Twenty Year Ago Today, Leadership That Made a Difference: Paul Evans

The Evans family made a little Boston history this year when Paul and William Evans became the first brothers to serve as Boston police commissioner. It is not the family’s first big contribution to that department. Starting 20 years ago this very day, February 14, 1994,  Paul wrought historic changes to an organization for which history is no small thing, tracing its roots as it does to 1630.  They are changes Ed Davis incorporated in his own Hall of Fame tenure. It’s history that brother Bill is even now advancing.

Over a nine-year tenure Evans the Elder fundamentally reoriented a major US police department.  The paradigm for American policing for most of its history has been that of the “professional.”  Professional is good.  It suggests an institution that aspires to high standards of conduct and practice.  But it also tends to be internally defined and measured, like law, medicine and religion.  Over time, professionalism breeds a mindset — a paradigm —  of “we know best.”  The profession looks inward for measures of its effectiveness; it becomes self referential.  Professionals tend to be subtly contemptuous of the non-professionals, the lay persons or civilians who seek their help.

Evans led the Department to look outward for what matters.  He did this by liberating the minds and creativity of officers in the districts.  By 1994, civil service captains in the BPD were relegated to being glorified clerks.  The power and authority stayed in the executive offices of 154 Berkeley Street, exercised through the agency of the appointed deputy superintendents.  Under the late Kevin White the districts had been bundled into five areas — A,B,C,D,E — for purposes of administration.  The deputies ran the show in the areas.  District stationhouse had captains, but they did not exercise any power.  Indeed for over a dozen years in the 1970’s and 80’s the city would not hold a captain’s exam in retribution, it was said, for the superior officers’ vote of no confidence in former Commissioner Robert Di Grazia.

In his very brief Boston commissionership William J. Bratton elevated the captains back to leadership status.  He provided them the first executive training they had ever received.  Evans, with, it must be added, the permission of Mayor Menino,  then committed to abandon the old political model.

He told newly promoted captains that they would become the chiefs of police in their districts.  The model fit. Many Boston neighborhoods started as independent towns before joining the city for cheap water.  (Brookline started as the Muddy River section of Boston and then opted out but that’s another story).  No one from Boston “lives in Boston.”  They live in villages inside towns.  St. Brendan’s, Eagle Hill, the Lower End, Grove Hall and Readville, etc.  Most district lines corresponded to  neighborhoods, Dorchester, East Boston, South Boston, Hyde Park and Roxbury, that comprise these villages.

Evans had a disarmingly simple slogan: “Ownership and Accountability.”  It had a corollary as well: “Same Cop, Same Neighborhood.” These seven words of guidance would have gladdened Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.,  who famously said,

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

Evans decentralized power.  He in effect said to his local leaders, “I am not going to tell you how to do community-oriented policing.  I am going to give you ownership of political power and resources and then hold you accountable for what you said you would do.”  He decided this would be the best way to liberate and license effective problem solving.  It was the best way to manage the complexity that is the stuff of policing everywhere, and especially in the urban context.  Paul Evans did about as good a job as I have seen of realizing one of Herman Goldstein’s key principles: authorizing and resourcing problem-solving at the level closest to the problem.

Some people leapt at the opportunity.  Many said, sure what the hell.  Some were apprehensive, a few had an inkling that a lot of trouble and responsibility were in store and quietly sought other assignments.  As time rolled by, Evans backed up this strategy with just-in-time training, support for problem-solving and other resources consistent with his promise to push the goodies out and down from HQ.  After five years of staying the course of creating Ownership and Accountability at the community level, the change took hold.  Some of those who were apprehensive in 1994 were by 1999 the top practitioners of community-oriented prevention of crime and harm.  By then, the President and the Attorney General were making regular trips to Boston for tutorials on how to prevent firearm violence.  The Department was working with thousands of partner agencies and individuals.

Along the way another strategic transference happened.  As the Department looked outward and felt more confident in its openness, the long-troubled relationships with the Black community began to change.  It was most obvious with the clergy.  As the Department conferred some professional respect and legitimacy on the community, the community responded  by conferring increasing moral legitimacy on the police.  That is a subtle change but it has made all kinds of good things possible since.


About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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