environment.
“It was: ‘Don’t go to Hyde Park, don’t go to Southie, don’t go here, don’t go there,’ ” Gross recalled this week. “It was tough, but that’s the way things were at that time.”
From that inauspicious introduction, Gross forged a deep bond with his adopted hometown, which he now describes as a “village” that came to shape him. On Monday, he was introduced as the city’s new police commissioner and the first African-American to hold the post.
He follows an outstanding commissioner in Billy Evans, with whom he has been joined at the hip for the past five years.
But as a keen student of history, Gross is also aware of standing on the shoulders of the black officers and commanders who preceded him. He cites Willis Saunders, the legendary night commander, James Claiborne, the first black superintendent, and Billy Celester, who led Area B-2 in Roxbury during the tumultuous days of he late 1980s and early 1990s, as trailblazers and role models.
Gross became an officer in 1985 after going through the cadet program. The department was operating under a federal consent decree after being sued for discrimination. People of color were tolerated rather than embraced.
“To be quite honest, there was a lot of nepotism, favoritism, and just plain racism,” Gross said. “Historically, decade after decade, it has gotten better, but that took a lot of forward-thinking administrators who gave people a chance. We’re still dealing with perceptions of being unfair, but we’re much better off than when I came in.”
Gross came of age as an officer during the crack epidemic, and the record-breaking period of homicides that it spawned. Working with the public became essential. Community policing, which began as a nearly meaningless buzzword, had to become a real strategy.
That all played to the strengths of Gross, who instinctively thinks in terms of community. His ability to forge trust with communities is rare in any police officer, let alone a commissioner.
I had a good look at his approach to policing one day last summer. When white supremacists announced a rally on Boston Common — and tens of thousands of protesters demonstrated for peace — Gross agreed to let me spend the day shadowing him. We started at Madison Park High School, the staging area for the peaceful march to the Common. Then we spent a few hours in the command center with the brass, and moved on to the Common itself, where he calmly supervised keeping the protesters and counterprotesters apart.
Throughout the high-stakes operation, I saw a leader who was firmly in control. Whether it was calming an anxious crowd in Roxbury, or dealing with people whose views he detested at the Common, he treated everyone with dignity and respect. It was easy to picture him as a future commissioner.
While he inherits a strong department, the job has no shortage of challenges. Shootings in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan remain unacceptably common, and too many shootings and homicides in those areas still go unsolved. Internally, he will face the challenge of establishing his authority, like any new commissioner.
Evans said he was left alone by City Hall to run the department his way. That has to be true for the new commissioner as well. Historically, some commissioners have operated with more independence than others. The single most important relationship in town is the one between the mayor and the police commissioner.
Gross is an inspired selection, and not just because he is making history. But that history is part of his story.
“The mantra I live by every day comes from Willis Saunders,” Gross told me. “People don’t work for you. They work with you.”