Police Commissioner William Gross laughs when he thinks about the term “community policing.” For him, it was simply called breakfast, and it was something he and his fellow officers enjoyed at Ashley’s on Bowdoin Street after working the overnight shift during the crack epidemic a few decades ago. “Every morning, we were in with folks who had two or three jobs. They got to interact with us, tell us their problems. We’d laugh, we’d joke. Sometimes we’d handle some serious situations that were brought to our attention. We were doing community policing, and we didn’t even know it,” says the city’s first black commissioner. “We did that all, long before it was given that grand moniker.” The 54-year-old, who grew up on a farm in Maryland before moving to Boston as a child, chatted about his life away from work.
On using his free time wisely: I’m a big history buff. I spend a lot of time watching the History Channel and doing reading and research. I love going to the USS Constitution whenever I can. I fly every week on a flight simulator at home to release some stress. I’ve been doing that for years. I love flying—I’m a big aviation guy. My heroes are the Tuskegee Airmen from World War II. I wanted to fly the same types of planes they flew, and it just kept growing into flying different types of planes. It’s very relaxing for me.
On the opportunities he had growing up: There’s a football coach, Harry Wilson, and his brother Dennis Wilson. They would always teach us history and pride. Harry Wilson was a Vietnam vet, and they gave a lot of opportunities to us. That was in ’75 at the height of busing. They made sure that we knew about Boston, the rich history of Boston. They always provided opportunities for us not to just be on one street and on one block. So we played some of our first games outside the city. They took us around and exposed us to bigger and better things. So that’s one of the things I love doing. My old office, when I was superintendent-in-chief, was set up like a museum to teach all-inclusive history. I remember one project that we did was with the mayor, then-Commissioner Evans and myself—we had our own Selma project. We identified students that saw the movie Selma or we took them to see the movie, and then we took them back to headquarters for a youth-police dialogue. And in that dialogue, we had the NAACP and officers of all colors. It was supposed to be 30 minutes and it ended up being 2 hours. From there, I started asking questions to the students. I said, “How many of you take advantage of the rich, historical landmarks
in Boston?” Probably one hand was raised, so I took about 40 students to the USS Constitution. They gave us the ship for the day, with a private tour of the museum afterward.
On his favorite police movies and TV shows growing up: My grandmother started me off with Alfred Hitchcock theater, and then it went to westerns like The Big Valley, Bonanza and The Rifleman. And at night, you’d have shows like The Untouchables; later on it was like Barnaby Jones, Mannix and Dragnet. There’s just so many, but that was in the later ’60s into the ’70s—all the way till I was 12. You had The Rookies, The Mod Squad, Police Woman. When we saw the programs, we discussed what was happening. These were serious shows about diversity and racial inequality. All of that, all those television shows gave you a sense of justice, taught by my grandma.
On his interest in quantum physics: It’s hilarious when I start talking about quarks or the string theory or the theory of relativity or the big-bang theory. People say, “huh?” I love quantum physics. Maybe that’s why I can relate to that show Big Bang Theory. I think it’s hilarious.
On his favorite Star Wars flick: I like the first one. There’s nothing like the first one with the computer-generated imagery. To me, it was way ahead of its time, and all the rest are trying to catch up. There’s nothing like the first one. It was just like seeing Jaws for the first time—there’s nothing like it.
On his favorite spots for coffee or lunch as a patrolman: I wasn’t really a coffee guy. In the height of the crack wars, so to speak, the officers that worked 11:45 pm to 7:30 am were such a close-knit group that we had breakfast together every day at Ashley’s. We’d always love having breakfast together with the community. Ashley’s was on Bowdoin Street. … We had Ashley’s in the morning and Linda Mae’s was another place where we would all sit and have breakfast. We wouldn’t be isolated. People would come in and have breakfast with us.
On expanding his interest in planes to actual flights: I plan to. There’s a pilot, Deputy Walcott, who works with us. He says’ he’ll take me up one day. I’d love to.
On where his interest in flights comes from: I’m not originally from Boston. I’m originally from Hillsborough, Maryland, on the Eastern Shore. I was always around a lot of veterans and military, so I always loved airplanes—even as a kid. I was always infatuated with airplanes and I’ve stuck with it.
On his other interests: Science-fiction as well. I love Star Trek, Star Wars. And all of the Boston sports, but the New England Patriots, number one.
On his favorite Patriots player: My favorite person is Belichick. His coaching style is just, “Do Your Job.” It’s all about pulling together as a team. The players come and go. Of course, we love Tom Brady. And Mr. Kraft—like two Halloweens ago—was on Bowdoin Street in one of our toughest areas at St. Peter’s Teen Center. He brought five Patriots with him on Halloween night. He and Gronk and Brady are always giving back to the neighborhood, and so is Big Papi. I can’t say enough about all of our professional sports teams that give back so much. I also have a lot of fun on my technical days off, if I can take kids to Fenway Park or get them tickets for a Celtics game or do things with the Patriots. I never have a day off—it’s supposed to be Saturday and Sunday—but they’re filled with the community just doing a lot of fun stuff, especially with the kids. It’s the same type of opportunities that were shown to me when I was growing up.
On growing up on a farm: It was a big farm. We had 7 dogs, 13 cats, chickens, pigs, apples, pears, peaches, grapes. You didn’t have a choice about working either. It was, “Go cut the grass, do this, do that or you’re not going to eat.”