It’s been one week since Boston Mayor Michelle Wu named Michael Cox the new police commissioner. The process, from the time of Wu’s announcement of a search committee to her announcement of Cox, took about seven months and was highly confidential.
Even though the process involved more steps and communication than other police commissioner selections the city has seen in recent years, a few have acknowledged it was not as transparent as it could’ve been.
“There are always opportunities to increase transparency, but most importantly, to increase community engagement and participation,” said Tanisha Sullivan, president of the NAACP Boston Branch and current candidate for secretary of state.
Sullivan, who served on the city’s Police Reform Task Force, noted that unlike many of Boston’s past commissioners, Cox’s appointment came with two public engagement sessions to inform his job description and a search committee composed of public stakeholders. The city also contracted the Police Executive Research Forum to assist with the search.
Despite public input, Sullivan said, the police commissioner selection process was less transparent than that for school superintendent, which was guided by state law and had more public-facing components.
The Boston School Committee voted to name Mary Skipper as the district’s new superintendent in June after a nearly four-month process that included interview sessions where candidates took questions from search committee members and various community groups.
Those elements were not part of the police commissioner search.
“I’m hopeful that incoming Commissioner Cox will have a long tenure here in Boston and so we won’t need to have this conversation in the near future,” Sullivan said when asked about greater transparency in the process.
"Cities are adapting and learning to message things a different way. And maybe, community gets included on the back end of the search."Gary Peterson, CEO of Public Sector Search & Consulting
Other cities with recent top cop selections like Chicago, San Antonio and San Jose, revealed their finalists before selections were made. Some also held public engagement sessions where candidates responded to questions.
The practice of direct public engagement with finalists may change in the coming years, though, if turnover among police leaders continues.
Gary Peterson, CEO of boutique public safety search firm Public Sector Search & Consulting, said until recently, his firm was a big proponent of clients revealing names of finalists.
“The candidate pool of qualified experienced police chiefs is getting smaller,” Peterson told GBH News in a recent interview. “I think it’s a byproduct of [the COVID-19 pandemic], the generational issue of people retiring, and there’s probably some police reform in there that has caused some folks to get out of the business … and some of those folks need to be out of the business.”
Top cops in Atlanta, Dallas, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, resigned as police agencies nationwide came under great scrutiny and pressure during the 2020 protests over racism and police brutality in the wake of the back-to-back slayings of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia.
Peterson said the dwindling police leadership candidate pool contains an increasing number of what he calls “aspirational candidates,” those who run small- to medium-sized agencies and want to step up. At the same time, those candidates have concerns they may face loss of trust or even retaliation if their name is exposed through a public process and they ultimately have to return to face their current employers.
“That’s a bit of a problem,” Peterson explained. “Because we still believe that transparency is important to build community trust … and so, cities are adapting and learning to message things a different way. And maybe, community gets included on the back end of the search.”
To adapt, Peterson said he has advised clients to consider waiting to expose several finalists as long as possible “and try to communicate and message to the community that we’re in an unprecedented time where there’s fewer qualified, really good candidates than there are jobs.”
He acknowledged the strategy is different than how one of his last big-city clients did their public engagement process.
In Dallas, where Chief Eddie Garcia assumed the role last February, the selection process included a city announcement and at least one public forum where the top seven candidates for the job faced questions about the department.
The Wu administration and search committee members declined to disclose the four finalists for the Boston Police Department commissioner job and failed to hold any public engagement sessions with said finalists.
“I can’t say that I’m convinced that that’s the best way forward,” said Thomas Nolan, visiting associate professor of sociology at Emmanuel College and former Boston police lieutenant, in an interview before Commissioner Cox was named. “I think that those names should have been made public.”
Nolan said he understood the concern that some candidates did not want their names revealed so as not to jeopardize their professional situations. Still, he said, “people who are in the finalist position being considered for the police commissioner should, in a public forum, be put in a position where questions are put to them. And I think the public should have some kind of sense of who the finalists are.”
Regardless of this process, Nolan, who voted for Mayor Wu, said he trusts her to make prudent decisions about city leadership and the processes to select them.
“Ultimately, by law, that decision is the mayor’s.”