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The Boston Police Commissioner Seems To Misunderstand The Role Of The ACLU

William Gross is surrounded by well-wishers after he was sworn in as Boston's first black police commissioner during ceremonies, Monday, Aug. 6, 2018, in Boston. (Elise Amendola/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
William Gross is surrounded by well-wishers after he was sworn in as Boston's first black police commissioner during ceremonies, Monday, Aug. 6, 2018, in Boston. (Elise Amendola/AP)

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Boston Police Commissioner William Gross needs to dial it back. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is not his enemy. Criticism is not disloyalty. He’s not just a cop anymore. Rather than acting defensively, he needs to step up and become the leader he’s supposed to be.

In mid-November, the Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU filed suit against the department, seeking information about a supposed secretive database that labeled some kids as gang members. That database, in turn, was allegedly being shared with U.S. immigration officials, leading to deportations. The whole thing, the ACLU argued, was at odds with Boston’s self-declaration as a “sanctuary city.”

The ACLU wasn’t alone in filing suit; it was joined by 13 other civil rights organizations such as the Children’s Law Center and Greater Boston Legal Services. But it was the ACLU that earned the commissioner’s wrath. Writing on his Facebook page, Gross derided the  organization’s members as “paper warriors.”

He then went on a rant:

NO ACLU when Officers are shot, No ACLU when we help citizens, no ACLU present when we have to explain to a mother that her son or daughter was horribly murdered by gang violence.

Hmm. Inappropriate capitalization. Demonize those who question. Avoid the underlying issue. Where have we seen this before?

Oh, yeah. Donald Trump.

Not exactly a role model to emulate, commissioner.

I have no idea if the ACLU is correct ... But surely it’s more than reasonable to ask questions...

In Trump’s case, it’s the media that get him going. The media never talk about the good news. They never tell the country how he’s energized the economy. They never tell the world how he’s making America great again.

But you know what? That’s not the media’s job. Newspapers and TV aren’t supposed to be cheerleaders for the president. They’re supposed to hold him accountable.

Nor is it the ACLU’s job to be cheerleaders for the cops. Their brief is individual liberties, and especially individual liberties against the power of government. And the power of government is, most obviously and at its greatest, vested in the hands of those with the ability to arrest and imprison.

I have no idea if the ACLU is correct in its concerns (and FYI, over a decade ago I was on its board; I’m not involved with the organization now). But surely it’s more than reasonable to ask questions — especially in light of the spate of cases nationwide involving racial profiling and police abuse. Nor does asking questions mean one is challenging all of the good the department does — and for the record, Boston’s ability to bring down crime rates while building community trust has been a national marvel.

But that hardly means the department is perfect. And that hardly exempts it from scrutiny.

Right now, a number of folks are trying to give Gross a pass on this one. He’s just defending the force. He’s standing up for his officers. Every cop knows the ACLU is a pain in the butt.

But the problem is, Gross is no longer just a supervisor trying to bolster morale of those in his charge. He’s a leader, accountable not only to the police department, but also to a host of constituencies: rich and poor neighborhoods spread across the city. His thoughtless post — and his continued defense of that post — suggest he just doesn’t understand that his new role is far different from his old.

In the wake of publicity about his Facebook post, Gross went on another capitalization-laden tear: “I hope I have the CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT to comment on my private FB page where you have to be invited into as friends only.”

His thoughtless post -- and his continued defense of that post -- suggest he just doesn’t understand that his new role is far different from his old.

To be sure commissioner, you do have the CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT. No one’s jailing you for trashing the ACLU. But what you say has consequences. And when it comes to social media, there’s no such thing as “private.” Moreover, your “friends” on Facebook are not really and truly your friends.

So perhaps, commissioner, in your new, far more political role, you might want to heed the wisdom of innumerable pols from the past:

Never write if you can speak;

never speak if you can nod;

never nod if you can wink.

And for heaven’s sake, never, never, never post.

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Tom Keane Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Tom Keane is a Boston-based writer.

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