Four decades ago, when a young man named William B. Evans joined the Boston police, an officer’s work was measured by how many arrests he or she could make, or how many tickets he or she could issue.
Today, Evans, who ascended the ranks to become one of the city’s most visible police commissioners in department history, doesn’t care so much about those statistics.
“I don’t care what numbers my officers get, I don’t care how many people they lock up, as long as they treat people with respect,” Evans, who announced his retirement Monday after 38 years with the force — nearly five as commissioner — said in an interview.
That’s the approach Evans has taken in his police work, a style that prioritizes communicating with residents over arresting them. He leaves that legacy at a department that has built a national reputation for police-community relations, at a time that those relations have soured in other parts of the country.
“I think what’s changed is we’ve elevated our game in community policing, we’ve taken it to another level,” he said, describing how officers interact with residents in neighborhood walks, in tennis programs, even in Zumba classes.
That approach was most evident in the city’s response to Occupy Boston in 2011, when Evans headed the field services unit. More than 100 protesters settled into a tent city in Dewey Square to protest national economic policies. After 70 days, officers were forced to remove them, but Evans said the officers and protesters had built a mutual respect for each other.
Evans recalled telling his officers to see the young protesters for who they were, and what they were protesting: They had the same grievances with those economic policies as the officers had, he pointed out.
“You feel you can relate to some of those kids, and the issues out there,” he said. “We all have bills to pay, we all have kids. There are a lot of issues you can relate to.”
Evans gave several of the leaders among the protesters his cellphone number.
“I think that open dialogue has become a great strategy for everything we deal with,” he said. “We’ve learned it’s better to be nice to people. Treat people the way you want to be treated. That’s my motto, and never forget where you came from.”
In his nearly four decades on the force, Evans was a cadet, and a patrolman who earned a bravery award. He was a captain who oversaw administrative duties. And he was the incident commander who took control of a chaotic scene in Watertown in April 2013 to safely apprehend Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the two brothers responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings.
“That was the most hectic part of my career, over those five days,” he said.
Evans was born and raised in South Boston, the youngest of six brothers. One died at a young age in a car accident. His mother died of cancer when he was 3, and his father died of a heart attack when he was 14. Evans said he was raised by his brothers, but also a caring community, including a local church pastor who helped get him into a private school when he otherwise could not afford it.
After five years as commissioner, an around-the-clock job, Evans, 59, said he wants to spend more time with his family. He said he sleeps with one eye open, fearing a telephone call reporting that a young child or one of his police officers has been shot.
He has three children, now in their 20s, and he and his wife, Terry, have been married for three decades.
“It was hard to walk away. I think the most important thing for me at this point was for my family,” he said. “Now, it’s time to step back and enjoy life a little more.”
He is leaving his post to head public safety at Boston College, a campus he grew familiar with during his nine years as a captain in Allston and Brighton.
He says, though, that he will always be a police officer, and he knows there is more work to do. Overall, crime has dropped in Boston during his tenure, and arrests have also decreased – a testament to the department’s effort to seek ways other than jail to stem crime. “Throwing them in prison isn’t the solution,” he said.
But the city’s murder rate, after a 15-year-low in 2015, has ticked upward. The city has seen 30 murders this year, two more than this time last year, when the city saw 58 killings.
Evans pointed to what he has called senseless youth violence as a cause of the crime that holds steady in the city. But it will take more than police work to address that, he said. The city’s youth need opportunities, like he had when he was younger.
“These kids have nothing to look forward to,” he said. “It’s getting these kids opportunities, so they don’t want to engage in that life style.”
He added, “There’s been a lot of challenges. But I’ve been fortunate to lead a great department.”