Incoming police commissioner shares insights
Michael Cox, superintendent of the Ann Arbor, Michigan Police Department, has been tapped to head the Boston Police Department. Cox, who started out as a patrolman in Boston in 1989, spent more than 30 years in the department, rose to the rank of superintendent and headed the Internal Affairs Division, the Bureau of Professional Development and the Police Academy.
In 1995, while working in plainclothes, Cox was assaulted by fellow officers who mistook him for a suspect. He eventually sued the department, winning a $1.25 million settlement.
Cox spoke with the Banner last week about his experiences in law enforcement and his vision for Boston’s police department.
What made you decide to come back to Boston for this job?
Do you ever really need a reason to come back home? For me, there’s an opportunity here. I didn’t really think about it. The reality is, if I’m going to work this hard leading a department, why not do it where I’m from? Why not do it in a place I understand far better than any other place. So for me, it seems to be a perfect match. Now that I’m here, I think it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.
How did growing up in Roxbury influence your approach to policing?
When I joined the police department, it wasn’t very diverse. I joined the department with the understanding that you have to treat everybody with respect and dignity. You need to understand people and you need to talk to people. When a police department is not diverse, people make a lot of mistakes because they just don’t know anything about the cultures that they are around. What I learned is, when you come on this job, you need to talk to people, and you need to treat everybody with respect. You’re going to learn more about them. And then you’re going to come to understand that you have more in common than you have differences. And so you’re not going to make the mistake of vilifying somebody just because they’re different. It’s easy to be perceived as something else. Perceptions can easily be wrong.
What are some new approaches to policing you might want to implement?
For me, it’s going back to the roots of community policing and making sure officers are out in communities and talking to people — not out there to enforce laws, but out there to build relationships. It should be a two-way street. We should be hearing from the public and what they need, and we should also be trying to inform them and providing some additional services. Policing is, to some segments of our population, this mystical thing they don’t really understand. We need to do a very good job of explaining some of our procedures, why we do what we do, explain what policing is so the public understands, so we can get some good dialogue and feedback on whether or not we need to change some of that stuff. These things can’t happen if we don’t have conversations.
What steps do you think the city can take to make the police department more reflective of Boston’s diversity?
The more we get officers out into the community, the more we’re able to attract people from those communities. We’re going to demystify the job and also let people know that this is a great job and there’s good people doing this job, so we can attract people from all walks of life and help us diversify in new ways. We’ll look at some barriers and impediments that might be getting in the way of not only attracting people to our job, but getting them on the job. It might be easier for some people to become a doctor or a lawyer than it is to pass a background check. Is that appropriate? So maybe we need to look at and reevaluate a lot of things.
You’ve said, in effect, that you know the 1995 incident is something that happened to you, but it’s not who you are. What did you mean by that?
I think it’s really not about police. I think anybody who’s ever been a victim of a crime or an incident — there’s some trauma that goes on. You have to own that it happened to you. But the fact is, it can victimize you the rest of your life. You can learn from it. Own it. Do something with your life. Basically, just have a good and powerful and positive life once you’re able to move on, move forward. I’ve tried to do that.
Unfortunately, because the incident was newsworthy, it’s brought back quite a bit. I dealt with it. I went back to school. I didn’t really talk about it, but that’s how I dealt with it. I got up every day. I worked another 20-something years in the organization, determined not be a victim in that way, and determined to at least try to address some of these things that could create an atmosphere where that can happen. I know people will want to tell the story, but the reality is for me, I think I’m a lot more than that. I would like to be known not as having been a victim, but for the successes in changing police departments, working with the public and having the public actually believe and have faith in policing.
You’re taking the reins at BPD as the city council and criminal justice advocates are calling for a reduction in the police department budget. What’s your response to these calls for less policing and more social services?
I am all for more services. I think that’s how we got here, right? Because they kind of fell away. There’s a need for mental health services everywhere. The pandemic has certainly impacted everyone’s mental health in a lot of ways. We still have a job to do, to build relationships. We still need to understand what people’s fears are so we can address them. We still need to have visibility, so people aren’t encouraged to do bad things just because they think there’s a void. We still need to take input from the public.
We still need to invest in the officers, in the training, making sure that they’re they’ve practiced enough to always be good at what they’re doing. And that takes money. There’s nothing about policing that we’re going to do less of. The public has an expectation that we should be perfect. The reality is we’re never going to be perfect. The fact is, because the expectation is much higher, in order for us to get closer to perfection we have to train more, we have to develop more. All of those things have costs.