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Boston Police Commissioner Dennis White Sues City, Claims Illegal Firing05:33
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Dennis White after he was sworn in as commissioner in February. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
Dennis White after he was sworn in as commissioner in February. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

Boston Police Commissioner Dennis White filed a lawsuit Friday saying Acting Mayor Kim Janey is trying to illegally fire him for decades-old domestic violence allegations.

The suit, filed in Suffolk Superior Court, came as the city released the results of an outside investigation into charges levied by White's ex-wife 22 years ago. The inquiry also uncovered a second domestic violence incident involving White — a physical altercation with a 19-year-old woman in 1993.

In court documents, White alleged that Janey is trying to unlawfully remove him from his position. He says he was informed in a telephone call at 10 a.m. Friday that he was being terminated, just six hours before Janey briefed the media.

The suit said the decision amounted to an "ambush." And White's attorney, Nicholas Carter, said in a statement that Janey does not have the power to remove him.

"Commissioner White, a Black man and only the second Black police commissioner in Boston’s history, is being treated very badly and in violation of the law," Carter said.

But Janey fired back, saying White himself admitted misconduct to investigators.

"Dennis White's own admitted behavior does not reflect our values," Janey said during a press conference. "It’s clear from our report that we have to move in a different direction."

Former Mayor Marty Walsh originally promoted White, a longtime Boston police officer and then the third-highest ranking person in the department, to lead the organization in January after the abrupt resignation of commissioner William Gross, without an in-depth search. But White only served in the position for a few days before he was placed on leave after The Boston Globe first reported the allegations made by his former wife in a restraining order and divorce filings filed decades ago.

The moves came as Walsh was awaiting Senate confirmation for his new job as U.S. secretary of labor.

After the domestic violence allegations became public, Walsh hired an outside lawyer, Tamsin Kaplan of Boston law firm Davis Malm, to investigate. That inquiry has cost the city at least $45,000, as of mid-April.

Kaplan delivered her report late last month, but Janey said she wanted time to review the report before making it public and deciding how to handle White's promotion.

Several candidates running against Janey for mayor issued statements Friday complaining about the uncertainty about who will lead the department in the coming months or the lack of transparency in the process.

Many community members and police organizations supported White through the investigation and demanded he be reinstated. The Rev. Eugene Rivers said Friday that White was disrespected and that the process was flawed.

"The way that Dennis White was treated was inexplicably disgraceful," he said. "And shame on former Mayor Walsh for his disrespect in the treatment of this Black man. And frankly shame on Kim Janey for disrespecting this Black man."

The initial allegations against White centered on two incidents in 1998 and 1999: White told a mutual friend that he was so mad at his ex-wife that he wanted to shoot her. And White warned his young daughter that he slept with a gun under his pillow.

His ex-wife said in a restraining order that she was afraid "he may come inside and kill me because he is angry." White's firearms were temporarily taken away.

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White's ex-wife also told internal affairs investigators at the time that she and her husband would "physically fight and of course he won every time." White also acknowledged at the time that there was physical abuse. He told the city's latest investigator that they pushed each other.

White's ex-wife and other witnesses detailed years of verbal and physical abuse. His former spouse reported the physical abuse to the department multiple times, they said, but the department took no action until she filed the restraining order in 1999.

The city's latest investigation said White allegedly choked her, threw a television at her, burned her hair, put her face to the stove and kicked her, forcing her to crawl under the bed. Some said he was controlling and verbally abusive. Others said he coerced his wife into sex. Witnesses said his wife "fought back," and often apologized after fights because she loved him and wanted to smooth things over.

One witness said she herself was grabbed by White once when he wanted her to leave his home.

"He was very angry, very angry," the witness said. "His voice, his posture was totally different. You could tell the aggressiveness in his voice."

The report says White denied all the allegations levied by his ex-wife and witnesses, other than to say there was pushing. He said he slept with a gun under his pillow for protection.

Still, police investigators ruled two decades ago that the physical abuse allegations were "not sustained." White was faulted for having "unreasonable judgment" for saying he wanted to shoot his ex-wife. Two years later, though, that finding was changed after White complained to a supervisor, who recommended a downgrade from "sustained" to "filed."

In a separate incident in 1993, White got into what he described as "heated fisticuffs" with a 19-year-old woman, the report said.

The woman alleged White was angry about $10 she owed him. She said he punched her, threw her down the stairs and pushed her out the front door of the house.

White confirmed both incidents at the time. More recently, the city's report said he acknowledged pushing the woman and striking her with a full swing of his arm, but said it was in self defense after the woman kicked him in a knee that had recently been operated on. A neighbor witnessed the part of the altercation that was outside, reporting that he saw the woman kick White's leg and then White slap her.

White sought a complaint for assault and battery against the woman, which was later dismissed by the court. The woman obtained a restraining order against White. He then attempted to get his own restraining order against the woman, but was denied.

Internal investigators said White's slap of the 19-year-old was self defense, and that White didn't physically abuse the woman. They also ruled that White didn't violate any department rules.

Witnesses and records detailed in the city's new report show the domestic violence accusations were well-known within the department. One person alleged White's behavior was "of grave concern at the time." And White's attorney noted that the department knew about the allegations since 1999, and promoted him multiple times.

Janey said Friday that the investigation revealed "a flawed process and a misguided department culture."

Tom Nolan, a former Boston police lieutenant who is now a sociology professor at Emmanuel College, said the city should consider installing a commissioner from outside the department — something that hasn't been done since 2006, when Ed Davis was named commissioner after a nationwide search.

"I don't think there is any indication that anyone currently in the department on the command staff specifically is someone who could be that change agent," he said.

Investigators encountered steep resistance when looking into the allegations against White. Many current and former police officers refused to be interviewed. The interim police commissioner refused to help facilitate interviews with current officers. The police department said it couldn't hand over records. And a city attorney tried to push the outside lawyer conducting the investigation to wrap up the probe after only 10 days.

That interruption was because Walsh intended to reinstate White, White's attorney claimed in a March 2 letter to the city's top lawyer that was included in court documents. Kaplan, the attorney Boston recently hired to investigate the case, did not note in her report why she was told to stop her inquiry.

Kaplan reported she was only able to talk to a third of the 21 witnesses she wanted to hear from.

A Boston Police Department spokesman said the department has not yet received the report on White and wouldn't comment. The Boston Police Patrolmen's Association, the union that represents most police officers, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Janey said "the investigation revealed a culture of fear and silence within the Boston Police Department."

One retired Boston police officer told the investigator he'd received at least five phone calls telling him not to talk with the lawyer.

"Many people say don't do anything against a police officer," he told Kaplan.

Correction: a previous version of this story misstated the cabinet position Marty Walsh was nominated for. 

This segment aired on May 15, 2021.

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