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Boston’s top black public safety officials recognized

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1990 and has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Boston’s top black public safety officials recognized
(l-r): Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins, Police Superintendent-In-Chief William Gross, Mayor Martin Walsh, Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts President and CEO Darnell Williams, Deputy Fire Chief Andre Stallworth, Darryl’s Corner Bar Manager Mitch Mitchell, NAACP Boston Branch President Michael Curry and restaurateur Darryl Settles. (Photo: (Ed Geary Jr. photo))

Author: Ed Geary photosBoston Police Superintendent-in-Chief William Gross speaks while (l-r) Darryl Settles, Darnell Williams, Steve Tompkins and state Rep. Gloria Fox listen.

When Superintendent-In-Chief William Gross joined the Boston Police Department in 1983 as a cadet, crack cocaine hit the city’s streets, guns proliferated and police switched from .38 revolvers to Glock 9-mm pistols to keep up with the arms race.

The police needed better relations with the city’s black and Latino communities, where the guns and drugs were centered, but with few people of color in command positions, there was little to work with.

“The relationship between the police department and communities of color was very tumultuous,” Gross recalls.

Today, Gross is second-in-command in the police department, a member of the most diverse command staff in the department’s history. Half of the 24 command staff members are women or people of color. And, as Police Commissioner William Evans points out, “There’s a wealth of wisdom and experience there. Everybody’s well respected.”

Evans, Gross and much of the command staff were present Monday for a fete at Darryl’s Corner Bar and Kitchen celebrating the new diversity in Boston’s public safety agencies. Gross, Sheriff Steve Tompkins and Deputy Fire Chief Andre Stallworth spoke, as did Mayor Martin Walsh.

Police Superintendents Randall Hallstead and Lisa Holmes, and Deputy Superintendents John Brown, Jeffrey Walcott and Michael Cox were among those present.

The shakeup that yielded the diverse command staff happened in the first week of Walsh’s term as mayor when he gave Gross and Evans free rein to build their own team.

“What [Walsh] told us is, ‘You guys have a vast amount of experience in this city. Select your own command staff.’ In a very political town, he has not interfered at all,” said Gross. “In one week, we picked the most diverse and most experienced staff in the department’s history. The average number of years served on this command staff is 29.”

Walsh, who also spoke during the event, underscored his commitment to diversifying city government.

“I made commitments during the campaign that I intend to keep,” he said. “I’m going to continue to work to diversify the Police Department. My commitment with the Fire Department is the same.”

Walsh said the new leadership in the Police Department has yielded good results so far, with shootings down over last year and more guns taken off the streets in the last six months than in all of last year.

The gathering was put together by Tompkins, Urban League President Darnell Williams, NAACP Boston Branch President Michael Curry and real estate developer and restaurateur Darryl Settles.

At the event, Police and Fire department brass mingled with other community members.

“Men like this, they paved the way for me,” Gross said, gesturing toward Darnell Williams and former U.S. Attorney Wayne Budd.

Williams, a former fire commissioner in Springfield, noted that Budd’s father, a WWII veteran, was the first black officer in that city.

Author: Ed Geary photosMichael Curry, Ayoka Drake, and Steve Tompkins enjoy a moment.

“He had a way of talking to you,” Williams said. “He straightened out a lot of us. He really did.”

Gross cites another WWII veteran, the late Police Superintendent Willis Saunders, among his mentors. Gross and Hallstead recalled visiting Saunders shortly before he died in 2012.

“He asked Randy and me if we remembered what he said,” Gross recalled.

“‘People don’t work for you; they work with you,’” Hallstead repeated.

Deputy Fire Chief Stallworth, a Roxbury native who joined the Fire Department in 1991, and the first-ever black deputy fire chief, echoed the sentiment.

“You really do have to work in service of the people who work for you,” he said.

Stallworth, 44, rose rapidly through the ranks in the department, often having to supervise firefighters with more experience than he had. He said the city has changed noticeably in the last 20 years.

“I think the city of Boston is finally starting to feel like a community,” he said. “We’ve come a long way.”

Gross said he saw gains in the 1980s under the leadership of then-chief Francis “Mickey” Roache, who developed a close working relationship with Nation of Islam Minister Don Muhammad and others in the black community.

“It was a tough sell for both sides — law enforcement and the community,” Gross said.

But through dialogue and commitment, the era of community policing was ushered into Boston. Gross credited Nation of Islam Minister Don Muhammad with helping forge better community relations with the police.

“He was definitely instrumental in creating dialogue,” Gross said. “We needed buy-in from the community. There were decades of distrust.”

The progress in the upper ranks of the police and fire departments has been a long time coming. Even under Roche’s command in the ’80s and ’90s, it would have been difficult to imagine the gathering at Darryl’s Corner Bar and Kitchen, with high ranking black public safety officials filling the room.

“This is very significant,” Tompkins said. “It shows the upward mobility for folks of color in two very significant public safety departments. It’s apropos, given that this city has a majority population of color, that you have upper management reflect the city they serve.”

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