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Michael Cox, a 30-year veteran of the Boston Police Department who rose through the ranks before taking a job to helm a department in Ann Arbor, Michigan three years ago, was selected by Mayor Michelle Wu to become the city’s next police commissioner.
Cox, 57, was chosen by Wu following a six-month search process that yielded four finalists vying to succeed former Commissioner Dennis White, who was fired by acting Mayor Kim Janey last year after an investigation into decades-old domestic abuse allegations against him.
Wu, on a Zoom call with reporters ahead of her formal announcement on Wednesday morning, said Cox leads with a “sense of possibility, a deep faith in what we can achieve together, and a deep love for the city that he grew up in and will be returning home to.”
“As soon as we started chatting, I knew he was the one and that our priorities and values aligned,” Wu said. “That love for Boston shines through in discussing every challenge, and there was just such a sense of hope and excitement and joy about what we could get done together, even (when) tackling very complex and entrenched systems.”
Cox, a Roxbury native and longtime Dorchester resident, called the transition a homecoming for him, and placed an emphasis on making sure officers have departmental support and that they build community trust, particularly during a difficult stretch amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They need to be educated, they need to be developed around all the things that we need to do to make sure that we’re on the cutting edge of meeting the public’s needs,” Cox said.
Cox joined the department in 1989 and ascended the ranks to serve approximately 15 years on the department’s Command Staff before he left in 2019.
His most recent post in Boston was serving as superintendent of the Bureau of Professional Development, but as he noted Wednesday, his experience within the department is varied.
At times in his career, he managed Internal Affairs, the 911 call center, and the police academy, and served as the deputy superintendent of Investigative Services.
But Cox, as he said on Wednesday, may be best known to the public for when, in 1995, he was beaten by fellow officers while on-duty as a plain-clothes officer.
Cox, at the time, was a member of the anti-gang violence unit and was pursuing a murder suspect when he himself was mistaken for a gang member by a group of fellow officers.
Cox was thrown to the ground and beaten by his colleagues. Although attacking officers soon realized their mistake, they left Cox there and kept quiet about the episode.
Cox ultimately suffered injuries requiring him to take a six-month recovery leave. The assault was documented in the bestselling book, “The Fence,” by former Boston Globe reporter Dick Lehr.
Cox later sued the department and proved the involvement of some officers. Some of those involved were fired, but others remained on the force.
Cox told reporters Wednesday the incident compelled him to make sure the department and the policing profession grows and learns from his experience — that there is a structure in place to make sure a similar incident cannot happen again.
“It was a personal struggle for me because it was a tough time,” Cox said. “But the reality is I love public service. You know, I signed on to the job to do public service.”
In Ann Arbor, Cox was temporarily placed on administrative leave in February 2020, a little over four months after he was sworn-in, after allegations he created a hostile work environment as investigations into officers improperly voiding parking tickets played out, according to MLIVE.
A lieutenant and other officials alleged Cox tried to move an investigation toward a conclusion where the supervisor at the center of the probe would not be disciplined, the outlet reported.
However, an investigation into the allegations against Cox found there was no evidence Cox behaved in that manner. But the review did find there was evidence “people feared retaliation by the Chief, and they had a legitimate basis for that fear, whether or not that was the Chief’s intent,” an outside investigation firm wrote in a report.
Cox was reinstated about a month after he was placed on leave, with conditions that he meet with officers and union representatives to apologize for any miscommunications, among other provisions, MLIVE reported.
Asked about the allegations on Wednesday, Cox again apologized for any misunderstanding. He also suggested culture differences between the Boston and Ann Arbor departments, as well as regional differences between New England and the Midwest, contributed to the incident.
“Anyone who knows me … (knows) I’ve always been fairly thoughtful,” he said. “I don’t really raise my voice. I don’t really swear. I don’t do things in that nature.
“What I didn’t really understand that the mere fact that I came from a larger police department to a small police department, that was, in itself, intimidating — that my experiences that I brought with me (are), in itself, sometimes intimidating to other officers who have not had that,” he continued.
Cox said he was misinterpreted.
“I really did not understand that people were even perceiving it that way, and so, I apologize for that, as well as I should, because that certainly was never the intent,” he said.
Former commissioner White’s appointment by now former Mayor Marty Walsh raised questions over how the city’s top cop was vetted for the job. Walsh has denied that he knew about the past allegations when he selected White.
White is currently suing the city over the city’s decision to fire him. On Tuesday, a federal judge dismissed 11 of 14 claims in the lawsuit, however.
Wu, on Wednesday, said the city underwent a “very, very thorough vetting process” while selecting Cox.
“I read through just about every document that has ever been available on (Cox) in Boston,” Wu said, adding that staffers spoke with “many, many people” in Ann Arbor.
“Those conversations for me confirmed what I already knew about chief Cox from his years in Boston … that he takes every step of leadership very seriously and in this case had taken full ownership over any miscommunication and used that as a learning opportunity with those around him as well,” Wu said. “And so we are tremendously excited to bring a leader of his experience and wisdom and background to Boston in this role.”
Wu and Cox both acknowledged they did not know one another previous to their current roles, but nonetheless share the same vision of equity, diversity, and inclusion that Wu has made a focal point of her administration.
Cox, when speaking to reporters and at a formal press conference later on Wednesday, placed an emphasis on diversifying Boston’s police force and bringing back more forms of community policing, including open input from residents.
“We’re going to give back in so many different ways,” Cox said. “We’re going to be present in every community. We’re going to get to know the cultures of all the people that we serve to make sure that we never make a mistake and confuse someone’s culture from behavior that’s considered criminal in some way, shape, or form. We need to understand the people we police.”
Cox is slated to begin his new job on Aug. 15.
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