Police Commissioner William G. Gross said Tuesday that he will focus his department’s efforts on combating street crimes, calling “senseless youth violence” an enduring concern in Boston’s neighborhoods.
In his first sit-down interview since he was sworn in as the city’s 42nd commissioner Monday, Gross listed a range of priorities, from diversifying his command staff to making the department more transparent, and increasing wellness programs for police officers who witness trauma on city streets.
But he agreed that street violence in certain neighborhoods remains a key concern, even as overall crime and shootings have declined in recent years.
“One homicide is too many, we know that, we believe that,” Gross said during a 20-minute interview at police headquarters. “We know we have more work to do.”
The city has seen 32 murders this year, compared to 29 at this time last year, according to police data released Tuesday.
Last month, a Washington Post investigation found Boston at the top of the list of cities nationwide with lower clearance rates for murders with black victims compared to white ones. In Boston, the killings of white residents are solved at twice the rate of black victims, according to the report.
In the interview, Gross took issue with the suggestion that race plays a role in police investigations. In recent years, police commanders in Boston have attributed the low clearance rates in homicides to the lack of cooperation they have received in certain murders, particularly when gangs are involved.
Gross acknowledged that police need to do more to build trust with residents so that they will be willing to cooperate, specifically in minority communities that have a history of friction with police.
“There’s still distrust in the community, I’m telling you right now, as someone from the community,” said Gross, who made history as the city’s first black commissioner.
Gross said, however, that the department better reflects the diversity of the city than it did decades ago. “I would not have been commissioner back then,” he said.
Gross did not lay out any specific new stragegies, but said generally that he will work to educate the community about the department’s goals and objectives. That means making the department more transparent, he said, by holding more community meetings in local districts and letting residents know what programs are available, as well as who their area commanders are.
He said Boston police have created a national model in community policing, though he acknowledged there is more work to do to better diversify the department, so that officers also represent the city’s changing ethnic communities, such as a growing Somali community. He wants more young officers that speak Mandarin, he said.
“I want officers from every neighborhood,” he said. “That’s how you get the biggest and best community policing model.”
He added that police must educate residents that they are acting on their behalf.
“We have to address that distrust, and the only way to address it is through education,” he said. “We have to let people know we’re a different department from the days of yore.”
At the same time, Gross said, community members cannot buy into the notion that police will not work to help them, calling it a scare tactic employed by criminals who don’t want residents to talk to police.
“Criminals love when police and the community are at a disconnect,” he said, pointing to the gang and crack cocaine wars that tore through the community in the early 1990s, with murders topping out at 152 in 1994. It took a community response — of clergy members and police working with other community leaders, known since as the Boston Miracle — to help combat crime, just as it will today, Gross said.
“We’re succesful when we’re working together,” he said.
Above all, Gross said, police and city officials must do more to help at-risk families, so that their youngsters are not lured into street crime. Or so that adults do not have to resort to crime to support their families.
“We, as a society, need to help those families that have challenges and need assistance,” he said, taking issue with what he called a perception in society that certain communities are used to violence.
“No family, no matter what color, is used to acts of violence,’’ he said. “No family is used to poverty. No family is used to being isolated.”
A 33-year veteran of the department, Gross succeeds William Evans, who retired last week after 38 years with the force, nearly five of them as commissioner.
Gross, the middle of three children, was raised by a single mother in Dorchester, after the family moved from Maryland when he was 12. Within seven years, he had joined the police cadet program, and rose through the ranks to head the training program and the gang unit. He oversaw the night shift, and he served as superintendent-in-chief, or the top assistant to Evans, for the past five years.Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.