Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis assumed leadership of the Boston Police Department in December 2006 with a promise to strengthen ties between the department and Boston's diverse communities. And a little over a year into his tenure, he's getting rave reviews for his outreach to both gay members of the force and the broader LGBT community in Boston.
Last year, Davis initiated meetings with gay and lesbian Boston Police officers, and a large group of leaders from a range of LGBT organizations in the city, for substantive discussions about the issues facing the LGBT community inside and outside the department. Davis also promoted Norman Hill, the department's former LGBT community liaison and an openly gay 26-year BPD veteran, to the post of deputy superintendent.
"Those two meetings have really informed my decisions on a bunch of different fronts as to how we communicate with this very important part of the city," said Davis during an interview at BPD's Roxbury headquarters. "And so it's been a great experience so far."
Hill said Davis's outreach was unusual in that past commissioners have typically reached out to the community by meeting only with the department's LGBT community liaison. "This commissioner handled it differently," said Hill. "He actually reached out to all gay and lesbian officers, not just the gay and lesbian liaison."
Sgt. Detective Catherine Doherty, who works in ballistics, was among the roughly 12 gay officers who accepted Davis's invitation to meet last spring. Doherty, a 21-year veteran of the force, said that Davis was interested in hearing concerns about how the department treats openly gay officers. "He really wanted to know what issues concerned us and how he as a commissioner could welcome us and give us a voice."
"I really consider this business a partnership and it's a partnership between the police and the community, but it's also a partnership among the officers inside the police department," said Davis of the reason for the meeting. "And so if you're going to have a real partnership, an organization that operates effectively, you need to have honest communication, honest and open communication. So what I tried to do is open that communication up with all sorts of different constituencies within the department."
Davis said that the officers shared both positive and negative experiences of coming out at the police academy or on the force, and discussed areas of officer training that were lacking on LGBT issues. As a result, Davis said he's had several conversations with academy staff about incorporating LGBT issues into future classes. He has also encouraged mentoring between veteran gay members of the department and new officers, which Hill, who was present at the interview with Davis, said has been happening.
"The interesting part of this is that we want to be helpful, but not intrusive, as an administration," said Davis. "So we try to set the tone that there's an acceptance here in the department and that message is clearly coming from me at the top of the organization but it's also something that you have to rely on individual people in leadership positions down through the organization to follow through on." Davis acknowledged that the follow-through is at times "uneven" in the department, but he said conversations about diversity are part of the department's ongoing in-service training curricula.
Doherty said that Davis's outreach sets a positive tone for the department. "I think as a whole it sends the message that the commissioner is very interested in making the department work as a community," she said. On a personal level, she added, "his openness and forthcoming attitude meeting with the different groups and people has been refreshing."
The meeting with leaders of LGBT community groups, which took place last September, grew out of Davis's meeting with the officers. Among the groups represented at the table were AIDS Action Committee, BAGLY, Fenway Community Health Center, Gay Officer's Action League, GLAD, the Gay Men's Domestic Violence Project (GMDVP) the Mass. Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, the Mass. Transgender Political Coalition, the Network/LaRed, the Mass. Lesbian and Gay Bar Association and PFLAG.
Curt Rogers, GMDVP's executive director, was impressed that Davis held such a meeting so early in his tenure. Rogers also said that in past LGBT meetings he's attended with BPD commissioners, there were far fewer people invited to the table and the commissioner stayed only briefly, leaving LGBT organizations to talk with other BPD staff members. Davis, however, stayed for the duration of the meeting, which lasted about two hours, and he brought along a contingent of openly gay officers. "The commitment not only to meet with the community but to bring out people from the police department into the meeting," said Rogers, "was a visible commitment of resources to make it known that he was committed to interacting positively with the community."
MLGBA President Chic Wagner was delighted with Davis's willingness to discuss transgender issues, among other things. "I felt that the commissioner's commitment to diversity with respect to the LGBT community and to increasing internal and external awareness and education about transgender community issues, in particular surrounding domestic violence, was really very impressive," said Wagner, whose organization drafted the transgender rights bill currently awaiting action on Beacon Hill.
Davis said he was struck by the amount of interest by LGBT leaders to help the police department better deal with LGBT issues. "When your main mission is to establish trust in a community, being able to have one on one conversations with people about tough issues is critical to it," he said. "So we actually opened up a dialogue and a lot of people felt good about talking about things like domestic violence among same-sex partners and how police sometimes reacted badly to that."
Davis also got a little lesson in gay history when one of the meeting participants referenced the strained relationships that have existed between the community and the police in the past due to, among other things, the department's past history of raiding local gay bars. "I was completely ignorant of that history of what used to happen here as a department," Davis admitted. "And I had a follow up conversation with members of my staff about it and so it was helpful for me to put into perspective the history of our relationship with the community."
That's not to say Davis had no professional experience with the gay community prior to joining the BPD after nearly thirty years with the Lowell Police Department, where he rose to the rank of chief. As a member of the Lowell P.D. vice squad, Davis recalled how he was assigned to clean up an area of the city that was known as a cruising area for gay men. "It brought me right into the kind of complex issues that confront the gay community," he said. He found himself walking a tightrope between needing to address the concerns of residents of the community - some of the sexual activity in the area, he said, "was out of bounds" - while also treating the men with respect. Additionally, the squad prosecuted a case against a robber who was violently targeting gay men who frequented the area. It was then that Davis realized that "there was a whole component of our city, a whole subsection that couldn't talk to the police and ... in many cases they weren't coming out and they were being victimized by people that were vicious criminals."
In a lighter moment later in the interview, Davis put a different spin on why he's offered such strong support to the LGBT community: "Well, I think largely because I get my coffee at Starbucks on Tremont Street," he laughed, a reference to the fact that the South End Starbucks is probably the gayest location in the chain.
But Rogers said Davis needs to maintain the lines of communication between the BPD and the LGBT community. "What I would love to see is what has happened in the past, that's not happening now, which is an ongoing GLBT advisory group" that would bring together police brass and LGBT community members on a more regular basis, said Rogers.
That's something Davis seems willing to do. "We should have a follow up meeting," he stated. "It's been a while now so it wouldn't be a bad idea to do this every six months or so."