By Seth Daniel
Special to the Gazette
Police Commissioner William Evans announced at a press conference on July 23 that he would resign from his post as commissioner to spend more time with his family and to be the head of public safety at Boston College (BC).
At the same time, Mayor Martin Walsh announced the historic appointment of the first African American police commissioner, current Chief William Gross, to take the reins of the Boston Police Department.
Evans will depart on Aug. 4, and Gross will become the commissioner on Aug. 5. He will serve as interim commissioner until he can be officially sworn in.
The news had been kicking around the community for some time, with many insiders beginning to speak about such changes as far back as late May. However, despite some unfounded Boston media reports, nothing had become certain until this past week when Commissioner Evans signed an agreement with BC and notified the mayor of his intentions.
“I wanted to let everyone know that I’m going to resign as Boston Police Commissioner,” said an emotional Evans at the outset, his brothers in the front row, including former Commissioner Paul Evans.
“I can’t really say I’ve had a day in my career where I woke up and didn’t want to go to work,” he continued. “There aren’t a lot of people who can say that. This was a hard decision for me. You can ask my wife. We sat down more times talking about whether I should go or not go. In my heart and in my soul I’ll always be a Boston policeman, but at the same time I have to do what’s best for my family and take a step back. This department is in a good place under Mayor Walsh and no one cares more about public safety than the mayor.”
Mayor Walsh said Commissioner Evans was the most important decision he made coming into office, appointing him in 2014 to take the helm.
“I’m immensely proud of appointing Billy Evans as police commissioner,” he said. “It was an important, if not the most important, decision I made. It was the right decision. He is one of the best police commissioners in the country and I would argue one of the best in Boston’s history…In our first year together we had the events in Ferguson, Missouri. That changed the conversation around the country on policing. There was a lot of anger and we had already made the commitment to police-community relations, but it really changed how policing is done.
I’m proud to say we made difficult decisions in our police department.”
Mayor Walsh did immediately announce his replacement, and that came in the historic appointment of Chief William Gross as the first African American commissioner of the Boston Police.
“I also have an historic announcement today; I’ll be appointing Chief Willie Gross as the next police commissioner,” he said. “Chief Gross is a proven leader whose trusted and respected in the community. He’s a 33-year veteran of the department and has experience on the command staff…The important thing here is consistency. We’re losing a great leader today and bringing in an incredible leader right behind him so the people of Boston and the Boston Police Department won’t lose that consistency…Chief Gross is the right person to assume this command. I’m proud to appoint him as Boston’s first African American police commissioner. That means a lot to the city and shows progress and concrete impacts. Chief Gross is a leader in our communities of color and brings trust and understanding. People turn to him for advice. He’s the right person at the right time for this job.”
Gross said the biggest challenge will be “senseless youth violence,” and talked a lot about the concept of a “village.” He even delved into his own past, having been raised by a single mother who came to Boston from Baltimore. He said the community supported her in raising three children, and he hopes that such a village can help end the violence on some of Boston’s streets.
“(My mother) raised us as single parent, but I never grow weary of saying I was raised by my parents,” he said. “The definition of that other parent is the community – Vietnam vets, teachers, coaches, both good and bad from the community – that’s what helped raise me. The positive crime stats the commissioner detailed; that’s not just BPD, that’s all of us. Boston is the best village in the country. We’re the hub of the universe. The country started from here. So, women like my mother come here and are reinforced by the community and we can do that for every family in Boston. One homicide is too much. One senseless act of violence is too much. So, we can do it, but we have to walk towards each other so we can step forward together and overcome any obstacle we face in this city.”
The incoming commissioner began as a Police Cadet in 1983, and then took his first assignment as a Boston Police Officer in 1985 in Dorchester. He worked his way up the ranks through the gang unit and Youth Violence Strike Force and described himself as a “true street cop.”
He’s often seen at crime scenes, and is noted for interacting with the public at such places – as well as in more relaxed settings like neighborhood socials and flashlight walks.
He has been on the command staff for nearly 10 years, and has been Evans’s chief for four years.
Many asked the mayor if the appointment helped to send a message about race relations in Boston between the police and many of the communities.
“As we think of the next level of policing and the next level of building trust in Boston, it sends a message of how we want to build relationships in the community,” said the mayor. “Every young person will read the paper or Twitter today and be able to think this could be them some day. It’s a big statement for the Police Department and the City…Does this solve racism and all the perceived and perceptions of racism? No it doesn’t. This is one more step in working toward a better society.”
Incoming Commissioner Gross said it helps in moving forward from the “negative history” of the past.
“There was negative history going back to the `50s, `60s, `70s and `80s, but through the vision of forward thinking leaders to bring on community policing, it changed us from being the warrior class, throwing the cuffs on and lock them away, to where we work collaboratively with the community,” he said. “We truly believe that. When you are able to look someone eye to eye and not dismiss negative experiences that may have happened in the past, acknowledge and respect them, then you are on a level playing field where you can discuss things…What we have in Boston is a vision. Where do we want to be? We don’t want to be like the past. Those are teachable moments, but we want to go forward.”
And forward it is.