America’s Most Wanted?

In the aftermath of the marathon bombings, Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis became a national media celebrity. Some reports even had him being considered for secretary of homeland security. Where did these rumors come from, and what do they tell us about Davis himself?

By | Boston Magazine |
Ed Davis Boston Police Commissioner

Photograph By Scott M. Lacey

Editor’s note: As we published this piece, Ed Davis announced his resignation as the Boston Police Commissioner. Read more of David S. Bernstein’s interview with Davis here.

A fascinating moment took place about 13 minutes into a press conference on the evening of April 19, just after the capture of the alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. It was a key moment in the ongoing canonization of Ed Davis, Boston’s police commissioner since 2006. If you blinked you might’ve missed it, but if you looked closely enough, you could see the precise instant that Davis became the take-charge hero of the Boston Marathon bombing.

That moment was broadcast live, as all of Boston—and much of the country—tuned in for the first official information about Tsarnaev’s arrest following a massive manhunt that had shut down much of the area. Ten officials had spoken, Davis included, and then came the first question from the press, about the sequence of events during the now-infamous siege in which Tsarnaev had been pulled, alive but gravely wounded, from a Watertown boat.

Richard DesLauriers, the FBI special agent in charge, moved ever so briefly toward the podium to answer the question, which made sense given that the federal authorities had commanded the day’s operation. But then the imposing Boston police commissioner strode forward and proceeded to hold court for more than five minutes, and 13 consecutive questions, before yielding to U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz. In those five minutes, Ed Davis made sure no one could ever blame the bombings on his department, and he became a star in the process.

Does it seem petty, even offensive, to bring up Davis’s prime-time, mike-hogging performance? Would it be going too far to compare it to the moment when George W. Bush bellowed through a bullhorn atop the World Trade Center rubble, claiming the mantle of leader-in-crisis while the havoc wreaked on his watch still smoldered beneath his feet? Perhaps. But that small, decisive moment at the podium was just the beginning. In the weeks that followed, Davis was everywhere. He jumped at the opportunity for national television exposure, giving interviews to CBS’s Face the Nation and 60 Minutes, and to CNN, Fox News, and countless others. He was summoned to Capitol Hill, and gave an electrifying performance in front of the House Homeland Security Committee hearing convened to review the facts related to the bombings.

As the cameras rolled, Davis used his high-profile platform to do something he has been known to do when trouble knocks: place blame elsewhere. Responding to questions about how a man flagged by Russian authorities as a potential terrorist managed to set off bombs in broad daylight during one of the most heavily surveilled events in Boston history, Davis threw the FBI under the bus. Federal agencies were to blame, he told Congress, because they had failed to share what they knew about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Dzhokhar’s brother and alleged conspirator in the bombings. DesLauriers would publicly refute Davis’s testimony—saying the BPD “specifically had representatives assigned to the [Joint Terrorism Task Force] squad that conducted the 2011 Assessment of deceased terrorism suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev”—but in the headlines that followed, the police commissioner’s version was the one that stuck.

There was soon a rash of speculation in the Boston press, led by a fawning column from the Globe’s Adrian Walker, that Davis could run for mayor. But that was later forgotten amid a mysterious new rumor. First the Globe, and then CNN.com, ran anonymously sourced reports that Davis was on the short-list of candidates to become the next secretary of homeland security. The secretive nature of the deliberations over the job makes it impossible to know whether Davis is, in fact, being considered for it—only a handful of people know, and they’re not talking—but several well-connected DC sources I’ve spoken with found this rumor far-fetched, even laughable.

A certain kind of cynic—and I tend toward cynicism when appraising the motives of public figures—might suggest that Davis has been taking advantage of the marathon attention to boost his national reputation, with an eye toward securing his next job. Mayor Menino, who brought Davis to Boston, isn’t running for reelection, of course. That makes it likely that Davis’s time as BPD commissioner will soon end. Just about everyone running to replace Menino has been heaping praise upon Davis, but a new mayor will probably want his or her own person running the police department. And anyway, there’s been plenty of speculation lately that Davis might resign his position even before Menino’s term ends.

Is Davis, who is 57, really a candidate for the homeland security position? Alternatively, could he be looking to position himself for a job leading an even bigger police department, the way that, say, William Bratton did when he left Boston for New York in 1994? Is he looking to make a lot of money in the world of private security, in the way that Bernard Kerik did after his time running the New York Police Department?

The only person who knows the answers to questions like these is, of course, Davis himself. So I went to see him.

 

It’s hard not to like Ed Davis. At 6-foot-6, his sheer size and self-assurance instill confidence, while his soft, puppy-dog face and earnest manner convey empathy. On a Thursday afternoon in late August, Davis’s second in command, Superintendent-in-Chief Dan Linskey, met me at the Boston Police headquarters on Tremont Street, brought me a cup of coffee, and led me up to a corporate-styled, comfortably appointed, wood-paneled conference room on the fourth floor. Linskey dresses in uniform, while Davis wears a dark suit and tie. They make an amiable pair, and their answers during our interview never turned defensive, even when I pressed Davis about the department’s abysmal homicide clearance rate.

The interesting thing is that being commissioner of the Boston Police Department is a terrible job for a generally progressive law-and-order guy, which Davis certainly is. He is handcuffed by union regulations, which make punishing bad cops and implementing new procedures nearly impossible. The BPD’s internal culture has stubbornly resisted attempts to weed out problems ranging from the manipulation of overtime to casual racism. Antiquated state laws force the department to operate differently than any other police force in the country—for example, in its relationship with the district attorney. And, not least, Davis must deal with a mayor who, to be generous, likes to be involved. (“I talk to Mayor Menino a couple of times a day,” Davis told me. “We have a very close relationship.”)

Despite all this, Davis can rightly boast of a significant drop in crime, and particularly violent crime, during his tenure, although most of the gains are in line with those in similar-size cities. He told me that the department’s relationship with the community has improved, and that city surveys show increased trust in officers. “I was pleasantly surprised with the numbers,” Davis said. Linskey promised to provide copies of the surveys, but as of press time, he hadn’t. Davis attributed these improvements to his renewed emphasis on out-of-the-cruiser community policing, which he said “will be my one lasting legacy.” In the past year, Linskey told me, officers logged 193,500 walking and bicycle beats—a 25 percent increase from just the year before.

Born and raised in Lowell, Davis joined that city’s police force in 1978, in his early twenties, without a college education. In just eight years he earned three promotions, and would get degrees from Southern New Hampshire University and Anna Maria College. In 1994, after 16 years on the force, he became superintendent, Lowell’s top police position. Davis has always had a gift for self-promotion, and that, along with his success in reducing Lowell’s crime rate and his eagerness to incorporate the work of academics, brought him attention far beyond what’s typical for the chief of a small-city police force.

In 2006 Davis unexpectedly landed the job of Boston police commissioner, a remarkable achievement for someone who’d never worked anywhere but Lowell. He was aided to some degree by circumstance. Three internal candidates were competing for the job, and Menino couldn’t promote any of them without exacerbating tensions within several different BPD factions. There was also the fact that few people from outside the department were interested in the job, thanks to Menino’s notorious meddling. (Most cities the size of Boston receive dozens of applicants for similar openings, but when Boston opened its commissioner search to national applicants in 2002, only two outsiders reportedly submitted their names, and both later withdrew.) Those factors aside, Davis ultimately got the job by selling himself to the one person who mattered: Tom Menino.

Throughout his tenure, Davis has made himself accessible to the media, deftly using it—including this magazine—to help burnish his image. In a 2008 profile in these pages, for instance, Davis described how he tore the badge off the chest of the corrupt BPD officer José Ortiz. He recounted telling Ortiz, “You are no longer a Boston police officer. You don’t deserve to wear this.” It was a powerful image that emphasized Davis’s reputation as a take-charge commander—while simultaneously obscuring the discovery that multiple complaints about Ortiz had previously gone unheeded by the department.

The investigation into the murder of Amy Lord, who in August was abducted outside her building in South Boston, provided another example of this pattern of behavior. Lord’s alleged killer, Edwin Alemany, turned out to have allegedly assaulted another Boston woman in September 2012. That victim managed to grab Alemany’s wallet, and thus his identification, during the attack, but the investigating officer, Jerome Hall-Brewster, never made an arrest because, he claimed, he lacked probable cause. Davis demoted Hall-Brewster, placating an enraged public. Attracting less attention, though, was the fact that Hall-Brewster had been kept on the force despite 10 internal-affairs investigations.

Not long after that, South Boston residents were shocked to learn that they hadn’t been told for more than a week about the rape of a woman who’d been picked up by the driver of a gypsy cab on Northern Avenue. This time, Davis blamed the state police.“Staties botch alarm on Seaport abduction,” the Herald blared, quoting Davis complaining about how his department doesn’t have jurisdiction in the area where the victim was picked up. State Police Colonel Timothy Alben responded with a bitter post on the state police’s Facebook page that was directed primarily at the Herald, but that also implied that Davis had personally used a rape case to provoke controversy over the jurisdiction issue.

Davis, in other words, has earned a reputation as someone who will deflect blame—and even place it—when it serves him to do so. When I asked him about his DesLauriers comments before the House committee, he declined to pull the former FBI special agent in charge out from under that bus. “I testified truthfully to the question that I was asked,” he told me.

 

All of this is part of what makes it so difficult to imagine Ed Davis as the head of the Department of Homeland Security, whatever the Globe and CNN may have reported. For the record: He refused to tell me whether he has, in fact, been contacted by anyone connected with the White House about the DHS job. But he did dismiss my suggestion that he has been actively seeking to polish his brand for the next stage of his career. Did he have anything to do with the rumors that he’s being considered for the DHS position? “I’m not behind anything that’s been out there in the public,” he said. Is he angling for a lucrative job with a private security firm? “I have no desire to be a consultant,” he told me.

Perhaps that’s so. But with his mayor on the way out, why wouldn’t Davis be positioning himself for his next move? He wouldn’t be the only city official preparing for a post-Menino life. And he’s hardly the kind of guy who leaves his career, or image, up to chance.

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