By Jon Keller

BOSTON (CBS) – In another era, outgoing Boston Police Commissioner Willie Gross might have been a formidable candidate for mayor of Boston.

He’s outgoing, approachable, and well-liked across the city. Name recognition is not a problem – outside of the mayor, no city official is more visible on TV.

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But sources tell WBZ-TV Gross’s surprise retirement announcement Thursday is not the prelude to a bid to succeed Marty Walsh. And both his departure and apparent decision to take a pass on the race have to do with Boston’s modern-day political realities.

Gross is often described as “a cop’s cop,” a term that speaks to his professionalism and understanding of the streets, but which also carries the connotation of conservatism on policing policy. That may not be entirely fair to Gross, a proponent of community policing who has dutifully implemented a number of reform measures during his years in BPD leadership.

But his two-and-a-half-year turn in the top job has included several high-profile controversies that, fairly or not, set him up to be a punching bag in this year’s mayoral campaign.

Gross infuriated local civil libertarians and their political allies in 2018 with a Facebook post deriding the American Civil Liberties Union over a lawsuit they filed to curtail BPD “labeling” of Central American immigrants as gang members.

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Last spring, when many of the city’s top political figures were supporting judicial decisions to release convicts due to the threat of COVID-19 in prisons, Gross bluntly lashed out at them: “If you feel so comfortable releasing them, let them stay in your house with your family.”

And last summer, Gross allowed himself to be suckered into a smiling photo op with then-Attorney General Bill Barr at the height of public outrage over the Trump administration’s handling of civil rights protestors. He claimed to have taken the meeting so he could “give him an earful,” but Gross’s participation in an obvious PR stunt was denounced as “disturbing” by City Councilor Andrea Campbell and “a disgrace to our city and a breach of trust to our communities” by Councilor Michelle Wu.

With both of them already in the mayoral race, Gross faced the prospect of having those episodes – not to mention any stories about police misconduct that might emerge – thrown in his face. That’s a tough position in a city where only 33% of voters say they “strongly support” the police, and some of the biggest citywide vote-getters in recent years – Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, mayoral candidates Wu and Councilor Annissa Essaibi George – are on the other side of those and other policing-related issues.

Those same factors may well have informed Gross’s decision to take retirement now. What better way for an Acting Mayor Kim Janey, for instance, to make headlines and endear herself to police skeptics than by replacing Gross with someone more “progressive”?

The only recent case study of a Boston police commissioner seeking the mayoralty – Francis “Mickey” Roache’s 1993 bid – was a disaster. Nearly three decades later, the political climate is even less accommodating, as the support of the mayor, the governor and the legislature for the recent raft of unprecedented police reforms demonstrates.

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On top of all his other attributes, Willie Gross is smart. Too smart to jump into a pool made of political quicksand.

Jon Keller