Police Commissioner Willie Gross stunned the City and the Boston Police ranks on Thursday morning, Jan. 28, when he suddenly announced – with Mayor Martin Walsh – that he was retiring after 37 years and after being the first African American Police Commissioner in Boston for the past three years.
The announcement came with an abrupt departure on Friday, and an announcement as well by Gross that he wouldn’t be running for mayor – even though he had been considering it.
Instead, it became a time of reflection for those that served with and under him for many years – particularly police officers hailing from Charlestown who came to appreciate Gross as a natural leader who always had time for those in the Department.
“He was a natural leader,” said Steve Fabiano, who currently serves on the Boston Police Department. “Everyone was included with him and no one was left out. He asked questions and listened to your answers. He didn’t just move on and not listen. He wouldn’t ask you to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself…I haven’t been around for all Commissioners, but I haven’t seen a Commissioner that knew his or her Department the way Willie did.”
Paul Mahoney, who served as a deputy superintendent under Gross and has since retired, said he first began working alongside Gross while stationed in Dorchester. He said he worked on one side of that neighborhood, and Gross worked on the other side. They often ran across each other on the beat, and he said Gross always made an impression.
As they went up the rank, he and Gross grew closer and eventually Gross promoted him to deputy.
“Willie’s style is absolutely unique in policing,” he said.
“I have worked under a lot a great police executives, but I don’t think they took the time to get to know the community level cops and the community groups the way he did,” he continued.
Long-time BPD officer Cecil Jones said it was the personal interest that Gross took in officers, and his willingness to listen first that made his so popular amongst the rank and file.
He said he retired from the Department last month, and on his last day, Gross called him into his office for a chat. It ended up being a two-hour casual talk about life and policing, and Gross even cancelled an appearance to spend more time with Jones.
Jones – who does a lot of work for charity involving the Department – said Gross always listened to his ideas.
“He is and always was just very real,” he said. “That’s the best way to describe him – real.”
Mahoney and Jones shared that on the evening that late Officer George Collier died tragically, Gross was at the Collier family home in Charlestown to be with the family and care for them.
“He was the Commissioner, but he was a wonderful person and very caring,” said Mahoney. “In our line of work, people don’t understand there are caring people out there. No matter what race, creed or neighborhood, he was the same to everyone…It is no act with him. The kindness and caring and compassion is something that he can’t turn off.”
On Friday, in his last act on the Department, Gross addressed all officers and staff on the Police Radio to sign off. After vigorous ‘thank yous’ Gross said – nearly in tears – that the Boston Police would continue responding to calls no matter what happens.
“You are the ones that answer the call each and every day – sworn and civilian,” he said. “Never ever forget your self-worth. And if the haters are listening, so be it. We’re still going to answer these calls each and every day. Our first responder family. Boston Police, Fire and EMS. The nation began here. Don’t forget it…I love and appreciate you all. Thank you. Yankee C-1 Oceanfront.”
Mayor Martin Walsh also thanked the Commissioner for his service, being the mayor that appointed him – and in the process – appointed the first African American police commissioner in Boston.
“I want to thank Commissioner Gross from the bottom of my heart for his 37 years of service to the Boston Police Department and for his two and a half years leading the department as Commissioner,” he said. “Throughout his decorated career, he’s always embodied the spirit of community policing that is so important to building trust with the people we serve. Anyone who knows Willie can instantly feel his love for the job and his passion for keeping communities safe. No matter the situation, his warm smile, dedication, and love for meeting people made him uniquely capable of taking on the toughest challenges.”
Mahoney said he was thankful that Gross always took time to come to Charlestown. As an area with low crime and on the northern edge of Boston, Mahoney said the neighborhood can be forgotten. It wasn’t the case with Gross, who began his policing career on the streets of Charlestown in the 1980s.
“In Charlestown a lot of times we get overlooked,” he said. “Some Commissioners may come to Charlestown for Bunker Hill Day for a half-hour and then get shuttled out. That wasn’t Willie. He took the time to make friends and he would greet people on the Parade route…He wasn’t just walking around the Monument when he came here. He was walking on Decatur Street too.”