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Activists question handling of allegations against White

Supporters of Commissioner Dennis White are asking why a dormant, decades-old allegation should derail his promotion

Saraya Wintersmith, GBH News
Activists question handling of allegations against White
Dennis White Courtesy City of Boston

The sudden rise and equally swift public shaming of Boston Police Commissioner Dennis White this week is raising concerns among some of his supporters who worry that they are witnessing an attempt to sabotage the city’s second black police chief.

Mayor Marty Walsh quickly elevated White to the top post following former Commissioner William Gross’ sudden departure last month. White had been Gross’ chief of staff.

Within days of his swearing in, though, White was placed on leave after The Boston Globe inquired about a decades-old domestic violence allegation against him.

Several members of the 2020 Boston Police Reform Task Force who worked with White to devise a slate of recommended changes to Boston Police polices, are asking why a dormant, decades-old allegation should suddenly become a public spectacle and possibly derail White’s ascension.

“I understand why an investigation has to occur,” said Rev. Jeffrey L. Brown, associate pastor of Roxbury’s historic Twelfth Baptist Church, pointing to the rise of the #MeToo movement and the importance of promptly examining allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault.

“I just want to make it clear that however way this continues to get investigated, it cannot become a witch hunt to try to find any little fault that would automatically disqualify Commissioner White from this job,” he said.

The timing and circumstances around Commissioner White’s newly-resurfaced domestic violence allegations have raised multiple, complicated questions that rest at the intersection of history, race, politics and policies within the city and its police department.

Brown served on the 11-member police reform panel Walsh convened to examine Boston Police use-of-force policies, civilian oversight mechanisms and other topics in the wake of sustained protests over racism and police brutality last summer.

Other members of the panel told GBH News they believe White’s race, his participation on the panel and his openness to reforms regarding things like data transparency, press access and officer discipline, made him a lightning rod for resentment from members of the force more resistant to change.

“I don’t think everyone in the law enforcement camp was pleased with his participation with the task force,” said Jamarhl Crawford, a long-time police reform advocate who characterized the resurfaced allegations as a “political hit job” meant to block White’s ascension to the head of the force.

“He was not proven to be violent,” Crawford said. “These are allegations. There’s no charge, there’s no case, there’s no conviction. Meanwhile, the hypocrisy of it all is that if people are concerned about domestic violence in the Boston Police Department, we certainly have hundreds of cases to look at over the years.”

The Globe reported this week that in 1999, a judge issued a restraining order against White after he was accused of pushing and threatening to shoot his ex-wife. There was no evidence that White was charged with a crime.

Marie St. Fleur, a former assistant state attorney general and assistant district attorney, said she finds the timing of the allegation revelations “troubling” and echoed the call for a systemic examination of how domestic violence allegations are handled.

“In my mind, there’s been a spotlight on [White] all these years, but it wasn’t until the other day that that issue was written about and appeared to have become an issue,” she said. St. Fleur added that she did not know enough to draw any conclusions about White’s innocence or guilt.

St. Fleur pointed to the police reform panel’s recommendation that instances of domestic violence “be classified as excessive force,” and said the resurfaced allegations against White underscore the need for more transparency in how accusations against officers are examined, and how the findings are presented to the public.

“To me, this is a systemic issue and it’s really about whether or not we have the appropriate policies and procedures and practices in place in the Boston Police Department that protects the public, that protects the officer and protects the integrity of the system. That is what we should be focused on,” she said.

Joseph Feaster, an attorney and former president of the Boston Branch NAACP, said the allegation against White should not immediately disqualify him from leading the department.

“I abhor domestic violence [and] if he committed domestic violence and was found guilty of being a batterer, you get what you get…that’s not the case here,” Feaster said, pointing to a lack of evidence that the restraining order against White escalated into a criminal matter.

Feaster added that a restraining order could be requested by a partner seeking to gain leverage during contentious legal proceedings.

“The issuance of it does not say that you are guilty of anything,” he said. “If [White] had violated it, I would have a different position.”

Jamie Sabino, an attorney with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute who has worked in the realm of domestic violence and sexual assault for several decades rendered a more cautious opinion, pointing out that although a restraining order isn’t a criminal matter, they are also not doled out like candy to anyone who asks.

“In every aspect of the law, there’s going to be somebody who does something maliciously, but in my experience and talking to the victims … it is not something that people take lightly and the judges really do ask questions,” to try to ascertain the appropriateness of a restraining order, she said.

Asked whether a restraining order should preclude officers from leadership, Sabino said not necessarily.

“I don’t ever want to say ‘no you can’t be a police chief,’ or ‘this has no bearing on being a police chief.’ It’s much more nuanced than that,” she said. “How they respond to [a restraining order] and what they’ve done in their lives since that time, I think, all that has to be taken into account, but I don’t think it should be lightly dismissed,” she said.

Saraya Wintersmith covers Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan for GBH News 89.7.