Capping months of drama, Janey fires White

Acting mayor says commissioner not fit to lead police department

FIRST CAME THE “blue wall of silence.” Then came the very voluble airing of family laundry, an often cringe-inducing exchange of charges and counter-charges of domestic abuse and marital infidelity that seemed more like fodder for a bottom-feeding reality TV show than debate over leadership of the nation’s oldest police department. 

With that, Dennis White’s very brief, drama-filled tenure as Boston’s police commissioner came to an end on Monday as Acting Mayor Kim Janey fired him. The move came five days after Janey held what amounted to a perfunctory hearing to ratify her previous declaration that, based on an investigator’s report, she intended to remove White because of allegations that surfaced about domestic violence episodes in the 1990s that he was involved with.

“I reached this decision after carefully considering the results of an independent investigation into multiple allegations of domestic violence against Dennis White, along with testimony and information he provided,” Janey said at a City Hall press briefing. “Dennis White’s documented conduct 20 years ago and during the course of the investigation led me to the inescapable conclusion that it is not in the best interest of the Boston Police Department, its employees, or the citizens of Boston for him to remain as commissioner. I have therefore terminated Dennis White as police commissioner, effectively immediately.”

Janey said acting commissioner Gregory Long would continue in that role, deferring any discussion of replacing him with another acting commissioner. She said a national search would be undertaken, with the final selection of a new commissioner left to the winner of November’s mayoral election.

Janey said White had, in the course of the investigation and during last week’s hearing, admitted that “he hit and pushed members of his household.”  

“The allegations and evidence of this behavior raised serious questions about his fitness to lead the Boston Police Department and Dennis White’s actions in recent weeks have done even more to erode public trust in his judgment and ability to lead,” Janey said. She criticized him for his efforts to “vilify his former wife.” She also criticized White, who is black, for couching his treatment by the city in racial terms, and for his lack of cooperation with the city investigation.  

Family feud: From right to left, Dennis White, his daughters Tiffany White and Brittany White, and Connie Owens, the sister of White’s ex-wife.

Janey inherited the messy situation when she took the reins as acting mayor in March from Marty Walsh, who had appointed White as commissioner, but left office the next month to become US labor secretary.

Janey said White relinquished his civil service rank of lieutenant when he was named commissioner, so with her announcement that he’s been terminated as commissioner, she said, “he is removed from the force altogether.” 

White’s attorney, Nicholas Carter, said his client was “deeply disappointed” in Janey’s decision. Carter called it a “biased” ruling that was based on a flawed report and vowed further legal action to challenge it. He said White would pursue civil rights claims against Janey and the city “to recover for his own losses” and ensure this kind of treatment won’t recur. 

Janey’s announcement followed four months of headlines and drama as the city wrestled with how to deal with a troubled high-profile appointment made by a mayor who left office soon after and who seemed to regret his choice only hours after White’s official swearing in. Walsh insists he did not know about the domestic violence allegations against White and would not have appointed him if he had. 

A damning report by an outside investigator — which included accusations of domestic violence against White from a 1999 incident involving his then-wife as well as a 1993 incident with a 19-year-old niece, prompted Janey, who took the reins of city government in late March, to declare her intentions to fire him three weeks ago. That plan was upended when White, who has denied any wrongdoing or acts of physical abuse, went to court to block the firing. His legal effort was rejected by two judges, setting the stage for last Wednesday’s hearing with Janey. 

White denied ever abusing his wife or any other member of his family. He acknowledged that he and his wife pushed each other at points in their tension-filled marriage, and he said swatted his niece in a defensive move because she was kicking him.  

The legal wrangling drew in White’s predecessor as commissioner, William Gross, who submitted an affidavit saying then-Mayor Walsh was informed of White’s internal affairs record — including the domestic violence allegation. That was followed by a videotaped affidavit from White himself, claiming to have had personal conversations with Walsh that included telling him about what White says were false allegations of domestic abuse.

Former police commissioner William Evans backed Walsh’s version of events and said he, too, did not know about White’s past, despite promoting him in 2014 to a command staff position in the department.

White never faced charges for any of the allegations. 

The city-commissioned report, carried out by attorney Tamsin Kaplan and released on May 14, was hampered by what Janey referred to as the “blue wall of silence,” with a number of police officers declining to speak with Kaplan. 

In recent days, however, the saga turned from one of tight-lipped police officers into an ugly war of words among family members, who have traded charges about physical abuse, marital infidelity, and even accusations by White’s ex-wife of being coerced into sexual acts. 

White’s oldest daughter and his former sister-in-law recorded videotaped affidavits supporting White’s denials of abuse. Their accounts turned the tables and accused his former wife of abuse and said White was the victim of domestic violence. Tiffany White also recounted an episode in which she said her mother assaulted her, and she said her mother was abusive toward a succession of female lovers.

White’s former wife, Sybil Mason, who is also a Boston police officer, broke her silence last week in interviews with WBUR and the Boston Globe and claimed years of abuse by White. “I’m not the one on trial here,” she told the Globe. “I was the one who got stomped on. I was the one who got beat,” she told WBUR

Meanwhile, the couple’s younger daughter, Brittany, took her mother’s side in an angry, curse-filled monologue on Facebook last week, where she threatened her older sister and claimed her father abused her mother “emotionally, mentally, and physically.” 

When the flurry of public finger-pointing ended, White and his former wife had, among other charges, each been accused of throwing a TV at the other. 

It was a jarring airing of he said-she accounts from a deeply troubled marriage that ended two decades ago, with a supporting chorus of family members taking sides in the dispute. 

The controversy has put a spotlight on domestic violence, something Janey emphasized in her remarks on Monday. “I will not turn a blind eye toward domestic violence against black women or any woman for that matter in the Boston Police Department or anywhere else,” she said. To let White remain in his post, Janey said, “would send a chilling message to victims of domestic violence, and reinforce a culture of fear and a blue wall of silence in our Police Department.”

But the standoff also revealed how murky things sometimes are in cases of deep family discord. White’s attorney says he has been destroyed by a “rush to judgment,” despite the fact that he has never faced charges for the alleged abuse. Carter says Janey made her decision based on a biased report by the city-hired investigator, who never sought to interview Tiffany White, an “obvious” witness with exculpatory evidence. 

White ,who became the city’s second black police commissioner, following Gross’s two and half year tenure, suggested race was playing into his treatment. “Let’s be clear,” he said during last week’s hearing with Janey, according to remarks provided by his legal team. “I am a Black man, who has been accused falsely of crimes, I have not yet been given a fair trial, and I’m on the brink of being convicted, or terminated which is the equivalent here.”

When then-Commissioner Gross abruptly retired in late January, he urged Walsh to appoint White, his chief of staff, as his successor. On February 1, without any background checks or even an interview, Walsh swore-in White as the city’s new police leader. Two days later he was put on leave when the Boston Globe reported that he faced domestic abuse allegations from his then-wife in 1999.

The weeks of political, legal, and public relations jockeying that followed were ostensibly about the leadership of the city’s police department. But that fact was often overshadowed by the release of lurid personal details that played out like a reality-show peak into the life of a trouble-filled police family.

More than anything, the episode stands as a cautionary tale of the danger that comes from governing a major city more like a small town, where a nod from the outgoing police commissioner toward his deputy appeared to be all that was needed for the mayor to make one of the most consequential appointments in city government.

In her announcement on Wednesday, Janey said under a new policy she is implementing, all candidates for BPD leadership posts, “whether internal or external, will be subject to vetting and background checks.”  

“The big takeaway,” said former Boston city councilor Larry DiCara, “is that whether you be the mayor or the governor or president of the United States, you vet candidates.”

 

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.