Mayor Marty Walsh marked the end of a short but honorable era in Boston with a historic appointment on Monday. As the city bade farewell to Police Commissioner William Evans, who’s retiring after four-and-a-half years at the helm, Walsh named William Gross as the first-ever African-American commissioner.
Evans leaves a successful track record of both enforcement and community engagement for Gross to build on. There’s still work to be done diversifying the department and in improving relationships with neighborhoods. But the department Evans leaves behind is stronger than he found it, a testament to his good works.
Rumors of Evans’s retirement first surfaced three weeks, ago in a WBZ report, which both Walsh and Evans vehemently denied at the time. It is regrettable that, in the midst of an ongoing national struggle against a flood of disinformation, officials refused to be honest with the press.
Be that as it may, Evans, a 38-year veteran of the force, had a successful and honorable tenure as its leader. While the number of murders is higher compared with last year, overall crime is down. Evans’s emphasis on community policing has paid off in earning most Bostonians’ trust and in making key connections in the neighborhoods. Evans also launched a modest — yet critical —
effort to diversify the ranks when he revived the police cadet program.
Perhaps more important, Evans helmed the department steadily through a time of unprecedented public scrutiny of the police. He avoided major controversies of the type that set other cities ablaze. For instance, three years ago Evans moved quickly to release video of a police shooting that left a suspect dead in Roslindale. The video, shown to African-American leaders and activists, contradicted an allegation that the suspect had been shot in the back. That Evans has generally kept the peace is especially laudable in a city where the population is 55 percent nonwhite, yet the police department is two-thirds white, including most of its superior officers.
In naming Gross, Evans’s second in command and a local figure beloved by the community, Walsh made the right call. Gross’s promotion also bodes well for police reform. The most pressing issue he inherits is the pending body-worn camera program for the 2,200-
Shekia Scott and Segun Idowu, cofounders of the Boston Police Camera Action Team, recalled that Gross was the first department officer who sat down with them to discuss their efforts to bring officer-worn cameras to the city, at a meeting in January 2015. “A half-hour meeting turned into two-and-a-half hours,” said Idowu. “He cancelled meetings to keep talking to us about it.” Gross was among the first to wear the device as a volunteer, nearly two years ago, even before a pilot program began.
With his warm smile and larger-than-life presence, Gross has a knack for bringing people together, a skill that cannot be underestimated. At the Free Speech rally last summer, for instance, Gross could be seen among the crowd of counterprotestors taking selfie after selfie.
Gross’s appointment as the first African-American commissioner is a positive step in a city that often takes steps backward when it comes to race. He promises to be a model for an even more open and engaged Boston Police Department.