Why Boston's mayor and its police commissioner are at loggerheads

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If Mayor Raymond L. Flynn had his way, Boston would have a new police commissioner. But Joseph M. Jordan, who has held the post since November 1976, is not about to step down - and the law, so far, is on his side.

Eventually, the Police Department reins will be passed to someone of the mayor's liking, but Flynn may have to wait for 31/2 years, when Commissioner Jordan's current term runs out.

Jordan may be an able commissioner, dedicated to excellence in law enforcement, but his effectiveness may be weakened because he lacks the confidence of Boston's elected chief executive.

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Unless he wins Flynn over - something that seems increasingly unlikely - Jordan can expect to become an unwelcome member of the administration and may encounter mounting pressure to get out.

The commissioner is determined to keep his $60,000-a-year job, but he can take little comfort from the fact that few people have publicly rallied to his support. In addition, opposition appears to be growing in Police Department ranks. Jordan loyalists notwithstanding, the two groups with the lion's share of agency employees - the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association and the Police Superior Officers' Federation - have denounced his leadship in the past several months.

Finally, a coalition of black community leaders from Roxbury, Dorchester, and the South End have been angered by the way the department handled charges of police brutality. Last December, the coalition called for Jordan's resignation.

The job of police commissioner should not be a popularity contest. At the very least, however, support of the mayor seems essential - no matter how competent and well-intentioned the chief might be. Having a holdover from a previous city administration, especially an administration that had different priorities and approaches, appears to make little sense.

Disagreements between Mayor Flynn and Commissioner Jordan may be considerable , as underscored by Jordan's foot-dragging over the court-ordered payment to the family of a black man slain by two police officers during a chase in 1975. Mayor Flynn, during his election campaign, pledged settlement of the obligation of $ 843,000, which includes accrued interest.

Flynn was also rankled when Jordan, in response to the slayings of two Boston cabbies, said taxi drivers could carry guns to protect themselves.

In most other large cities across the nation, the head of the municipal law enforcement agency serves concurrently with the mayor. Similarly, the head of the State Police is coterminous with the governor.

Why should Boston be any different? In its wisdom the City Council has tried to rectify the situation through a home-rule petition which, if enacted by the legislature and signed by the governor, would give Commissioner Jordan's successor a term paralleling that of the mayor's.

This, however, would not affect Jordan's current term, which runs through July 1987. So, regardless of what happens to the proposal, Mayor Flynn probably will have to wait until a few months before the end of his own four-year term to appoint someone of his choice to head the Boston police force.

For more than half a century before 1962, the Boston police commissioner was an appointee of the Massachusetts governor rather than the mayor. The current arrangement, under which the commissioner is appointed by the mayor for a five-year term, stems from legislation enacted in the wake of a CBS television documentary. In ''Biography of a Bookie Joint,'' Boston police officers were shown frequenting a Back Bay key shop, which was a front for illegal betting operations.

Worth consideration is a more far-reaching measure, one that would altogether abolish the post of police commissioner or make it subordinate to a mayoral appointee. In the latter option, a new municipal public-safety agency could be created and directed by a single nonuniformed administrator, who would oversee both the police and fire departments.

In that way, Commissioner Jordan would retain his title but have little real authority over law-enforcement operations.

Any such move to push Jordan out or to reduce his role to that of a figurehead will encounter stiff opposition from his friends in the legislature and others who favor keeping the leadership of the Police Department free from mayoral control.

Some observers are concerned the department would become more politicized with a Flynn appointee at the helm. Even so, the situation would not be any worse than it has been in the past few years, when many promotions went to supporters of former Mayor Kevin H. White.

Law enforcement is no place for political considerations.

However, it is difficult to justify a system that does not make police leaders accountable to the mayor. Given the authority to pick a police commissioner, Mayor Flynn, or any future city chief executive, would probably come up with someone just as capable, just as honest, and just as dedicated to doing a good job as is Jordan. And the new commissioner, enjoying the confidence of the mayor, might do a better job.

Unlike Jordan, a member of the police force for nearly four decades, the next commissioner need not come from the ranks. In fact, it might be time to look outside the city, maybe even outside the state, to choose a new agency head.

If nothing else, an appointee with a proven record of accomplishment in law enforcement could look around and make whatever adjustments are necessary to strengthen the city police force. And he would not need to fear stepping on tender toes of those who are favorites with the powers-that-be at City Hall.

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