UPDATED: BPD Commissioner Gross retires, leaves mixed legacy of drug law enforcement

He supported jail diversion programs. He also endorsed the controversial Operation Clean Sweep. Now, William Gross is retiring after a short but busy stint as Boston's top cop

Former Boston Police Commissioner William Gross poses for a photo shortly after being promoted to the role of Police Commissioner in 2018. (Photo by Whoisjohngalt/Used under Creative Commons License)

Feb. 4, 1:26am - UPDATED TO REFLECT THE FACT THAT WILLAM GROSS’ SUCCESSOR, DENNIS WHITE, HAS BEEN SUSPENDED BY THE BPD

Boston Police Commissioner William Gross has retired. 

And, despite rumors, he’s not running for mayor. 

After a tumultuous period of fraught police relations with addiction communities, these changes welcome uncertainty and some hope for change.

"It has been an honor and a privilege to serve as Police Commissioner, leading a department of hardworking men and women who serve this city day-in and day-out," Gross said in a press release, Jan. 29. “…It is only after long and careful consideration that I have made the decision to retire from my role.”

Gross completes long career filled with drug crime investigations

Gross spent more than three decades with the Boston Police, rising through the ranks and serving on city gang and drug units through the 1990s and 2000s. 

Later, in 2018, while serving as Police Superintendent, Gross notably helped spearhead a sprawling regional drug trafficking investigation. Dubbed “High Hopes,” that action uncovered the operations of a major Northeastern distributor reportedly with international connections to the same Mexican cartel that drug kingpin El Chapo once led.

“These arrests and seizures will have a tremendous impact on the quality of life in Boston and many other Massachusetts cities and towns,” then police Commissioner William B. Evans said at the time. “The individuals arrested are responsible for pumping dangerous drugs into our communities, while profiting on the vulnerability of those suffering from the disease of addiction.”

Even with big drug busts like that on his record, Gross did still later acknowledge the failures of America’s drug war.

“You cannot lock away an addiction or dependency,” he told Boston.com in a Q&A published  in 2018. “What we’ve learned is that everybody is going to have to help out to address this opioid crisis.”

After expanding local jail diversion programs as Commissioner, Gross touted drug court proceedings in Charlestown, visiting one graduation event for individuals funneled into that system. 

“What we love is you’re meeting us halfway,” he told graduates. “We’re meeting here, no one’s giving up on you and then we progress forward.” 

As those efforts could be seen as sympathetic to area drug communities, Gross also found himself regularly in hot water for botched addiction responses.

In 2019, his officers carried out Operation Clean Sweep, a controversial round-up of people living in the drug ridden Mass and Cass neighborhood of the South End and Roxbury. 

He falsely suggested that all individuals arrested during that operation were so-called “drug dealers.” Likewise, he defended the use of trash compactors to crush wheelchairs that advocates said police took from people living on the street. 

"Those wheelchairs were covered with feces, blood, and urine, and they were used like a pin cushion for discarded needles," Gross told WBZ news. "They were a hazard. We got them out of the way."

As outrage over Clean Sweep still simmered, Gross’s was again on the defensive, just a few months later, when a 28-year-old man caught breaking into a car in the South End died of a drug overdose in a Boston Police jail cell. 

He did not receive medical treatment for a full hour after slumping into a motionless position, according to WCVB journalists.

"It's a great challenge," Gross said of addiction issues at the time. 

He declined to comment further when reportedly pressed by WCVB.

BPD’s path forward suddenly unclear

Said to have been seriously considering a run for mayor, Gross has ultimately opted to sit out city politics for the time being. 

Back at police headquarters, meanwhile, chaos has unfolded since Gross’ retirement.

Mayor Marty Walsh appointed Gross’ Chief of Staff and Police Superintendent Dennis White as the city’s new Commissioner, last Friday.

On Monday, the Mayor’s office held a swearing in ceremony at Fanueil Hall.

On Wednesday, though, Walsh suspended White as Boston Globe journalists reportedly started asking questions about murky domestic violence allegations against White from 1999.

Superintendent-in-Chief Gregory Long will serve as Acting Commissioner while an investigation into White plays out.

Check back regularly for ongoing updates on how this impacts the addiction community.

***

Since the beginning of this journalistic project, I’ve aimed to cover the intersection of policing and addiction in a way that avoids some of the pitfalls of traditional journalism.

I’m focused on the ways the drug war influences modern actions.

I’m tuned in to problems that arise from the information black holes that are American prisons.

And I’m interested in what happens after the sirens turn off and communities sit back to take stock of trauma sometimes caused by massive raids like Operation Clean Sweep.

These mindsets have made Substantive the home of unrivaled reporting on topics other local outlets missed.

  • In October of last year, public records revealed inconsistencies in how Boston police had talked about a series of mass arrests that, in some ways, closely resembled Clean Sweep.

  • In November, addiction cropped up in conversations at a Black Lives Matter protest against systemic racism and police brutality in Boston.

  • Then, in December, reporting discussed how entrenched stigmas and glorified misinformation might have led Boston Police to delay rendering aid to a pair of people overdosing in a Brighton hotel room.

    I’m still working with the District Attorney’s office to get access to documents ideally shedding additional light on that incident.

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A special thanks, here, to Julie Antelman, Golden Bryant, Jasmin Davis-Shearer, William Cordero, Marla Smith, Desi Murphy, “Jojo,” Vickie Paquette, Robert McCarthy and Christian Arthur for their help, so far!

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