Interview by Hon. Debra A. Squires-Lee
It was my pleasure to interview Boston Police Commissioner Michael Cox about his career, police reform, his return to Boston, and a host of other topics. The following is an excerpt of our discussion, condensed and edited for clarity. – Hon. Debra A. Squires-Lee
Q: I have a list of questions, but because I am a fanatical football fan, I have to start with the last question first. So, Commissioner, I understand your son played for the New York Giants, yes?
Commissioner: Yes, he did.
Q: All right, well, as a third-generation Bostonian, my father having gone to the very first Patriots game at B.U., which is it: Giants or Patriots?
Commissioner: You know, I’ve always been a Patriots fan my whole life because I’m from here. And there’s a certain amount of loyalty that goes to the organization that actually chooses to draft your child. Although the Patriots did speak to him before the draft, they did not draft him. So, the Giants will always have a very good place in my heart. I guess as long as they’re not playing the Patriots, I am a Giants fan now in a lot of ways, and always a Patriots fan.
Q: That is a wise and fair answer, Commissioner.
Commissioner: (Laughter) Thank you.
Q: You have been in law enforcement for many, many years, but if you can think back, why did you choose to go into law enforcement?
Commissioner: When I was younger, I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do in life, but I did know that I like people. I like giving back to society in some way. And when someone presented the idea to me, I didn’t really know any police other than one individual, and so it was kind of a big deal. Because as a young black man growing up in Roxbury there weren’t a lot of role models in the policing field in general. I took the exam, I went through that process, but I still didn’t know if I could do it. This person who is now deceased, Will Saunders, spent a lot of time saying, “You’d make a great police officer, because of the fact that you care about people, and I think you’d be tremendous on the job.” I came on the job and then I really understood the need for law enforcement with compassion. I saw the need, for people who really, really need help in so many different ways, and there were not a lot of people out there giving help.
And the community would see me as a young person coming on the force, you know, a person of color, and working in neighborhoods that were all people of color, and they were just like, “I love to see you. Thank you for doing what you’re doing.” There was a need for certain people of color to be in law enforcement, because of the fact that they understood, I understood, maybe, some of the plight of what they were going through.
Q: You left the BPD to be chief of police in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Why did you decide to come back to Boston?
Commissioner: Ann Arbor is a tremendous city and clearly I had very good seats for all the football games, but it wasn’t home. So, one, I saw an opportunity to come back home after I’d been isolated from my family for a three-year period because of Covid, and, two, the opportunity of a lifetime. If I’m going to be in law enforcement, why not come to one of the best cities in America, to deal with all of the challenges and problems that are in policing in a place that I know pretty intimately. For me, the answer was a no-brainer if they’d have me.
Q: So powerful. What are your priorities as Boston Police Commissioner?
Commissioner: I want to take a police department that’s always been pretty good, more so in recent history, and make it better. I want to make sure that every person who comes in and swears the oath to serve the citizens understands what that means from the beginning of the job until when they retire, so that we don’t lose sight of the public that we serve. I want to make sure that we’re an organization, where people want to work. Even though there may be difficult circumstances that we don’t lose sight of the mission. I want to make sure that the department is always at the forefront, evolving with citizens’ demands and needs. And that’s tough for law enforcement, because we traditionally have been very slow to change. And, I want to make sure that the members here develop and grow and adapt and are a lot quicker about that change in general.
People keep saying ‘re-imagine policing.’ I don’t know that we need to ‘re-imagine’ it. I think we need to be really good at what we’re supposed to be good at, and the number one thing that we’re supposed to be good at is listening and trying to prevent crime. And that’s really systemic change. I mean it takes a lot to do that. You’re talking about changing a culture. I thought what better time than now to try to do this, and with the support of the Mayor, and with the support of a lot of other folks, I think we can do it.
Q: In that regard, do you have any thoughts on the Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission, how it could be most successful?
Commissioner: I appreciate that they started POST. I think law enforcement needs standards. We need it across the board, not just in this state. I think across the country we need standards because every law enforcement agency is judged on the weakest law enforcement agency in the country. Period. When something happens in Arkansas, people are going to say, “the Boston Police Department needs to do better because look what they did there, and you all do the same.” And so having standards and certification around our profession is really important.
I just hope that as they create standards and certification for officers that we don’t lost sight that we’re an organization made up of human beings. And the standards cannot get too specialized, like we need to have special rules just for the police. The reality is we’re an organization made up of humans, and whatever makes the legal world better, the medical world better, the business world better, social workers better, is going to make us better, too. So let’s figure out what those are and not just create special, one-off rules that only pertain to police because they tend not to work, because I’ve seen where, in quick response to something, you make a special exception for a small group of people and history has shown that it usually hasn’t worked. Show me where it makes another place better and has lowered the error levels, and it will work in policing as well. But if you haven’t shown that, I would prefer it not be tried first in law enforcement because the consequences can be too great.
Q: What are the most significant challenges currently facing law enforcement, or in particular the BPD?
Commissioner: One of the biggest challenges, as a result of, certainly, the George Floyd protests and things of that nature, is our ability to recruit and retain officers. You have two things going on. One, there’s a lot of officers that are retiring now, and some are retiring early. And second, is how we attract people to do this job, particularly young people. This is one of the few jobs where people come on at twenty-one and usually stay until at least fifty-five. But young people don’t want to come on this job at all because they are so influenced by what other people think. The reality is this is a noble profession. It is absolutely needed and we have a positive impact on the community that people don’t necessarily understand, but more importantly, we provide public safety. If we can’t attract young people, the right people who want to give back, like I did when I first came on, then, you know, we’re going to be attracting a different kind of person – a mercenary.
Q: What would you say to a young person who might be thinking of a police career?
Commissioner: I would say that there are a lot of people who like to volunteer their time to feed the homeless or give to someone who is in need. If you want to help people, this job does that in so many different ways, in so many different outlets, that it is tremendously rewarding. Pretty much every day is an opportunity to help. Not only every day, multiple times a day, could be multiple times an hour that you are tremendously helping somebody who is having the worst moment maybe in their life. And if you want to do public service, or want to give back to the world, there’s no better way to do that than to do this job. Because, history has shown that when you get a large group of people together, there does need to be some kind of public safety, because human nature has a dark side. We provide safety and support for the rest of society so people can live their lives in a good way. And also, these young people can know that it is a job where they can actually take care of their family; they’re not going to get rich, that’s for sure, but they will have a living wage.
And it’s mission-driven. When I first came on here, I found that, when you understand your purpose, and why you’re here, and your mission, life is just easy. You don’t have false expectations. You tend to not abuse people. If your mission is to take care of the public that you serve, you understand that you have to be flexible because the conditions change, and have the ability to deal with all of the pressures that come with the job. But, more importantly, you’ll have an appreciation of what you’re doing daily.
You know, as officers, we are humans and sometimes we do feel sorry for ourselves in some way. We lose our sense of purpose, and start to think nobody understands what we’re going through. Yes, this is a difficult job. But it’s always been a difficult job. If you understand the mission of why we’re here, to help people and provide public safety, then you’re able to be a lot more resilient. You’re able to serve the public in the way that I think they should be served. The business world has customer service; our version of that is staying mission-driven around who are we here to serve. It’s not ourselves. We’re here to serve the public.
Q: Given that, what do you think is the best, most effective way for the Boston Police Department to engage the community?
Commissioner: I’m trying to go back to an older school way of policing where officers are directly communicating with the public. And I don’t mean stopping somebody to see if they’ve broken the law in some way. Just personal contact. Whether you knock on the door of businesses and just introduce yourselves, so they get to know you and that we’re there for them and then also understand what their problems are. When we do that, I think the public feels better. I think officers feel better, they understand their mission a lot more because they understand the problems from the perspective of the citizens. There’s a lot more trust involved because the citizens will actually know the officers by name. When people know your name, you tend to be a little less flippant, a little less sarcastic, a little less, you know, edgy in some ways. And I think that goes a long way in making sure that officers always behave in that way as well.
We’re trying to get our officers back in touch with the community that we serve, and we’re going to do it multiple ways. We’ll be going to the community groups, educating them on what our crime statistics are and then getting feedback from them on what they would like us to do. We should be listening to the public before we make our priorities because that is why we’re here. And we can’t do that unless we hear from the public and have a relationship with them. We have a lot of information, and I don’t think that we have done a good job in recent history of sharing that. That’s the short version of what we are trying to do: meeting the public where they are, sharing who we are, engaging them, and also passing on information and knowledge that we have so we can all stay safe.
Q: What did you learn from getting your MBA degree in terms of organizational management that you can bring to your role?
Commissioner: The MBA program lets you see how organizations deal with problems across the board. Problem-solving is a skill that can be learned. CEOs of organizations can lead a science organization one day and a coal mine the next. You don’t have to necessarily know how to do the actual work, you have to know how to bring people together, gather resources, motivate, how to get an organization to change its culture or move in the right direction. I think in some ways law enforcement has become too specialized and forgotten who the customer is. As a law enforcement agency, we need to be a lot more agile, and that comes from listening to our customer: the public.
Commissioner: I was a much younger person. I was an officer when it happened, but it was extremely personal to me. I can’t emphasize enough how extremely personal it was, while at the same time, it was an extremely well-known, national story. But for me, I was the victim of something and didn’t feel comfortable in accepting my victimization. I felt embarrassed and ashamed in so many different ways around that. And I had a hard time talking about it for a very long period. For some, I think it was perceived as me being loyal to a disloyal organization. That was not the case. I was just a victim and had gone through something and there was a lot of worrying about my own personal safety and my family’s lives. I was figuring out that, yes, I want to do something, but not knowing how to go about it, and my privacy meant a lot to me.
The legal process — which was the only process I had to move that forward — as most people know, can already be a very painful process. As a victim, going through the criminal justice system in general never feels good. It seems like everyone I ran across had an agenda, wondering whether I was going to catch the person who did it no matter what it takes, or if I was going to litigate and try to get the most money in the world regardless of what it takes. I spent a lot of time trying to remind folks that at the end of the day, it has to be dealt in a way that I can live with. I don’t think people understood that and maybe still don’t understand that. It was not an easy thing then and it’s still not an easy thing now. But I do understand that it was important and I guess I am thankful for the folks that thought it was important and kept pushing the issue even though I wasn’t ready for it to be pushed or able. But I am appreciative of those who did care enough to try to do that.
Now, here I am as an adult, I still don’t like talking about it, but I understand the importance of acknowledging and learning from this history. Telling the story lessens the likelihood of it happening again because people need to be cognizant of that so they can actually do something in law enforcement around it. Policing still needs to change. It’s like all organizations: the goal is to get better.
Q: I want to thank you for being willing to answer that question. It is really powerful to hear from you about such a personal and painful situation. Thank you. Are there any final words that you want to share with the members of the Bar of the Commonwealth?
Commissioner: Everyone in the legal field, certainly from judges to attorneys, have such powerful positions that can serve the public. I thank all of the attorneys out there for what they do in defending people or prosecuting people who have been breaking the law, or on the civil side, where you can really truly help people in a lot of ways. I am appreciative of all that lawyers do. If I got to live life over again, I probably would have become a lawyer.
Hon. Debra A. Squires-Lee is an Associate Justice of the Superior Court and a member of the Board of Editors of the Boston Bar Journal.