Willie Gross seems like a man who can’t stand a honeymoon.
I’m an admirer of Gross, installed four months ago as the latest commissioner of the Boston Police Department. But his war with the American Civil Liberties Union — and, by extension, a network of social justice organizations — is baffling.
Part of the reason Gross is well-liked in Boston’s communities is because he is a man who is not afraid to speak his mind. But taking to Facebook to blast the civil rights groups is, well, far too defensive for a police commissioner.
And it doesn’t square with Gross’ oft-stated commitment to building great relations with the people in the city’s neighborhoods, and the groups that represent them. If this is how he’s going to treat the community, how long are they going to want to deal with him — and help him fight crime?
Now his weekend Facebook missive clouds what until now has been a low-key — and largely problem-free — start as commissioner.
Gross took to his Facebook page over the weekend to blast the ACLU, which was one of a coalition of groups suing the department. His rant had less to do with the suit itself than with the organization that filed it, whom he derided as “paper warriors.’’
The groups are suing for information about a database of gang members maintained by the BPD. They suspect that the standard for being so listed isn’t high, and that the listing is overwhelmingly made up of black and brown males. There are also suspicions that the list might be shared with federal agencies engaged in deporting immigrants.
Gross basically stated that the latte drinkers of the ACLU are nowhere to be found when crime is being fought.
“I sure as hell didn’t see the ACLU in El Salvador working to find a solution to our youth being inducted into the MS-13 Gang and the 18th Street Gang,” Gross wrote.
“Didn’t see the ACLU there or at any of our 22 programs and initiatives for our citizens and youth.
“Despite the paper warriors, we’ll continue to do our jobs. Imagine all of that money spent on a lawsuit. I hope they’re spending the same on philanthropic endeavors for our community, but I doubt that as you’ll never see them unless it’s a March or a protest in which they’re there to justify their existence.”
That was a jaw-dropping reaction to a legitimate conflict.
I am not siding with the ACLU or its partners here. But there is nothing insulting about criminal justice advocates asking questions of a police department. There is no good reason for them to be assailed.
Compared to the frustration they express privately, civil rights advocates and some public officials have been muted in their criticism of Gross. He is a “first,” for one thing.
And he is respected as a great law enforcement officer who is passionate in his love for the community.
I’ve seen Gross in the community firsthand, and few police officers get the kind of love that he does.
But this fight with the ACLU — largely based on a caricature of what it stands for and what it does — didn’t come out of nowhere. It dates back four years.
When the ACLU released a report in 2014, slamming the BPD for racial bias, Gross assailed the group — rightly, I think — for cherry-picking data to reach preordained conclusions. The conclusions drawn from that study were, in fact, dubious.
But what I remember is that, as a person who had spent years on the streets, Gross was personally offended that people he viewed as out of touch were accusing him of bias. The department’s number-two official at the time, he clearly took it personally.
“I’m an African-American chief,” he told me then. “Do you think I’m going to let racial bias go on under my watch and not address it?”
To my ear, there were echoes of that pain in his anti-ACLU post.
To his credit, Gross is his own man. And he is going to challenge the progressive orthodoxy that law enforcement is plagued with racial bias.
But Facebook is not the place to have that debate, and broad-brush attacks on critics are not way to get to a better place. Frankly, a white chief — Gross’ predecessor, Billy Evans, let’s say — would have gotten far more flak than Gross for the same comments. The city needs to have a discussion about criminal justice, not a spitball fight.
If anything, this conflict holds this lesson: The black/progressive community is no political monolith. Amid allegations of racial profiling, the black police commissioner was the one who came out swinging in defense of the cops.
Gross was hailed as a trailblazer when he was appointed. But those who are shocked that he has engaged in this fight are learning that he may defy some of their assumptions about what he stands for.