Cops Versus Cop
Michael Cox was an ambitious, up-and-coming Boston police officer when his career and his life hit the wall, literally and figuratively, as he pursued a suspect in an early morning shooting. The man, along with three others, had led Cox and a phalanx of Boston police cruisers on a high-speed chase that careened through inner city neighborhoods before coming to a dead end.
Cox, who was on duty in plain clothes, was preparing to scale a chain-link fence in pursuit of Robert “Smut” Brown when he was hit from behind and savagely beaten by fellow policemen who mistook him for the suspect.
When they realized their mistake, that they had brutalized one of their own and not some hapless civilian, they left Cox, who is Africa-American, bleeding on the cold January ground. Other officers subsequently appeared and called an ambulance, but the “blue wall of silence” insured that all of the policemen at the scene, and up the chain of command, would try to prevent investigators from finding out what had happened.
Veteran investigative journalist and author Dick Lehr, who covered the story for The Boston Globe, chronicles this disturbing tale of official lawlessness in his fourth book, “The Fence” (HarperCollins, $25.99). Weaving mini-biographies of key players into the unrelenting police cover-up and Cox’s determined quest for justice, he paints a gritty portrait of urban life that reads like a crime novel – replete with plot twists and vivid, deeply flawed characters. Mike Cox, Brown and Kenny Conley, a white policeman from “Southie,” Boston’s Irish enclave, may inhabit the same city, but their worlds are in totally different orbits. That each man, in his own way, tries to do the right thing is a saving grace in this otherwise troubling saga.
A graduate of Harvard and the University of Connecticut Law School, Lehr brings a mastery of jurisprudence to the challenge of chronicling three separate criminal investigations, as well as the civil suit Cox brings against the police and the city. The author’s solid grounding in the history and diverse cultures of Boston, which he has covered for 25 years, adds context to the unfolding events.
Now a professor of journalism at Boston University, Lehr got his start as a newspaperman in his home state of Connecticut during the 1970s, initially as a reporter and editor for weekly Old Lyme Gazette and later as an award-winning reporter for The Hartford Courant. “Black Mass,” the best-selling book about Boston mobsters and a corrupt FBI agent that Lehr co-wrote in 2000, was made into a movie starring Johnny Depp.
Q. What do you anticipate will be the response to “The Fence” from the Boston Police Department and Mayor Thomas Menino, who was in office when Cox was assaulted in 1995?
A. I’m not sure. It might stir up some trouble in terms of a backlash. There may be some people who think this is all in the past and that this is just stirring up trouble, in their point of view, from the dim past.
Q. Has the Boston Police Department learned any lessons from the Michael Cox scandal?
A. I think individual officers have learned some lessons, having gone through this experience, about how many bad things can flow from the culture of lying and cover-up that was so predominant in this case. But institutionally I’m not sure much has been learned. For example, I think this is the kind of case that should be taught at the Boston police academy. One instructor did use it in a class about five years ago. I believe the best way to learn about ethics and a code of conduct is to use examples from your own backyard.
Q. How do the Boston police stack up against their brethren in other major cities in maintaining the so-called “blue wall of silence,” the unwritten code that prevents them from coming forward or testifying when fellow officers break the law?
A. It is hard to measure one department against another quantitatively, but there is no question in my mind that this is a dynamic in virtually every police force in the country, whether big city or small town. There’s a case in a rural town in western Massachusetts right now where an officer has been fired and is facing charges for filing false reports regarding police brutality. Out in California, in Orange County, prosecutors are confronting the blue wall of silence head on in a police brutality case. They illustrated this concept to the jury by showing the iconic image of those three monkeys: see-no-evil, hear-no-evil and speak-no-evil.
Q. How about the issue of you examine in the book called “testilying,” a practice whereby police officers lie in court to ensure convictions of defendants whom they deem to be guilty, or in this case, to protect their own? Is it still a common practice?
A. Yes it is. The term refers to police lying or perjury. The underpinnings of it in some cases may be well intentioned. The police who want to put away bad guys. They’ve caught someone whom they are convinced is guilty, but they lie and fudge to try to make their evidence appear better to help insure a conviction. But the bottom line is that they are lying, and it is a slippery slope, a corrosive practice. It leads to a larger culture of lying.
Q. Several jurors in the civil case told you that after the trial they don’t view policemen in the same way as they once did. Is that true for you as well?
A. No, I’ve been dealing with law enforcement for more than 20 years as a journalist. So this case wasn’t surprising to me. I have met a lot of good cops, there are plenty of them who do really solid police work, but I have seen the other side as well over the years.
Q. How does Cox feel about the publication of the book?
A. Mike is uneasy about it. He has always been a reluctant participant in this project. He never wanted to be where he ended up, to be in the position he found himself in. He never wanted the attention to begin with. He wanted justice but not the spotlight.
Q. Is he still largely shunned by his fellow officers?
A. He is still on the force. In fact, he has risen to deputy superintendent. I talked to him recently, and he said it is still there, although less now because time has passed and there has been turnover in the department. There are a lot of young officers who don’t know about what Mike went through, but will learn about it with the publication of this book. I think that’s a good thing, but he’s bracing for a spike in the kind of ostracism he’s had to go through. The days of harassing phone calls and slashed tires have long passed.
Q. How about “Smut” Brown and Kenny Conley, the white officer who was prosecuted unfairly as part of the cover-up before being finally vindicated?
A. Smut is still in federal prison. Unless he succeeds on some appeals, he’s be there for another 15 years on drug charges. Kenny was fired and facing prison time, but he has won his job back. He’s been promoted to detective and is doing well. He was part of the collateral damage of the police cover-up and was a secondary victim in this case. He was unfairly targeted by federal investigators who couldn’t crack the blue wall of silence, but Kenny wasn’t part of it.
Q. Do you check your tail lights before you head out in the morning?
A. No, but maybe I should do that in the next few weeks.