Before the “village” he said helped guide him, William G. Gross was sworn in as Boston’s 42nd police commissioner Monday in a historic ceremony during which the city’s first black police leader vowed to move the department into new frontiers.
Gross, 54, appeared at once emotional and confident as he took the oath before his police colleagues, clergy, and community leaders at the Morning Star Baptist Church in Mattapan, where his mother has been a member for decades.
“Mom,’’ he said, “it all came from you and God.”
He placed his badge on a necklace upon his mother and gave her flowers. He said her work in the community and the community’s support for her, a single mother, helped navigate him from the city’s streets to the police force and through the ranks to his appointment as commissioner.
“The people of the community throughout my years . . . were right there every step of the way,” said Gross, a 33-year veteran of the force.
In his 20-minute speech, he said his focus will be to sustain the community policing work that has made the department a national model, at a time when relationships between police and communities are more hostile in other cities.
“What I’m proud of most about our Boston model, and our community-policing model, is this: It is made up of all of us,” said Gross, who had turned in his police uniform to wear a black suit. “That’s what our motto means, that’s what we will keep doing together.”
Gross is expected to lay out more of his community policing strategy, including his command staff, later this week, a department spokesman said.
In his remarks, Gross said his administration will be marked by four key initiatives: sustain the department’s community policing work; improve transparency within the department; set out a plan to diversify the department across the city; and promote wellness programs for police officers, saying officers “are not robots” who are immune to the trauma they encounter on the beat.
“It affects us; it’s a tough job,” he said. “If we are sound in body and mind, then we can best serve you.”
Serving as the backdrop to Gross’s ascension is a city that still bears the scars of a racist past. The swearing in was held in one of Boston’s most popular black churches, in a predominantly black neighborhood.
Bishop John M. Borders III, in giving an invocation, recalled to the crowd that in the 1990s, a gang member tried to kill someone during a funeral. And today, he noted, the community was celebrating the appointment of a black commissioner.
Randall J. Halstead, a retired police superintendent who served as emcee, invoked the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., saying he knew King “is looking down today and he is smiling at the realization of one of his dreams, that a man not be judged by the color of his skin but by the content of their character.”
Gross replaces William Evans, who retired last week after 38 years with the force, including five as commissioner. Friends and community members who have followed Gross since he was a teenager growing up in Dorchester recalled he had been destined for the position, citing his good deeds as a youngster.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh said that Gross represents the everyday people of Boston he is looking to serve.
“It is in his identity,” Walsh said, adding he will work to help the drug addicted, and the homeless, immigrants, and youth entangled in senseless violence.
Overall, both crime and arrests have decreased in Boston in recent years, though the total number of fatal shootings has crept up yearly since a 15-year-low in 2015.
The mayor said Gross will show that “strength is rooted in love, not fear,” at a time that Washington, D.C., politics have divided the country.
“We need leaders who honor our highest values,” said Walsh, adding that Gross is “America’s next great police commissioner.”
Two hours later, the mayor and Gross toured together several city neighborhoods, from Brighton to Roxbury, as part of the 35th annual National Night Out celebration of community crime watch groups. There, the mayor reiterated his vision for Gross and the 2,200-member department.
“If you see his smile on TV, see his smile in this park, that’s who he is,” the mayor said. “He’s a person that loves this city, loves his job, loves his officers, loves his community.”
At the first stop on the tour, at Brighton Commons, locals expressed excitement at meeting Gross and asked him for a photo. The owner of a Greek restaurant invited Gross over. “Oh, I’m gonna come see you,” the commissioner responded.
“Congratulations, welcome to Brighton,” said Debi Franks, a retiree and neighborhood resident.
Ron Mattera, the Boston Parks Department’s foreman for the neighborhood since 2004, who has worked for the city for 25 years, also approached to say “congratulations on your new position.”
“You always see him on TV, he was always there,” said Mattera, who called Gross “a nice man, he’ll do a nice job.”
Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.