Opinion

Opinion | William J. Bratton and Chuck Wexler

A Boston police commissioner who transformed the profession

Boston Police Commissioner Robert di Grazia talks with a woman outside of South Boston High School about problems in the neighborhood surrounding the federal court-ordered integration of the city’s schools on Sep. 20, 1974.
Bill Ryerson/Globe Staff
Boston Police Commissioner Robert di Grazia talks with a woman outside of South Boston High School about problems in the neighborhood surrounding the federal court-ordered integration of the city’s schools on Sep. 20, 1974.

Robert di Grazia, the former Boston police commissioner who died last week at age 90, was one of the all-time greats in the American policing profession. When he took over the Boston Police Department, in 1972, it was on a downward trajectory. The department was steeped in traditions, but had developed problems, including a major corruption scandal. Di Grazia turned it upside down and launched a wide range of reforms.

In the community, Commissioner di Grazia probably was best known for his rock-steady leadership during the fierce battle over Boston’s school desegregation There was widespread opposition to these desegregation efforts, but on this matter of principle, di Grazia put a strategy in place to enforce the law and protect the children, and he never wavered from it. He was out on the front lines himself, to ensure that everyone knew that the Boston Police Department would protect everyone’s civil rights.

Inside the policing profession, di Grazia is a legend. He was a bold, forward-thinking leader who inspired many others. Shortly before he took charge in Boston, corruption had been unearthed in the police department. Di Grazia quickly forced corrupt officers out, disciplined others, and sent a powerful signal throughout the department that there was a new regime that would not tolerate malfeasance.

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Di Grazia also created reforms in recruitment, training, and promotional processes. He changed the process for selecting the officers who are promoted to sergeant. This had an enormous impact in getting different kinds of people into management. The old promotional system required candidates to memorize various laws. Bob di Grazia’s new system focused on management skills, leadership, and human resources issues, and he introduced oral boards to find the officers who could demonstrate these talents. He also mandated changes that allowed education to count as much as longevity on promotional exams, ushering in a new group of young leaders — many of whom would eventually rise to the highest levels of the BPD and to leadership roles in departments around the country.

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More fundamentally, di Grazia opened up the department to new ways of thinking about the very nature of policing, and the role of police officers. Today, many police chiefs urge their officers to think of themselves not as “warriors,” but as “guardians” of their communities. That was not the conventional wisdom in the 1970s, but Bob di Grazia was the exception. He was famous for saying that police officers are “social workers with guns strapped to their sides.”

Di Grazia wasn’t afraid to question conventional thinking. He sent shock waves in the department by hiring civilians from across the country for his kitchen cabinet. One of these civilians was Gary Hayes, who went on to serve as the first executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. Another was Bob Wasserman, who served as di Grazia’s civilian chief of operations. Wasserman later served in several police departments and has helped countless police chiefs across the country.

Di Grazia was one of the first police leaders to bring sergeants and interns into the commissioner’s office. The two of us shared an office there — a young sergeant and an intern from MIT, enjoying our front-row seats to the sweeping reform initiatives. Our careers, and so many others, would not have been possible without the support we received from Robert di Grazia. We will forever be grateful to him.

Much of what is good about the American policing profession today is the direct result of Bob di Grazia’s transformational leadership and creative vision. He was the right man, at the right time, in the right place — and American policing is much the better for him.

William J. Bratton and Chuck Wexler worked together in the Boston Police commissioner’s office in the 1970s. Bratton later became Boston police commissioner, New York City police commissioner, and Los Angeles chief of police. Wexler is executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.