'Sympathy, care and respect': A conversation with Boston's first black police chief

The moment Boston Superintendent in Chief William Gross was sworn in four years ago, he says he was thinking of all the people who raised him.

BOSTON — The moment Boston Superintendent in Chief William Gross was sworn in four years ago, he says he was thinking of all the people who raised him.

His mother, grandmother, the veterans in his apartment building and the community members who taught him the lessons he would carry into his job as Boston’s first black police chief.

Chief Gross' office is better known as his museum.

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“My number one mentor, Willis D. Sanders, Tuskegee airmen, became a Boston police officer and rose to the rank of deputy,” Gross explained.

Chief Gross’ journey from country kid to one of Boston’s top cops started on his grandmother’s farm in Hillsboro, Maryland.

“Pretty much she programmed me because all we would watch is westerns and cop movies and cop tv shows,” he said.

But soon, the urban scenes in those cop tv shows became his reality.

At 12, he moved to Dorchester to live with his mother and two sisters.

“Unfortunately, I had to move from the farm in Hillsboro, Maryland and I arrived in Boston in 1975; at the height of forced bussing,” Gross explained. “So it wasn’t popular to have that attitude of wanting to be on the police department then because it was a different time for the communities and the police department.”

More than 30 years after he joined the force in 1983, he was sworn in as the first African-American Superintendent in Chief for the Boston Police Department.

“I didn’t even know if Boston was ready for an African-American chief, but I knew Boston was moving in the directions that would distance it from its horrid past of racism and exclusion,” he said. “When I first came on in 83 as a cadet, sometimes you'd hear the n-word and sometimes you'd hear Caucasians spoken about in a certain way."

The chief dealt with it, thinking of his grandmother's advice when he was called the n-word in grade school back in Maryland.

“She said, ‘baby, you need to tell someone first, because just because of the color of your skin, a lot of people are going to think when you hear something negative, you’re going to automatically respond with violence. And you’re bigger and better than that. And I taught you better than that. So take a step back,’” Gross explained.

Gross says taking a step back also meant taking on the difficult task of trying to understand a racist colleague’s background.

“People can change. Views can change. But sometimes those being oppressed have to teach the oppressors,” he said. “That warrior class system back in the day, that’s gone now. We have to be bigger and better and I salute officer who stays in the game -- so to speak -- because there’s a lot of anti-police sentiment.”

It's a lesson the chief says he teaches to the young people in the community he works with, the cadets and officers he mentors, like Officer Dennis Simmons, who died from injuries sustained in the hunt for the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing. Simmons’ photo now has a prominent place in the museum.

“It was one of the toughest days of my career when I’m in the hospital, in the emergency room, watching him on that table hoping for one last breath,” he said. “Never forget where you came from. And you should have that empathy, sympathy, care and respect. Because we serve the community. Not the other way around.”

Chief Gross has focused a lot of his work with young people in Boston, including Operation Ceasefire, which is aimed at curbing youth violence, and Youth Connect, a collaboration with the Boys and Girls Club.