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?

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.