The city of Boston has hired an outside lawyer to investigate domestic violence allegations against Dennis White, who was sworn in as Boston police commissioner just days ago.
Among the records that outside counsel Tamsin Kaplan, of Davis Malm, will likely review is the thick divorce case file for White and his former wife, who was also a Boston police officer.
Court records show that White’s ex-wife had a restraining order against him in May 1999, while they were still married. She wrote that she was afraid of him after he allegedly told a mutual friend that he wanted to shoot her. White’s ex-wife also alleged that he told their then-17-year-old daughter "not to come upstairs and startle him because he sleeps with his gun under his pillow now."
It appears White was never charged, and he categorically denied the allegations in multiple court filings. In one, he conceded that he and his wife fought and that "on some occasions, they escalated to physical contact by both parties, including the wife." He adamantly denied ever hitting his wife or threatening to hurt her over the previous 10 years, including what was alleged in the restraining order.
In the court documents, White’s attorneys noted inconsistencies in his wife’s statements. The day before she got the restraining order, she said that there was no physical abuse, according to a police report. And they claimed the alleged threat via a mutual friend was a conversation from months earlier than when she applied for the restraining order.
The divorce was eventually finalized in January 2001. Efforts to reach White Thursday were unsuccessful.
The department apparently knew about the allegations back then. It was Boston police officers who took the reports. And in May 1999, after White's then-wife went to Dorchester District Court to get a restraining order, the detective wrote to her captain about what happened, noting the wife "stated that she felt the department was not taking her seriously." The detective told the wife that a superior officer would follow through on the report.
It's not clear if the department launched an internal investigation of either officers' actions at the time. WBUR has asked for internal affairs files for White.
There are questions of whether these allegations were ever considered as White rose through the ranks. He was a sergeant at the time of the divorce, and eventually rose to superintendent, before being named commissioner last week.
Nick Martin, a Walsh spokesperson, said Thursday that before White was tapped to replace outgoing Commissioner William Gross, his vetting "admittedly should have been more thorough."
Martin added that the office expects Kaplan's investigation to be "full, impartial and expedient."
In his statement on Wednesday, Walsh seemed to blame timing for the lack of scrutiny, noting that White was "asked to quickly step into the role" to allow Gross to step down.
Whether hiring from within or with a nationwide search, rigorous background checks should be part of the process, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank that consults with communities on hiring police leaders.
Wexler worked in the Boston Police Department and helped with the search in 2006 that ended with the hiring of an outsider, the former Lowell Police Department leader Ed Davis. The last three commissioners in Boston — William Evans, William Gross and Dennis White — have been insiders.
"I think for Boston this is probably a good time to be thinking, 'Where is Boston? Where does it need to be? What are its strengths and weaknesses and what are the challenges?' " Wexler said. "Usually a police chief is a reflection of the appointing authority, and this will be a key issue for the city."
White was picked by Walsh to serve on the mayor's police reform task force last summer, charged with developing a series of recommendations to increase the oversight and accountability of the Boston Police Department.
Those who served on the panel with White praised his demeanor, his willingness to listen and his commitment to implementing reforms, including former state Rep. Marie St. Fleur.
St. Fleur said what's happening with White gets to what she and her fellow task force members focused on all summer.
"The issue here is there is a consistent issue within the police department around transparency and accountability," she said.
St. Fleur said that she was surprised and sad to hear about the allegations and worried that a single allegation — not a conviction or even a charge — could end his career.
There needs to be a systemic look at the department, she said, to determine whether all police officers are held to the same standard when it comes to misconduct like domestic violence.
Civil rights attorney Howard Friedman, who often brings cases against police officers alleging misconduct, said domestic violence involving police officers is not rare. One analysis of studies found that 21% of officers self-reported abusing an intimate partner.
"It's a stressful job and people bring their jobs home with them," Friedman said. "It's a particular problem for police officers because it would have to be investigated by police officers and prosecuted by district attorneys who work with police officers every day."
It's not unusual for officers not to have consequences, he said.