Maura In The News

Some see sign that city has changed
By John McElhenny, Globe Correspondent, 2/9/2004

From behind the counter at The Avenue Grille in Dorchester yesterday, Frank Baker heard the news that the mayor had named Boston's first female police commissioner and said he found it arresting how much his Hub had changed.

Choosing a woman as the city's top cop would have been unthinkable in the 1970s, Baker said, but yesterday's appointment of Commissioner Kathleen O'Toole showed how much progress had been made in this conservative Irish-Catholic bastion.

"Boston's trying to change its face," said Baker, 36, who is white. "Before, Boston was run by old white men, but nowadays, you see more women and minorities in positions of authority, and people are comfortable with that."

O'Toole, who began her career in law enforcement as a Boston police officer in 1979, was introduced as commissioner in a City Hall news conference yesterday. Along Dorchester Avenue, in an area locals still identify as St. Margaret's Parish, some residents said the appointment of a woman was a good sign of changing times.

Victor Zukowski, 56, said that when he grew up in Dorchester, women were restricted to a handful of jobs, such as teacher or bakery counter worker. These days, one looks around the city and sees female doctors, bus drivers, and highway workers, he said.

"Women are stronger than men think they are," said Zukowski, who was working yesterday at the Dorchester Thrift Shop. "If she can do the job as well as a man, what's the difference?"

Brian Kenney, who was born and raised in Dorchester, predicted O'Toole might receive a cool reception. "This is a conservative city, and having a male police chief would be a more conservative thing," said Kenney, 27, a waiter and student. "It'll be tough for her at first to earn their respect."

O'Toole, a Boston resident, is a former chief of the Metropolitan Police, a lieutenant colonel in the State Police, and was appointed state secretary of public safety in 1994.

O'Toole beat out several other candidates for the commissioner's job, including Boston Police Captain James M. Claiborne. Some who had hoped Mayor Thomas M. Menino would appoint Claiborne as the city's first black commissioner saw O'Toole's selection as a disappointment.

"The glass ceiling is still there for candidates of color. They have to be twice as qualified to get the opportunity," said Leonard Alkins, president of the NAACP's Boston branch.

Alkins said regardless of O'Toole's gender, her appointment meant the city's Police Department has a white commissioner, as it has always had. "Whenever there's a person of color to take the role of CEO, they're always passed over," he said.

But the Rev. Eugene Rivers of Dorchester said having a police commissioner who is a minority isn't crucial in Boston. Blacks and other minorities make up 51 percent of Boston's population, according to the 2000 US Census.

"Is it necessary at this day, at this hour, to have a black guy there? Well, not necessarily," said Rivers, who is black. "Outside of the politically correct, public relations component of this, they made an excellent decision."

Edward Roy wasn't so sure. Roy said he liked the idea of a woman police commissioner, but wondered how effective O'Toole could be leading the city's male-dominated police force.

"The people in that department might not be as willing to take orders from a woman," said Roy, 41, a carpenter who lives in the South End.

City Councilor Maura Hennigan said O'Toole's long, varied law enforcement career qualified her strongly for the job.

Rick Klein of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Ron DePasquale contributed to this report.

? Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.

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