A case for community policing

by Sean Smith | Office of News & Public Affairs
Boston Police Superintendent-in-Chief William Gross
Boston Police Superintendent-in-Chief William Gross at an SSW event this month. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Campus & Community / Boston | January 24, 2016

The grim realities of law enforcement intruded on the Boston College School of Social Work’s Diversity and Alumni Awards Conference on January 8, when guest speaker Boston Police Superintendent-in-Chief William Gross had to cut short his remarks after receiving word that one of his officers had been wounded by a gunshot.

Gross was finishing up his talk on the challenges in nurturing positive police-community relations when he was notified of the shooting. He then shared the news with the audience gathered in McGuinn Auditorium.

As he departed, Gross urged community members and leaders to maintain a constructive dialogue with police. “It’s so important to work together. Never, ever, ever be negative.”

[The officer, Kurt Stokinger, was hit by a bullet in the leg during a traffic stop in Dorchester, but was released from the hospital two days later and is expected to make a full recovery.]

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Before his talk, Gross spoke with SSW Dean Alberto Godenzi. Gross had to leave when he received news of a police officer's shooting. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

The event was held as part of a BCSSW initiative to explore the intersection of diversity-related issues with social work practice. Alumni joined administrators, faculty, staff and students at the conference, which examined the potential roles for social workers in developing strategies to prevent community violence and enhance social justice.

News of the shooting brought a sobering contrast to what had been an upbeat talk by the gregarious, plain-speaking Gross, a 32-year BPD veteran and first African-American to serve as the department superintendent, a post to which he was appointed in 2014.

In his introduction, BCSSW Dean Alberto Godenzi praised the leadership of Police Commissioner William Evans, Gross and others in the BPD in the department’s efforts to forge good community relations, at a time of intense national debate about community policing. Godenzi touched on Gross’ experience over the years in Gang and Drug Control units, his work with district captains in developing strategies to address crime trends, and his presence at community meetings to discuss neighborhood crime concerns.  

Gross said Boston has the “number one community policing model” in the US, built on years of hard work and patience – both on the part of BPD and members of the community – a willingness to “always learn from your partners” and the ability to handle “constructive criticism.”

He contrasted the non-militarized BPD response to Occupy Boston and other recent protest activity with authorities’ handling of situations in Ferguson and other flashpoints. Instead of brandishing riot gear or otherwise running the risk of provoking confrontations, Gross said, the BPD has often had representatives of the community present – such as the clergy or members of the NAACP – when dealing with protestors, to help defuse tensions.

“This shows that Boston is not like other cities,” he said. “We may have issues, but not people showing the ignorance of destruction or causing violence. Because if you act in that way, it will keep people from listening to you.” 

Gross credited the Boston TenPoint Coalition, an ecumenical group of Christian clergy and lay leaders that has worked for two decades to address gang and youth violence, with helping foster good community relations. He also singled out programs such as YouthConnect, which places social workers in BPD stationhouses and specialized units to work with at-risk youth and their families; the program is currently directed by Andrea Perry MSW ’99, a BCSSW adjunct faculty member – she and Suffolk County House of Correction Mental Health Director Melanie Robinson Findlay MSW ’09 were the respondents to Gross’ talk.

There is no magic involved in building a working relationship between police and communities, Gross said, nor is there anything easy about it. “I’ve been called the ‘n’-word, an Uncle Tom, a sell-out,” said Gross, a Maryland native who came to Dorchester at age 12, during Boston’s school busing crisis. “You have to learn to deal with people, and treat them the way you want to be treated.”

Relations between the BPD and neighborhoods of color were often troubled in past years, Gross acknowledged. “As a black police chief, I own all of the negative history of the Boston Police Department. But those moments in time are teachable moments.

“You have to show that you remember history,” he said, “and then be willing to make changes.”

Earlier at the event, the 2016 Distinguished Alumni Awards were presented to Daniel Gill MSW ’06, an administrator for a veterans supported housing program in the Department of Veterans Affairs VA Maryland Health Care System; and Judith S. Willison MSW ’87, an assistant professor in the Bridgewater State University School of Social Work who teaches social work practice courses, including one focused on a multisystemic approach to addressing violence.

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William Gross

Video: Watch Boston Police Department Superintendent-in-Chief William Gross speak about "Race & Justice" to the Boston College School of Social Work community.