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Adrian Walker

The color of justice in Suffolk County may soon be black

Suffolk Country Sheriff Steve Tompkins.Bill Brett for the Boston Globe/File 2015

Since primary night last week, Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins has been fielding phone calls he’s never gotten before, from people around the country asking to know Boston’s secret.

His callers have noted that come January, Boston could see something unprecedented: African-Americans in the roles of sheriff, police commissioner, and district attorney. Essentially, the entire leadership of this city’s law enforcement apparatus — from investigation to incarceration — could be in the hands of people of color.

“I’m excited,” Tompkins said Tuesday. “Because the city is awake. The city is alive. The city is vibrant. When people ask what we’re doing that’s different, I just tell them, the whole climate has changed.”


Boston Police Commissioner William Gross and Tompkins are already in place, of course. Rachael Rollins won the Democratic primary for district attorney, and faces independent Michael Maloney in the final in November.

The potential change strikes such a nerve largely because of the close connection between law enforcement and communities of color. For those who believe the system is chronically insensitive — or worse — to poor people and communities of color, this moment looms as a watershed.

“We’ve said it’s basically a two-tiered system — one for them and one for us — and we have an opportunity to make it one system,” said Horace Small, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods.

“Now they’ve been given the responsibility of creating a model that is inclusive, that listens, that understands. All the things we have critiqued the system for not doing.”

Though Tompkins has been in office since 2013, this scenario would have seemed unlikely even a few months ago. But Gross was appointed by Mayor Martin J. Walsh to replace the highly regarded William Evans earlier this summer, and Rollins easily won the Democratic primary last week.


“It’s a transformative moment in the city’s history that should be celebrated,” said Rahsaan D. Hall, of the American Civil Liberties Union. ”But it shouldn’t be seen as a panacea to the city’s race issues.”

Hall said the change will be far more than symbolic. “I think there will be greater levels of empathy around the way communities of color, and in particular black communities, are policed and prosecuted and treated while detained. I think it sends a very strong message.”

But he predicted that the officeholders will face challenges as well, from supporters and skeptics alike.

“I think there are heightened expectations from people in the black community that the three of them will somehow magically undo a history of white supremacy and racism that developed over generations,” said Hall, a former Suffolk County prosecutor. “And I think there’s always a question about resistance within the ranks, because they are seen as unqualified or undeserving.”

For her part, Rollins stressed that she has not been elected yet. But she said she believes this is a moment to address longstanding inequities in the criminal justice system, including the over-prosecution of many nonviolent offenses.

“I think it is an amazing opportunity to have a completely different lens looking at problems and issues that overwhelmingly focused on certain communities.”

Certainly, there seems to be public support for reform. Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a sweeping criminal justice reform bill — a measure initially opposed by most of the state’s district attorneys, including outgoing Suffolk DA Dan Conley. Among other changes, it wiped out many minimum-mandatory sentences and substantially increased programs to divert young offenders from the criminal justice system.


More broadly, the notion that police and prosecutors charge and incarcerate too many people — and that the brunt of that activity is borne by communities of color — has moved from the fringes to the mainstream.

Activists hope that the presence of African-Americans in crucial, decision-making roles will further their cause.

Gross said he views the change as deeply significant in light of the city’s racially troubled history. But he stopped well short of predicting an instant transformation in the ways justice is delivered.

“Some people do have to be locked up,” Gross said. “What’s different is that we’re trying to help families instead of ostracizing them, and to get to the root causes of what causes (people) to commit crimes in the first place.”

The real change, Gross suggested, is that voters are now willing to see past color in a way they weren’t before.

“Nobody’s blinking an eye,” Gross said. “It’s just about can you do the job.”

That, in itself, represents dramatic change.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.