Twenty-seven years ago, Boston undercover police officer Michael Cox, a Black cop, was severely beaten by two fellow officers when they mistook him for a suspect. Despite alleged efforts to cover up their violent error, Cox won a federal civil suit against the department, successfully suing them for violating his civil rights and earning a $1.3 million settlement with the city.
Now, the same officer who helped shine a light on corruption within the Boston Police Department will lead that department as the city’s 44th commissioner, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu announced Wednesday.
Though he’s not scheduled to begin the job until Aug. 15, Cox signaled Wednesday that he wants the force of more than 2,000 officers to refocus on community policing.
“When we talk about things like diversity, equity, and inclusion, that’s very important for the police department,” Cox, a Boston native, said at a press conference Wednesday. “The police department needs to look like the communities in which we serve. Police departments need to include every resident so we can hear how you want to be policed, what’s important to you, what you’re afraid of, what you need so we can serve you better."
Cox managed to beat out four other candidates for the job, according to the mayor’s office. His appointment follows the national trend of police departments turning to Black and brown police leadership in an effort to bridge the gap between the community and the police. Surveys show public perception of the profession reached the lowest it had been in nearly three decades after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop in 2020.
For decades, Black police officers have been known to be subjected to discrimination after joining the mostly white profession. Those who fail to get along with the work culture or break the department’s “Blue Wall of Silence” are often pushed out by bullying and hazing.
Cox know firsthand how poorly Black cops can be treated. In 1995, when chasing a suspect in a restaurant shooting in plainclothes, the then-police sergeant was struck from behind by an officer just as Cox was about to grab the perp as he scaled a fence. Several police officers punched and kicked him after Cox fell to the ground, beating him until he fell unconscious. After realizing Cox was actually one of them, the officers ran away.
Cox spent six months recovering from the beating, according to the Boston Globe. His attempts to report what happened to him and figure out who was responsible resulted in years of harassment from his fellow officers, including slashed tires and late-night telephone calls to family members. Of the nearly two dozen officers who were asked to file a report about what happened to Cox, none of them said they witnessed exactly what took place, according to the Globe.
Finally, in 1998, a federal jury found that two of the officers involved in the attack had used excessive force. One of those officers committed assault and battery, according to the jury. Both officers, and an additional officer showed deliberate indifference to Cox's medical need when they left him injured on the ground, the jury concluded. However, they found that Cox was not injured in an attempt to cover up the story (they didn’t rule on whether there was an attempt to cover up the assault, according to Cox’s attorney at the time).
Though none of the officers involved faced criminal charges, Cox told the press at the time that he was pleased with the trial’s outcome. Four officers total ended up being disciplined in 1999 in connection to the beating, according to the Globe. That same year, Cox settled with the city.
“Clearly I was a victim of some unconstitutional policing, no different than probably incidents that have happened around the country to Black and brown people in general,” he said reflecting on the trial Wednesday. “The reality is I was a victim of that, but that’s not who I am.”
Cox’s career in law enforcement spans 30 years. In that time, he’s been a veteran member of the Boston Police Department, but he’s been chief of the Ann Arbor Police Department in Michigan since 2019 and will leave that post on July 31 to go back to Boston.