Monday morning’s news about an imminent change in command at the Boston Police Department was a “double announcement.” William “Billy” Evans, 59, will step aside as commissioner to begin a new public safety role at Boston College. Taking his place will be William “Willie” Gross, a 54-year-old veteran of 33 years on the Boston force who is already, perhaps, as widely known as any single law enforcement officer in the city.
It says something about both men, and about this mayor, that the news was – finally – shared jointly. Billy Evans has never been someone who sought public notice. That was on display Monday as he graciously passed the baton of leadership to his longtime colleague in a ceremony that was genuinely warm and humble, not the words frequently tagged onto news stories involving big-city policing.
Some have already proffered criticisms of a too-quick succession, suggesting that perhaps Mayor Martin Walsh should have launched a broader, national search for a replacement for Evans. We disagree. Gross has an intimate understanding of the neighborhoods. He is an accessible, reliable, and relatable connection to communities that have long sought such a figure in the upper reaches of police command. He is liked and respected by his peers. And now Gross brings the promise of taking an already high-functioning organization to an even better place.
One quality that is sometimes overlooked – or, at least, not dwelled upon –is the quiet spirituality that Evans and Gross both lean on in times of despair and crisis. Fr. Sean Connor and Fr. John Connolly are co-chaplains for the BPD and are frequently called in to assist in caring for people and families impacted by tragedy in the city. They were both struck by the great humility shown by Evans as he, in essence, blessed the elevation of his friend and colleague.
“Billy Evans obviously not only supported Willie being his chief, but he also supported him being his successor,” says Connor. “It is historic, but is so obvious, too, that [Willie] is always being promoted not for his lineage but because of who he is. They dovetailed beautifully.”
Evans has been “a cop’s cop,” notes Connolly, a person “better suited than anyone in the department’s history to make community policing what it was meant to be, because he has the trust of the rank and file. They bought into it.”
Connolly says that Gross is poised to continue that dynamic, but with the additional potential to “fine tune” the city’s policing with his own unique perspective. “I think that policing model will be followed to the letter and improved upon,” says Connolly. “[Willie] is cheerful, but he’s also a realist. He has an ability to speak the truth from the perspective of someone who hasn’t always been on the side of power in this city.”
Gross “brings church with him” in his approach to life and work, says Connolly. It’s not a bombastic, proselytizing style, but rather a peaceful, calming spirit that has served Gross well in a job that is full of stress.
“It translates into that vision of community policing for Willie. It’s not just a job, it’s a vocation.”
Willie Gross has the ingredients to be an extraordinary leader for the city’s police department. As we await his tenure, we salute Billy Evans, whose four-decade career on Boston’s police force has been distinguished. He has lived up to the finest qualities of a humble servant. He deserves the thanks of a grateful city.
- Bill Forry