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Author Dick Lehr recounts a dark chapter of Boston history in “The Fence”

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Author Dick Lehr recounts a dark chapter of Boston history in “The Fence”
(Photo: Sandra Larson)

In the wee hours of Jan. 25, 1995, one of the biggest police chases in Boston history wound through the streets of Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan. The pursuit, involving some 20 police cars, ended with the capture of four murder suspects in a cul-de-sac at the end of Woodruff Way.

But in the course of the arrests, another crime occurred. Mike Cox, a black officer in plain clothes, was brutally beaten by his fellow officers, who had mistaken him for a suspect. When his attackers realized what they had done, they dispersed, leaving Cox alone on the ground, severely injured and bleeding.

Former Boston Globe reporter Dick Lehr’s new book, “The Fence,” documents the events of that night and the ensuing three-year period, during which Cox waited for justice and another officer was tried for perjury. Through it all, the “blue wall of silence” ensured that although nearly 60 officers filed reports about that night, not one took responsibility for the beating or even acknowledged seeing it.

In a recent interview with the Banner, Lehr, now a journalism professor at Boston University, discussed the Cox beating, what the case reveals about race issues and police culture, and why he told the story.

“Most everyone in the book did not want it to be written, which I think is a reason to write it,” he said. “It’s one of the darkest moments in the department’s history, and it’s important to face those rather than bury them.”

As a journalist, he felt an instinctive pull toward the story, he said, which he began covering while on staff at the Globe.

“The drama at the core of it is so compelling, and so eye-opening,” he said. “The shooting, the police chase, the scene at a dead end, four murder suspects.”

He said he understands how, in the heat of the moment, in a high-stakes chase, police officers could make the initial mistake.

“But it just gets worse and worse,” he said. “They mistake Cox for a suspect, but they don’t just stop him and apprehend him — they do a Rodney King on him. And then they scatter and just leave him. Following the beating, they kick into the blue wall of silence.”

In the book, Lehr documents the slew of inadequate responses along the way by nearly everyone that could have made a difference. Police supervisors arriving at the site of the beating failed to treat it as a crime scene. Officers wrote misleading or incomplete reports — in some cases to gain extra glory in the arrests, in others possibly to place themselves far away from the beating. The news media were slow to catch the story. The police commissioner and mayor did little to prevent or disrupt the cover-up.

“I have a lot of respect for [former Boston Police Commissioner] Paul Evans, but I think they mishandled this situation,” Lehr said. “It’s like a case study in how not to handle a tragedy and an injustice like this.”

The book’s subtitle is “A Police Cover-up Along Boston’s Racial Divide,” but this is not a simple case of white against black, according to Lehr. For instance, some of the officers involved in the beating or the cover-up were black.

“That’s the sort of thing that really jolts you,” Lehr said. “This cultural dynamic of not ratting out a fellow officer, this so-called blue wall — it even trumps race.”

“The Fence” makes a compelling case that Kenny Conley, a white cop from South Boston, was one of the good guys in this story and was wrongly convicted of perjury when he steadfastly denied witnessing the beating.

But for Cox, the victim who became a reluctant participant in a battle against the police force he loved, the racial aspect was hard to ignore. As the cover-up continued, Lehr said, and officials did not seem to be investigating wholeheartedly, “Mike came to think, ‘Did they think they could do that and get away with it because I’m black?’”

Fourteen years have passed since Cox was beaten, but Lehr said he believes not much has changed on the Boston police force. Officers he interviewed still take it for granted that telling the truth in such cases makes a cop an outcast.

“Police solidarity is a necessary element,” said Lehr. “It’s tough work, it can be violent, lives are at stake. So backing up one another is important. [But] there’s a flipside and a dark side to it.”

And it’s not just a Boston problem.

“This culture of lying is certainly part of the history of the Boston Police Department, but it’s not unique,” said Lehr. “It’s something you’ll find in departments around the country. It’s something we all have to be aware of, we all have to work against.”

He has a few ideas on how to tackle the problem. First off, the police academy should use the Cox case in their training of new police recruits, if it’s not being done already, he said.

“They have policies,” he said, “but as a way to really get it in your bloodstream,” in-depth study of case histories would be an important method.

Secondly, Lehr said, the department has to zero in on the habitual altering of facts or changing of stories by officers in order to convict a suspect. He mentioned a recent case in Boston, where U.S. District Judge Mark L. Wolf rebuked a prosecutor for failing to disclose to the defense that the arresting officer had told two different stories about the arrest.

Lehr wonders whether the police department is properly investigating the officer, and others like him.

“Is that officer being questioned? I don’t know,” said Lehr. “But if you allow that, what’s called ‘testilying,’ then that’s the slippery slope. It opens the door to all other kinds of lying.”

 “The Fence” is more than an account of crime, punishment and the blue wall. Lehr weaves the life stories of several key characters into the book: Cox, Conley and Robert “Smut” Brown, the black suspect Cox chased to the fence that night, who turned out to be a key witness in the case.

Lehr said he expects the book will reopen some wounds, and maybe heal others, but is unlikely to bring closure.

“I don’t know if there should be closure,” he said. “I don’t think these issues have been adequately dealt with.

“Things spill out in newspapers, not in a chronological way,” he added. “With a book, you have more room to put it in context and to really tell the story, so there’s a real learning possibility. If these things come up again, maybe the response will be different. That’s my ultimate hope.”

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