Lawrence O’Donnell Profile
The trajectory of O’Donnell’s life — and that of his family — was changed forever in 1975 when his father decided to take on a racially charged wrongful death lawsuit involving the Boston Police Department. James Bowden, a husband and father of two, had been gunned down on a Mission Hill side street that January by a pair of Boston cops who presumed he was a robbery suspect. He wasn’t. And the cops’ account of how and why they opened fire on Bowden didn’t pass the smell test — even though the BPD’s perfunctory review of the incident had cleared them of any wrong-doing. When Bowden’s widow came to seek Lawrence O’Donnell, Sr.’s, counsel, she got it, in part, because of his memory of losing his dad in violent fashion.
Shortly after his dad filed the civil lawsuit, members of the now-infamous “TPF” — or Tactical Patrol Force— paid young Lawrence a visit at the Combat Zone parking lot where he was working nights. One of the cops clocked him over the head and two others stuffed him— handcuffed— into the back of a cruiser. The aim was pretty clear: The insular TPF crew needed a chip to horse trade with the elder O’Donnell at the courthouse the next day. Instead, a judge tossed out their trumped-up charge a week later. The message— if it was meant to intimidate the O’Donnells— had the opposite effect. Three years later, their firm scored a huge win and a $250,000 judgment for the Roxbury widow of Mr. Bowden. The TPF, which continued to wrack up brutality complaints in the years after Bowden’s murder, was itself put down by the police commissioner in 1979.
Despite his own assault at the hands of the desperate TPF crew— which included a cop who’d once coached him on a baseball team— O’Donnell insists that many inside the BPD were happy to see the “cowboy” cops who shot Bowden get their come-uppance.
“A lot of the guys that my dad had gone into the department with saw it as a case of young renegade cops watching too much TV,” he says today.
And many of his Dorchester neighbors— despite the prevailing racial animosities that were at an all-time high in mid-to-late 70s in Boston — were largely rooting for the hometown team.
“No one in Dorchester ever said, ‘What are you doing with that civil rights case?’ Even if someone else were doing it, I suspect people were cheering for us, in a much more tribal way, in the good sense of that word,” says O’Donnell. “Everybody in my neighborhood had had run-ins with the police and saw dishonesty of some kind.” Plus, O’Donnell adds, “In Dorchester, personal loyalty is everything. It’s a bigger thing than any individual action.”
Still, in choosing to represent Patricia Bowden against the BPD, Mr. O’Donnell and his family had taken a step that was irreversible. “We all knew it right away. It was very clear at the time. It’s not one of those things that you look back on. All the clarity was there at the time, right in front of us.”