The Boston police commissioner is being floated as a potential nominee for head of Homeland Security, but there’s trouble at home, with allegations of rampant racial discrimination in his force.
When two homemade bombs derailed the Boston Marathon on April 15, longtime Mayor Thomas Menino was laid up in Brigham and Women’s Hospital, recovering from his latest setback in a string of recent ailments. The mayor of two decades immediately checked out of critical care to attend police and media briefings; but in a wheelchair with his medical bracelet still snug around his wrist, Menino couldn’t deliver the sort of reassuring rhetoric that Rudy Giuliani did for New Yorkers after September 11, when he stood with rage and pride atop a mountain of World Trade Center wreckage.
With Hizzoner on the sidelines, Americans sought answers from a number of surrogate authority figures, none of whom calmed the public quite like Boston Police Department (BPD) Commissioner Ed Davis. Tall and awkward but confident, with an endearing New England brogue, Davis reached through the news cameras, wrapped his meaty arms around America, and promised a swift response. In the time since, the commissioner has amassed admirers all the way to Capitol Hill; for the accolades, pundits often cite his handling of operations after the bombing, and his coordinating with outside agencies to immobilize the Tsarnaev brothers. Such admiration is now fueling reports that Davis may be considered to head the Department of Homeland Security—even though his hero status on the national scene is based more on a hunch about the commissioner’s character than on his actual abilities.
While people elsewhere are still gushing over how Davis nabbed the Marathon villains, sentiments toward his department have soured in Boston. This summer has been bloody far beyond the bombings, with more than 100 shootings since April and a recent high-profile homicide that’s salted fragile wounds, dominated headlines, and sent Davis scrambling to save face. All this while officers of color, outraged after years of failed attempts to bolster BPD diversity, publicly decry the commissioner. For his critics, it’s unfathomable that Davis—with his reluctance to address institutional turmoil—would be allowed to stay in his current position, let alone be promoted to a top spot within the national security apparatus.
The gloves finally came off on August 7. Along with their spouses and a chorus of supporters, members of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers (MAMLEO) packed the banquet room of their shabby clubhouse in Dorchester. MAMLEO President Larry Ellison held a press conference to air his group’s latest grievance—that the week before, five white officers were promoted to supervisory positions while nine equally qualified candidates of color were denied promotions. The fight for equality in city hiring has raged eternally in Boston, and Ellison turned up the heat by declaring that the members of MAMLEO—a federation comprising black, female, Asian, and Latino officers—had cast a vote of “no confidence” in Davis.
The BPD withholds its personnel data, and consistently dodges inquiries about diversity within its ranks. Sourced estimates, however, suggest that more than 90 percent of lieutenants and captains are white, while even Davis has acknowledged a disparity in the number of superior officers of color. At the MAMLEO presser, City Councilor Charles Yancey, an African-American who has represented the crime-ridden Mattapan neighborhood for three decades, expressed frustration over the futility of this ongoing fight. “How can we have a city of Boston that’s 53 percent people of color,” asked Yancey, “and not have one person of color heading up any of the 11 police districts?”
Others piled on. At the same press conference, Boston NAACP President Michael Curry conceded that he’d recently thanked Davis for “not responding to the initial reports in the media that the bombers were ‘dark-skinned.’” His praise ended there; Curry, hardly known as a firebrand or radical, tore into the commissioner’s record on everything from hiring to illegal civilian searches, going so far as to say that members of the BPD gang unit have personally told the NAACP that they’ve been given orders to violate the rights of young black men.
Of the many charges against Davis, one prominent knock has been on the commissioner’s reluctance to hold cops accountable for using lethal force. Controversy has especially stemmed from his failure to censure an officer named Michael McManus, who in 2008 initiated the violent arrest of a college student who died after cops tackled him. Two years later McManus was involved in the beating of an unarmed black teen. The incident was caught on camera. Even after the video went viral, prompting protests and widespread condemnation, McManus kept his job, and this year went on to earn a BPD medal of excellence for his “continued dedication to duty and professionalism.” At the same ceremony, only two officers were awarded higher honors. Their accomplishment: killing Mark Fernandes McMullen, an unarmed black suspect who, after speeding away from an accident, police chased 17 miles out of Boston before shooting through his driver’s side window.
With those and other fatal incidents cast in the background, members of MAMLEO also expressed frustration about the recent reaction to the kidnapping and stabbing death of a 24-year-old woman named Amy Lord. A white resident of South Boston, Lord seemingly attracted more news coverage than did all of this summer’s victims of color combined. In the hysteria, Davis stripped a cop named Jerome Hall-Brewster of his detective shield after learning that he had ignored leads from a previous crime that could have helped arrest Lord’s alleged killer months ago. In addition to circumventing due process by abruptly demoting Brewster—a MAMLEO member—the commissioner added to the consternation of Hall-Brewster’s fellow black officers by announcing the decision in front of a cheering white crowd at a South Boston elementary school.
Davis has made several past commitments to diversify his upper ranks and to address interracial tensions in the BPD. Nevertheless; in his latest round of hiring, his brass passed up all qualified applicants of color. After Ellison contacted the media, the commissioner promoted two minority officers; for MAMLEO, though, the gesture was too little and disappointingly late. At his press conference, Ellison was asked about the possibility of Davis heading the Department of Homeland Security. “Why would you let somebody take care of the homeland,” he said, “when they can’t take care of things at home?”
At a May congressional hearing about the marathon attacks, Davis testified that BPD investigators had no prior access to federal reconnaissance on the suspect activities of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was on the watch lists of at least three national agencies. In response, an FBI supervisor contradicted the commissioner, instead telling reporters that regional authorities were in fact privy to the intelligence in question. Meanwhile; as Davis and the feds point fingers at each other, the whole truth remains a mystery. Members of the House Committee on Homeland Security have been unsuccessful in trying to compel the FBI to share relevant information, while earlier this month the bureau cleared itself of any wrongdoing after an internal review.
Though Davis emerged from that hearing in D.C. looking competent compared to the feds—for that he can partially thank members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, who have aimed their aggravation at the FBI—in Boston, his superstar aura has eroded. In late May, news broke that prior to the bombings, the family of Carlos Arredondo—the much-ballyhooed hero in the cowboy hat who hurried in to rescue victims in the aftermath of the attack—had been targeted by BPD detectives: along with other antiwar activists including members of the groups CODEPINK and Veterans for Peace, Arredondo’s wife Melida had been followed by police and labeled an “extremist.” (Carlos appears to have been spared that particular designation, but was arrested outside of BPD headquarters during the 2009 funeral procession for former Senator Ted Kennedy, only to have the charges dropped). It’s unknown whether the BPD could have better coordinated with federal authorities to stop the Tsarnaev brothers sooner. The irony, however, is both certain and damning—Boston cops were surveilling peaceniks, including Arredondo, rather than the terrorists who bombed the marathon.
Considering his own department’s problems with privacy, racial sensitivity, and dealing with the FBI, it’s hard to imagine that Davis would do better steering Homeland Security, a department that is infinitely more complex than his current operation. Then again, reality is awfully subjective in the national-security community—particularly when it comes to popular post-calamity celebrities like Davis. Even after he was excoriated for neglecting to improve emergency response preparations in the years leading up to 9-11, Giuliani has gone on to make millions as a private-security consultant. Of course, his police commissioner through the World Trade Center attacks, Bernie Kerik, didn’t make out quite as well; after lying to White House screeners in his own vetting to head Homeland Security, Kerik was jailed for four years on corruption charges.
Besides Davis, the other marquee name floated for the Homeland Security gig is current New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. While not quite the megalomaniac that Kerik was, Kelly is assumed vulnerable due to his department’s stop-and-frisk policy, which a federal judge recently declared to be unconstitutional. Other names will surface, some of whom will be qualified contenders. None of them, however, will have had anywhere close to as much flattering publicity as Davis has enjoyed this year. Considering the sound-bite circuses that pass for congressional hearings these days, there’s no reason to assume that any of the stains on the commissioner’s record would come up in the appointment process. Of course, if they had any sense, they’d headhunt somebody whose city wasn’t bombed in the first place.