Boston names first black police commissioner, but activists say there’s still a lot of work to do

William Gross made history on July 23 when he became Boston’s first ever black police commissioner. Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced Gross’s  appointment, which will begin on August 5. Both Walsh and outgoing commissioner William Evans had glowing words for Gross and his 33 year career at the Boston Police Department.

“I don’t think the city has seen a police leader as loved and trusted in the community as Chief Gross,” Walsh said.

Gross has  earned a reputation as an affable, charming, and ever-present figure in Boston.

Tito Jackson, the former city councilor who ran for mayor against Walsh last year, also praised the appointment in the Boston Herald, saying “It’s a good day.” However, Jackson also added that Gross still has some challenges ahead of him. “Commissioner Gross will have important work to do in continuing to diversify the police department, to make some structural changes, but I know that he’s up to the task. We can continue down the path of trust-building, working with young people in the community, and ensuring the whole city of Boston is safe,” Jackson stated.

It’s a sentiment that reflects many local activists’ attitudes. The idea that Gross will be the commissioner is a good step forward, but it is still only a step.

While Evans has also received praise as he exits the role, his final year as commissioner leaves Gross with a lot to handle. Homicide rates in Boston are up by 50 percent from last year despite an overall drop in crime, according to The Crime Report. (Universal Hub, a community news site for the Boston area, counted 30 murders in 2018 so far, mostly men of color. And, as revealed by The Washington Post, Boston police are far more likely to solve cases involving a white victim than a black victim — the BPD sees the worst disparity in the country, in fact.) Last year, a Boston Magazine report also revealed that the police fail to solve 96 percent of non-fatal shootings. Additionally, the police force remains mostly white even though Boston’s population is mostly non-white.

In response to these concerns, over 60 activists gathered together in a corner of Franklin Park on Friday, July 27, to voice that they want the police to do better for Boston’s underserved communities of color.

“Yes, I’m happy that we have a black commissioner, said Monica Cannon-Grant to the crowd over a microphone. “[But] just being a black face has never benefited black people. If he’s not gonna get in there and hold people accountable, we still lose.”

Cannon-Grant is the founder of the nonprofit Violence in Boston. She assembled the rally, which she called a State of Emergency for Black and Brown Lives, with support from groups like Teen Empowerment, Black Lives Matter Boston and March for Our Lives. In addition to the increase in violence, Cannon-Grant also blasted policies that prevent shooting victims who police label as criminals from receiving victim compensation, especially since, in her view, police are too ready to call most violence gang related.

At the event, two members of Teen Empowerment led the crowd in a group activity where they shook hands, exchanged names, and swapped stories of how local violence affected their communities or took their loved ones. Many in the crowd wore badges or shirts with the names and faces of victims.

One such person was Lisa Robinson, leader of the Greater Boston chapter of Parents of Murdered Children. Robinson expressed the same cautious optimism as other activists. “I’m hoping that there will be some change because Commissioner Gross has been active in our community,” she said. “But I also am aware and realistic in the fact that I know it’s more than just him [on the police force].”

Robinson is a Boston native and logtime anti-violence activist. She lost her daughter to gun violence in South Carolina. Her family had moved south to escape  violence in Boston. Robinson’s family returned to Boston and she rejoined the activist scene.

Robinson wants the new commissioner to emphasize community policing that would build rapport between the police and residents. “I would love to see a return to ‘feet-beat’ community policing. I would love to see a return of police officers who are getting to know the people in the community on a one-on-one basis,” Robinson said. “People might be more willing to speak to someone they are more familiar with and more comfortable with.”

Nate McLean-Nichols, who also raps under the name Nate Nics, grew up in Roxbury and Dorchester and noted that violence doesn’t only affected those directly involved. “If one person gets hurt or is a victim of violence, it affects 20 people that know them.” McLean-Nichols said violence has affected many of his friends and classmates, from those who were involved in gang activity to those who were victims of it. The 20-year-old added that since graduating high school, he and his friends who aren’t involved in violent activity sometimes say to themselves, “We’re the ones that survived.”

“It’s morbid,” McLean-Nichols said. “It’s very clear that police officers are dropping the ball,” McLean-Nichols said, referring to the low number of solved homicides and shootings. He added that while it might be true that community members aren’t being as cooperative as police would like them to be, the police should still be able to close more cases if they are doing their jobs properly.

Also in the crowd was Domingos DaRosa, a former candidate for city council, a long-time anti-violence activist, and a recent shooting victim. The incident occured in June. Darosa and his siblings were dropping tools off at their mother’s house in Dorchester when  a bullet hit Darosa’s leg and another hit his brother. DaRosa said that he drove his brother and himself to the hospital, and was upset that the police seemed more interested in questioning him about the incident and attributing it to gang activity than getting them medical care. “I’m a freaking victim, they’re treating me like I’m the freaking culprit,” Da Rosa told WBZ at the time of the incident.

Despite his experience with the police, Darosa says he believes in Gross, who he met when Gross was serving on the gang and drug control unit. .

“He’s actually gonna give some people in the community that uplifting, that will to [say] ‘I can talk to him directly, I don’t gotta go through the red tape’ … And that’s what we need,” Darosa said.

At the press conference announcing his promotion, Gross emphasized the importance of community policing, and praised the BPD’s work in this area. “We’re the number one community policing model in the country,” he said.

Gross has worn several hats at the BPD, including street patrol in Dorchester and East Boston, in the gang unit, and has instructed at the police academy for two years. In 2014, he was named Evans’s second-in-command, becoming the first black superintendent-in-chief.

Gross said he was nervous and excited about his most recent promotion. He thanked his mother, who raised him and his two sisters on her own in Dorchester. He also praised the community of Boston that raised him, from the schoolteachers to the Vietnam vets to the sports coaches.

“I am confident that people will have our back at the BPD, and have my back going forward as the police commissioner of the city of Boston,” Gross said.

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