BOSTON — Before dawn on a January morning in 1995, the phone rang in the home of Michael A. Cox Sr., a Boston police officer. His wife answered, still groggy. He had been hurt. As two of his fellow officers rushed her to the emergency room, she asked what had happened.
Their answer: He slipped on a patch of ice and hit his head.
That was a lie. Officer Cox, who is Black and was in plainclothes, had been mistaken for a homicide suspect after a high-speed chase, and a group of his fellow officers had beaten him viciously, kicking him in the face and bashing his head with hard objects. When they realized who he was, they left him there, unconscious and bleeding.
But the facts of that night were swallowed up by a code of silence, the unwritten law that presumed police officers would shield one another from accountability.
Officer Cox spent four lonely years fighting his department in court before any of his assailants were disciplined. The city eventually paid him $1.25 million in damages and legal fees. In the meantime, he was shunned. His tires were slashed. He received menacing phone calls.
So it was extraordinary to see him introduced, last week, as Boston’s new police commissioner.
Mr. Cox, 57, rarely speaks about the beating, which left him with kidney damage, a concussion and the lasting aftereffects of trauma. But he did so before the whole city, describing it as “no different than incidents that have happened throughout the country to Black and brown people in general.”
“After this incident happened, I had a choice — either quit or stay, and I chose to stay, because I believe in policing in a community-friendly way,” he said. “And I know the men and women that I work with believe in that same thing, too.”
The selection of Mr. Cox as police commissioner is a defining one for Mayor Michelle Wu, who was elected last year with a mandate to press change on this city’s entrenched and insular power centers.
None of them is more impenetrable than the Boston Police Department, which has a history of covering up violations and obstructing investigations.
Last year, it emerged that Patrick M. Rose, a former police union president, rose through the ranks for more than two decades even though an internal investigation concluded that he had likely sexually abused a 12-year-old. Mr. Rose was ultimately charged with 30 counts of abusing children.
The same year, Dennis White, a newly appointed police commissioner, was removed two days into his tenure after The Boston Globe uncovered 20-year-old domestic abuse allegations. An investigation by the city described widespread obstruction of the inquiry. One retired officer said he got five phone calls from colleagues discouraging him from cooperating.
The selection of Mr. Cox, who served on the Boston police force for 30 years before becoming chief of police in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 2019, caught many in Boston by surprise.
“I said, Michael Cox — that Michael Cox?” said Kay Gibbs, 81, a longtime political aide, describing her initial reaction as “ecstatic.”
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“It’s — what do you call it — poetic justice,” said William E. Dickerson II, senior pastor of Greater Love Tabernacle, who served on the search committee that recommended candidates for the job. “We are not going to be defined by our past,” he said. “But we are not going to ignore our past, either. Because it is inextricably bound to who we are.”
Others lingered on the irony that Mr. Cox will be head of an organization that, for a time, made him a pariah.
“When you are taking on the department in the ways he has,” you “become isolated, no one wants to be near you,” said Detective Larry Ellison, the former president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers.
“Now, he’ll have more friends than he can count,” he said. “Some of the same people will be telling him they were rooting for him when they really weren’t.”
A test of faith
On that night in 1995, a column of police cars screamed into a cul-de-sac in Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood, in pursuit of suspects in a homicide. Mr. Cox, who was in the lead car, jumped out and chased one of the suspects as he vaulted over a fence.
He had reached the fence when he felt a sharp blow to his head from behind.
Then he was on the ground, trying to protect his head with his hands as officers kicked and struck him, according to “The Fence: A Police Cover-Up Along Boston’s Racial Divide,” by Dick Lehr, a former Boston Globe reporter who reconstructed the night based on testimony, court documents and interviews with witnesses.
Mr. Cox was alone, trying to scramble to his feet, when two more officers found him. One of them was trying to handcuff him when he spotted his badge and exclaimed, “Oh, my God.” Then Mr. Cox passed out.
It was the fourth time he had been assaulted by fellow officers at crime scenes while in plainclothes, Mr. Cox later said as part of his lawsuit.
James Burgio, 56, who was found civilly liable of using excessive force and fired from the police force for his role in the incident, said that he was falsely identified as Mr. Cox’s assailant, and that other officers were responsible. He was never charged criminally and found a new career as a unionized sprinkler fitter.
Mr. Burgio described the scene that night as “pure bedlam,” with upward of 20 officers converging on the cul-de-sac after a high-speed chase. Under those circumstances, he said, it was not surprising that a Black officer in plain clothes could be mistaken for a suspect.
“Nobody knew who was who,” he said. “Without making an off-color statement, you work in a neighborhood that is 90 percent minority, you can’t tell who is who some of the time.”
He said he had a favorable impression of Mr. Cox, who he heard was “a good, hard-working cop like I was.”
“The kid got beat up, and he unfortunately suffered serious injuries,” said Mr. Burgio. He added that it was “unlikely that nobody saw it,” but that “a lot of people just didn’t want to get involved.”
“They saw somebody get hurt, and nobody wanted to have any part of it,” he said.
Mr. Cox grew up in Roxbury, a Black neighborhood in the heart of Boston, the soft-spoken son of a landscaping business owner who took pains with his education, sending him to private school.
At the time of the assault, he was “young and naïve,” he said in an interview. As he recovered from his injuries, a six-month process, he expected an apology, but none came. He was shocked to realize that none of the officers on the scene reported seeing the assault.
Activists hoped he would go public as a critic of the department; his fellow officers hoped he would let the matter go. Then there was a third way: to stay on, and fight.
“I told him the hardest battle he would have would be to fight from the inside, and if that was his choice, we would stand by him,” recalled Cora Davis, 75, his sister. “It is, to me, one of the most difficult choices people can make.”
Nearly a year after the attack, Cox filed a lawsuit against the city and several officers, arguing that his civil rights had been violated, and that the department tolerated excessive use of force against Black men.
Four years later, three officers, including Mr. Burgio, were dismissed from the force and found civilly liable for elements of the attack. One of them, David C. Williams, was reinstated in 2005 after a civil service arbitration.
In an interview, Mr. Williams denied any wrongdoing, remarking, “If I did what they said I did, I should be in jail.”
No criminal charges were ever filed; in 2000, the federal prosecutor explained ruefully that he had “hit a blue wall.”
Mr. Cox went on to serve 15 years in the department’s command staff, including assignments in Internal Affairs and Operations, and oversaw the Boston Police Academy.
He never took a public stance on police brutality, said Jamarhl Crawford, a community activist who interacted with him on police matters, and described him as “very somber, very straight-down-the-middle,” almost professorial in his manner.
“In all these years, he has not been vocal, even about his own situation,” Mr. Crawford said. He added, “The fact that he chose to and continues to choose to not be vocal about that, that says something.”
Mr. Cox describes the experience as an awakening, which left him hungry to better understand why police departments work the way they do, and spurred him to pursue two advanced degrees, in criminal justice and business administration.
“At the time, I didn’t understand why that had happened to me,” he said. “I felt violated. I struggled with, how can a human do that to another human? And for me, the search for answers, and the thought that my answers, maybe, could change it, that was a driving force.”
One thing he was certain about: Walking away would not achieve anything.
“The mere fact that I’m present,” he said, “is a reminder to some folks that these things exist.”
A meeting with the mayor
Mayor Wu had never spoken with Mr. Cox until his name was included in a list of four finalists for the job of police commissioner.
As part of the vetting process, she “went through every document that existed” about his beating and legal battle.
“In many ways, this was a pivotal experience in Boston’s history,” Ms. Wu said, confronting the city with “such a stark example of how broken the system is, and how seemingly common this experience could be.”
The two met for an interview on June 23, and “a few minutes into our conversation, I knew Commissioner Cox was the one,” she said, combining an insider’s knowledge of the department with an outsider’s understanding of “what it means when the system doesn’t see everyone.”
Mr. Cox was not a national figure; since 2019, he had run the Police Department in Ann Arbor, which has 122 sworn officers, compared with more than 2,000 in Boston.
Soon after he arrived there, he was put on a two-week paid administrative leave after allegations that he interfered in an investigation into a parking supervisor over improper voiding of parking tickets.
An independent investigation found that his subordinates felt he was discouraging them from pursuing the matter, but that ultimately, he allowed the probes to go forward.
Mr. Cox described the episode as a matter of management style. “It was just a misinterpretation, and a young police chief making some mistakes,” he said.
By some measures, Boston is doing well: Its homicide rate remained low during the coronavirus pandemic, hovering at about 50 per year, making it an exception among large cities.
But its department has failed to keep pace with demographic change, remaining more than 60 percent white as the city’s white population dropped to about 44 percent. And it has a long record of protecting officers accused of misconduct, with police unions maintaining a powerful role in disciplinary procedures.
Successive commissioners have attempted to introduce more oversight, but “the institutionalized cultural structure of the department makes it incredibly difficult,” said Mr. Crawford, the activist. To succeed, Mr. Cox will have to confront the “good old boys’ network.”
Last week, as the excitement of the announcement abated, Mr. Cox returned to Ann Arbor, where he will continue working until the end of the month, and left observers in Boston wondering what to expect.
“One thing I know about police departments, not just here in Boston, but everywhere — they’re just not readily susceptible to change,” Mr. Ellison said. “But change is here.”