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Janey fires police commissioner

Move comes amid conflicting accusations of domestic assault

Saraya Wintersmith, GBH News
Janey fires police commissioner
Acting Mayor Kim Janey listens to a reporter’s question during a news conference announcing that she terminated Boston Police Commissioner Dennis White. Photo: Angela Rowlings

Dennis White, who served as Boston’s Police Commissioner for two days before being placed on leave and investigated over 20-year-old domestic violence allegations, has been fired, effective immediately, acting Mayor Kim Janey announced Monday.

“It is clear that Dennis White’s return as commissioner would send a chilling message to victims of domestic violence within our city and reinforce a culture of fear and a ‘blue wall of silence’ within our police department,” Janey said.

The announcement came via a press conference, wherein Janey said White’s admitted behavior of slapping a 19-year-old niece with an open hand in the early 1990s, along with his lack of cooperation during the city-commissioned independent investigation, contributed to her decision.

“Dennis White has repeatedly asserted that the domestic violence allegations against him are false, but stated in his hearing and during the investigation that he has hit and pushed members of his household,” Janey said. “Instead of expressing understanding, regret, growth, or contrition regarding his admitted actions, about domestic violence Dennis White … has continued a campaign to vilify his former wife,” she added.

Janey said Superintendent-in-Chief Gregory Long will continue as the acting interim commissioner for now, but she remained vague about the possibility of appointing another interim commissioner.

Last month, multiple sources reported Superintendent Nora Baston as Janey’s pick to lead the force. Asked about the plans Monday, Janey maintained that she did not officially make that announcement herself.

The acting mayor said she will begin outlining details for process to find the city’s next top cop in the coming weeks.

White’s dismissal concludes five months of political drama and legal maneuvering. It also leaves the nation’s oldest police force with interim leadership as the summer, which traditionally sees an increase in street crime, unfolds.

Janey originally notified the ousted police commissioner of her intention to dismiss him last month. The situation was unprecedented. No Boston mayor in recent memory has forcibly removed a commissioner.

White resorted to the courts to stymie Janey’s efforts to remove him, but was twice rebuffed. The courts ruled that the acting mayor was within her rights to dismiss White, as long as a hearing with proper notice was held to consider the reasons for dismissal.

Two court rulings also suggested White would be free to file a wrongful dismissal lawsuit against the city after his firing.

Such a suit — if filed — is expected to revolve around White’s sworn testimony that former mayor Marty Walsh was aware that White had been accused of domestic violence two decades ago.

Walsh has denied this.

James Shaw, a veteran labor lawyer with Segal Roitman, said the idea of an employee being terminated for a known aspect of his or her personnel file, “does cast a big shadow of doubt” on an employer’s given reason for a termination, but, he added “that’s not inherently unlawful.”

Janey said when White became commissioner, he surrendered his civil service rank and, therefore, is terminated from the BPD completely.

“He’s a Black man falsely accused of crimes, not given a fair trial or a hearing, and then convicted, or terminated, which is the equivalent here,” White’s attorney Nick Carter said.

Janey addressed the allegations of White’s disparate treatment during her press conference saying, racism is “a burden carried by both men and women of color,” and she refuses “to turn a blind eye to domestic violence” against all women.

Carter added that White intends to recover damages “for his own losses and to send the message that this kind of treatment must not be allowed to happen again to anyone.”

Labor attorney Shaw said it’s not unusual for public employees to include defamation claims in their wrongful termination lawsuits. A strong wrongful termination case, he said, needs a compelling set of facts, but must be built upon a solid legal argument.

“There’s a lot of unfair terminations that happen in our modern workplace, that aren’t illegal,” he said in an interview with GBH News. “You need to be able to find some source of law … to establish that the story you’re telling in fact tells the story of something unlawful.”

Rivals weigh in

Janey’s decision was met with a mix of the applause and politically calculated statements from her mayoral opponents and other elected officials.

Anissa Essaibi George, who has secured two major public safety endorsements in the last month, said: “Those in our Boston Police Department and city institutions must be held to the highest standard. Dennis White would not be a part of an Essaibi George administration, and I support his removal as Commissioner.”

Michelle Wu, a hard-line police reform candidate who has ranked high in early political polls, said White’s post-appointment scrutiny was an unfortunate casualty of the city’s pro-reform political climate.

“It is deeply unfortunate that we are having this conversation at this moment in time. Commissioner White is part of a system that is broken to the core, where conversations like this should have occurred much earlier on, as he was part of the department for decades,” Wu said when asked about White’s arguments of disparate treatment. “Boston is now trying to pick up the pieces in what should never have risen to this level to begin with.”

Wu has said the next mayor of Boston should kick off a national search for the city’s next commissioner.

Mattapan-area state Rep. Russell Holmes said Janey’s decision is the right one, though it will most likely come with a high-priced payout for the city.

“I think she should do that sooner than later, make it as transparent as possible … and then we should put this to rest,” he said in an interview with GBH News.

Holmes, who is Black, said he doesn’t believe White’s dismissal has to do with race, but rather a lack of proper vetting in Boston Police promotions.

“We gotta ask ourselves, ‘This wasn’t happening already?’ like it’s some miracle that all the sudden now you’re doing some investigation before you appoint the leaders of our command staff,” Holmes said. “If that was happening before, it was unacceptable, and it’s about time we’ve caught up with something that just makes common sense.”

Andrea Campbell, another police reform advocate, agreed that the search for the next police commissioner should wait until after the election.

“For us to truly transform our police department with new standards of accountability and transparency and build trust, the acting commissioner must continue to lead our police department until the next elected mayor can conduct a rigorous and transparent search for a permanent commissioner to ensure the department can serve the diverse needs of our community,” Campbell said.

John Barros agreed with the dismissal but criticized Janey’s execution.

“Although I do believe that Dennis White can no longer effectively lead the Boston Police Department as commissioner,” Barros said, “acting Mayor Janey should have followed the legal process in place to ensure transparency and accountability. Instead, mismanagement and lack of leadership are front and center.”

South End state Rep. Jon Santiago, who is a candidate for mayor, said ,“Dennis White should never have been nominated and I’m glad to see we’re finally moving beyond the chaos.”

Janey has previously indicated she will establish a committee to outline standards for a new police leadership search process. She has also said the city will, for the first time, propose a sexual assault policy to govern how allegations are handled within the BPD.

Saraya Wintersmith covers Boston City Hall for GBH News.

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