City’s Top Cop Looking Blue

As the recession squeezes his budget, Ed Davis picks his battles.


photograph by JOHN BOHN/Boston Globe/Landov

Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis made his bones as a hard-charging cop. As a boss in Lowell’s vice and narcotics unit, he pushed for the stealth takedown of drug dealers and prostitutes by undercover officers. So you wouldn’t think he’d be the type to embrace ivory-tower theories over old-school policing when setting department strategy. But that’s exactly what he did when he rose to Lowell police superintendent, and exactly what he’s done since taking the helm in Boston in 2006, following almost without exception the “broken windows” method of community policing. The key word, as he leads his department into this perilous recessionary era, being almost.

“Broken windows” holds that putting uniformed officers in close contact with the community—and having them deal with the smallest of issues—fosters a sense of well-being and trust in tough neighborhoods, thereby preventing crime. In March, Davis announced the rollout of a six-member “safe street” team for Uphams Corner. It’s the city’s 14th such team, and like the others is designed to ramp up police presence in a dangerous area. The strategy seems to be working: Boston has seen a roughly 10 percent annual decline in both shootings and overall crime during Davis’s tenure.

But with budget cuts squeezing police resources and demoralizing the troops, blanketing the city in blue is becoming an ever-trickier proposition. Especially considering that doing so requires pulling cops from other, more desirable posts and sticking them on patrols—something the rank and file tends not to like. (“Holding hands with gangbangers and singing ‘Kumbaya’ has never worked” is the way one miffed detective puts it.) Davis must walk the line, then, between adhering to his preferred crime-fighting strategy and keeping officers bought-in. At least once so far, that’s proved difficult.

The trouble started last fall, when Davis, pressured by community members and clergy to increase police visibility, dismantled plainclothes units across the city and ordered the officers into uniform. Plainclothes duty has long been seen as a mark of prestige, and many cops loathed the decision. “It breaks the spirit of the hard-chargers when they are making very good arrests out there in plainclothes, and then are told it’s more important to keep up appearances,” says Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association president Tom Nee.

Frustrations came to a head at a January 22 command staff meeting. Captain Paul J. Russell stood up, turned to Davis, and declared that putting anticrime squads back into uniform had led to a drop in gun arrests in his Roxbury District B-2. Davis was furious. “If there is intentional pushback, I’m going to deal with it,” he barked, according to two BPD officials who attended the meeting.

Yet within weeks, Davis had relented and the elite units were back in street garb. It was a rare concession for a man who, as even Nee points out, rarely wavers in his conviction.

“I don’t have any regrets at all,” Davis says today. “Who is in uniform and who is not in uniform should be up to the commanders, given the crime issues we are dealing with.” But he also makes it clear which side he believes his commanders should come down on. “The old-fashioned way is to put a task force together and have plainclothes cops go make a bunch of arrests. I believe in having more uniforms out there preventing the crime than having detectives in plainclothes trying to jump on people after they commit the crime.”

Davis insists he did not bow to pressure from the ranks, but the fact stands: A policy he wanted in place no longer is. With rumors floating that he may be planning his exit from the BPD, it’d be tempting to view this as an easy compromise. But it may just be that Davis aims to be prepared for twin storms he sees brewing: in one thunderhead, Mayor Menino; in the other, the cops and their unions.

The last thing Menino wants in an election year is an increase in shootings and other violent crimes. Or, worse still, a possible intentional slowdown in arrests. From September 29, 2008, through February 23, 2009—basically the period during which former plainclothes cops were forced to wear uniforms—there were 125 shootings and 221 firearm-related arrests in Boston. During that same period the previous year, there were 33 fewer shootings and 27 more arrests. Whether the more recent numbers reveal police pushback, sinking morale, reduced resources, or simply the fact that community policing might not work as well as advertised, it doesn’t matter. Davis knows those figures won’t do.

He also knows that he needs to keep his troops—and their unions—on board, especially with cutbacks and layoffs imminent. Menino has pleaded with municipal unions to take a one-year wage freeze to help stem the city’s $140 million budget deficit (the BPD budget itself is off by $25 million). Nee says his union is still in negotiations with the city, as it waits to see what kind of effect the money from the federal stimulus package will have. Privately, union leaders say they will not accept the city’s terms when Beacon Hill lawmakers have taken a 5 1/2 percent raise and Governor Deval Patrick is trying to appoint campaign supporters to high-paying patronage posts.

Davis has already agreed to shut down the mounted unit next month—a decision that has been met with protests and petitions. Also in July, 40 police cadets will be cut from the ranks, forcing more senior officers to perform the cadets’ patrols. But, demonstrating once again his commitment to “broken windows,” the commissioner says the moves are necessary because “I’d rather have cops on the street.”

All of which raises the glaring question: How much, and how much longer, will Davis be able to follow through on that desire? He believes in community policing, but he’s also clearly sensitive to morale—all the more important in a department that’s been rocked during his tenure by the arrest and conviction of five cops for drug trafficking, extortion, and perjury. And he knows that with summer coming (typically the city’s most violent season) and his cash-strapped department teetering toward its breaking point, his ability to hold his officers’ confidence is going to be tested like never before.

“There are a finite number of resources,” Davis says, through a sigh. “Obviously we have to balance the needs of each neighborhood for emergency response and preventive patrols. The fewer officers we have, the greater the concerns.”