Most police officers do. It’s called human nature. The ACLU is in the business of criticizing police practice and procedure, and sometimes individual police officers, presumably to make them more accountable to the Constitution and more respectful of, naturally enough, civil liberties.
But because, as Gross complained, the ACLU is always pointing out what it says the police do wrong without balancing those criticisms with the occasional bit of praise or an acknowledgment of the difficulty of their job, the ACLU comes off to most cops as a relentless scold, an organization that, by trying to throw up obstacles to some aspects of police work, can seem more on the side of the bad guys than the good guys.
You might think that is simplistic, and not very nuanced, but you probably wouldn’t think so if you were a police officer. The police and the ACLU often have an antagonistic, adversarial relationship, and Gross’s complaints were, not surprisingly, antagonistic and adversarial.
Gross’s initial post was on his personal Facebook page, and it’s certainly true that he should know that as a public figure with a very high profile, virtually nothing he does or says, especially on social media, is going to stay private very long.
But it is instructive that Gross intended his criticism of the ACLU to be personal, the opinion of him as an individual, not a policy statement by the city’s top cop. And his opinion is widely shared by other police officers. That doesn’t necessarily make him right. It makes him a cop. And human.
You can certainly argue that by forcing the police to maintain a balanced approach to civil liberties, the ACLU is actually helping the police by improving their reputation in the communities they serve. But it’s a rare police officer who sees it that way. They see it as the ACLU making it harder to do their jobs and keep people safe.
While Gross’s critics have dismissed his missive as thin-skinned, especially his complaint that ACLU officials are “paper warriors” detached from the realities that police face on the street, some critics may not know the background of a very specific reference he made to the near-fatal shooting of police Officer John Moynihan in 2015.
After Moynihan and other members of the gang unit stopped a vehicle on Humboldt Avenue in Roxbury, a career criminal named Angelo West emerged from the car and shot Moynihan point-blank in the face. West ran away, firing back, then was shot and killed by Moynihan’s fellow officers.
Later, an aggressive, hostile crowd gathered at the scene and showered Gross with vile abuse, with some black protesters calling him the N-word. Gross’s loyalty to his race was challenged in the most obscene way. He maintained his composure and kept control of the crime scene, and his professionalism and restraint then is one of the reasons Mayor Marty Walsh tapped him to become police commissioner.
But that encounter was burned into Gross’s consciousness. One of his officers was down, in the hospital with a bullet hole his head, and he had to listen to people suggest he was an Uncle Tom because police had just shot a black man who tried to kill a cop.
“I sure as hell saw a member of the ACLU in the background take pictures as a certain group tried to crash through the crime scene three hours” after the shooting, Gross wrote in his now-infamous Facebook post. He felt the ACLU was there, just waiting for the cops to screw up.
John Ward, a spokesman for the ACLU of Massachusetts, said his organization is not aware of any photos from that confrontation.
“No one was there on behalf of the ACLU,” Ward said. “Many current and former ACLU staff live in the City of Boston and someone may have been there in their personal capacity.”
Whoever it was, it really bothered Willie Gross. It bothers him to this day. And he blew off some steam in a way he probably shouldn’t have. Like the post itself, it’s personal.
There may be a teaching moment here. Maybe some of the ACLU’s lawyers could do a ride-along with members of the gang unit, and the cops could explain what they look for, and the lawyers could tell them what might be legally problematic.
At the very least, there’s an opportunity for Gross and Carol Rose, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, to sit down, together, without cameras and microphones, and just talk. Rose is game.
“I’m always open for a beer summit,” she said.