Imagine if you were walking down the street with someone from school. The next day, you have lunch with that same person. A few weeks later, you’re assaulted by that person for no reason at all. It turns out he was a “verified” gang member. And because you walked down the street, had lunch and was a victim of their actions, you are a verified gang member as well.
Those are the accusations of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts and other groups. It led these groups to file a lawsuit against the Boston Police Department to find out more about how their “gang database” works.
While BPD declined to comment on the active lawsuit to The Boston Globe, the police commissioner did not show such evasiveness in a Facebook post on his private account — which was visible to his Facebook friends, some of whom are journalists.
The post, written by William Gross, Boston’s first black police commissioner, stated, “No ACLU present when we have to explain to a mother that her son or daughter was horribly murdered by gang violence … No ACLU when officers are shot. No ACLU when we help citizens,” according to The Boston Herald.
Gross certainly has the right to share his opinions. A public position does not disable one’s First Amendment right. However, whether on or off duty, he is still the representative figure of the BPD. A private Facebook post is not equivalent to a private comment — to expect privacy on a social media website is a fool’s errand. So, as the leader of the BPD, he represents the values of the police department as well as the City of Boston in almost everything he does and says.
The fact that the post was leaked is much less troubling than the opinion expressed in the post. It demonstrates irrationality and poor character judgement. Do we really want this kind of person leading the BPD?
Even the argument itself Gross is making is riddled with faults. The ACLU’s mission statement is not to congratulate police departments across the country. They work “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to all people in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States,” according to their website. By demanding transparency in a system that leads to the deportation of the Central American residents of Boston, the ACLU is not condoning gang violence. Rather, it is attempting to shed light on a police practice that is not publicly acknowledged.
In an op-ed published in May 2017, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh and Jeffrey Brown, an associate pastor at the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, criticized the federal government’s desire to turn local police into an extension of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Where is Walsh now? The very thing he criticized is occurring in the very city he runs.
Addressing the tensions between minority communities and the police department is essential in every city. If people trust the police, then both communities and the police are safer. But the police cannot simply be trusted if they are ranking teenagers based on arbitrary measures.
Safety is one of the most — if not the most — paramount priorities of every government. However, safety should not come at the expense of arbitrary racist policies. Both Gross and Walsh make that clear not only through their words, but also through their actions. A simple retraction from Gross would not suffice. However, complying with the lawsuit initiated by the ACLU and other groups would.
Gross’ criticism of the ACLU, whether public or private, should be taken into consideration when evaluating his current position. Every person has the right to express their thoughts, but when in a position of power, that same person represents something greater. In this case, Gross represents the safety and security of every Bostonian. With that kind of power, he should keep in mind the message he sends on whatever platform he sends it.