Joseph M. Jordan, who served as Boston police commissioner during a tumultuous eight years of racial tension and union friction, died Saturday after contracting pneumonia, his family said. He was 91 and lived in the Neponset section of Dorchester.
Mr. Jordan, the first Boston commissioner to rise through the ranks from patrolman to the top job, was appointed by Mayor Kevin H. White in 1976 as the city struggled to find its footing in the divisive aftermath of court-ordered busing to integrate the public schools.
As part of the department’s effort to build bridges to minority neighborhoods, the Community Disorders Unit was created during Mr. Jordan’s tenure to prevent and respond to racially motivated crimes. In addition, the number of minority officers expanded.
Before he became commissioner, Mr. Jordan stood outside South Boston High School in the violent beginnings of busing in 1974, when he served as superintendent in chief and directed police protection of minority students arriving there under a barrage of rocks and insults from outraged local residents.
“It was a challenge for him because he grew up in South Boston and graduated from that high school,” former mayor Raymond L. Flynn said Monday. “At the same time, he made it clear his first obligation was to the law and the safety of all the kids. I don’t know of too many people who have had a more challenging position.”
As commissioner, however, Mr. Jordan was dogged by recurring complaints from minority groups about use of excessive force by his officers, including three fatal shootings of black teenagers in the early 1980s.
Those complaints followed his investigation as superintendent in chief into the 1975 shooting death of James Bowden, a black hospital worker, by two white police officers. The officers were cleared by police, but a federal civil jury later found them to have been at fault.
Mr. Jordan consistently dismissed criticism that he had not done enough to respond to complaints of heavy-handed treatment of minority residents. “There is no police brutality here; it just isn’t done anymore,” he said when he resigned. “I could never please those ultra-liberals.”
Mr. Jordan’s tenure as commissioner also was marked by fractious relations with the police unions as he tried to reorganize and reenergize the department. Over stiff opposition, he pushed for a more visible and interactive presence, putting police back on the street and taking them out of their cruisers.
Part of that legacy continues, said current Police Commissioner William Evans, who began as a police cadet under Mr. Jordan.
“Especially with the special ops, and some of the community policing, I think some of that can be traced back to him,” Evans said. “He did a great job back in that era when the city was a little more crazy. Whether it was organized crime or segregation, there was a lot going on back then.”
Mr. Jordan’s efforts to return to more traditional policing — walking the beat, for example — faced a daunting hurdle in Proposition 2½, a statewide cap on local spending that cut the police budget to $52 million from $70 million in 1981 and reduced his uniformed workforce to 1,595 from 2,108 within a year. Seven district stations were closed as a result.
On the day of his resignation, Mr. Jordan reacted caustically when asked by a Globe reporter for advice for the new commissioner. Make decisions “for the people,” he said, and do “not give a damn about the unions. . . . Every time you turn around, they are taking you to court.”
Mr. Jordan rarely brought the frustrations of the job to the dinner table, his family said. “When he came home, he was just Dad,” said Jolienne Woodford of Braintree, one of his five children.
However, in 1983 he quietly checked himself into an alcohol rehabilitation center in Newport, R.I., for a month of treatment. “Police are under a lot of pressure, and the pressure got to me,” he said at the time.
Mr. Jordan resigned reluctantly in January 1985, one year after Flynn, newly elected to the first of three terms, told the commissioner he wanted to replace him with Lieutenant Francis M. “Mickey” Roache, who led the Community Disorders Unit.
“I told him that the real challenge for me now is to bring the city together,” Flynn recalled. “We had this division in Boston, and nothing else would work unless we moved in another direction.”
Chuck Wexler, who served as Mr. Jordan’s civilian assistant for operations, said the commissioner “recognized when it was time, but he walked out with his head high.” He recalled that when a police superintendent was shot in the chest during a hostage negotiation in 1979, Mr. Jordan was the first to arrive at Faulkner Hospital, where the officer had been rushed for treatment.
Mr. Jordan’s resignation ended a 38-year police career that began as a Boston traffic patrolman shortly after World War II, when he served with the Navy in the Pacific. After he left the department, Mr. Jordan worked for Cass Associates, a security consulting firm.
“He was a cop’s cop,” Woodford said. “I remember, as a child, how he studied for every exam, and how we would all be praying for him.”
Mr. Jordan, the son of Irish immigrants, had been a football and track star at South Boston High School. He developed a passion for golf later in life, played regularly at Norwood Country Club, and traveled to Myrtle Beach, S.C., on golf vacations every spring until health issues forced him to give up the game several years ago, said his son, Joseph Jordan Jr. of Dorchester, a security guard at The Boston Globe.
Woodford said her father remained an avid walker who enjoyed taking his pet boxer on a daily stroll to East Milton Square. He also read and recited poetry, Woodford said.
“He knew ‘Casey at the Bat’ by heart, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade,’ ” his daughter said. “He gave my mom books of poetry on her anniversary.”
Mr. Jordan was recalled as a warm, emotionally generous man by his son.
“He was a great cop and a better father to all his kids and grandkids,” Joseph Jordan Jr. said. “He never forgot a birthday, and he always had envelopes every Christmas for every grandkid. He was a stand-up guy.”
Mr. Jordan is survived by his wife, Jacqueline. In addition to his son, Joseph Jr., and daughter Jolienne Woodford, Mr. Jordan leaves his daughters Jacquelyn Saulen of Dorchester, Janine of California, and Johnna Lowney of Milton; his brother, Robert of Quincy; and 11 grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. Ann’s Church in Neponset.Brian MacQuarrie
can be reached at email@example.com.