DA Rollins, Neighbors Speak Out on Clean Sweep

DA Rachael Rollins told the Sun this week that she doesn’t think the complex situation at Mass/Cass can be “swept up,” but requires long-term investment – going so far as to call the Boston Police action two weeks ago “cruel.”

She also indicated that she may not prosecute all of the 34 individuals who were arrested in the two-night sweep of the area. Hers was one of many reactions to the situation that was inflamed to its current conflagration by the attack of two corrections officers from the Suffolk County House of Corrections on Aug. 1.

“Substance use disorders, mental illness, and homelessness are not problems that can simply be ‘swept’ away in order to create the illusion of safety,” she wrote in a comment to the Sun (its entirety can be read elsewhere in this issue). “These actions, however well-intentioned, have consequences that reverberate throughout our community. We cannot embrace a one-size-fits-all strategy, because the individuals arrested in these sweeps do not always share the same challenges. Some suffer from mental health issues; others are dealing with substance use disorders. Many are homeless. Our approaches cannot be short-sighted or reactionary because the costs – both financial and human – are too high. It should not be illegal to exist.  We are ‘sweeping’ people away from the very areas they go to get services, treatment, and help. To me, that’s cruel.

To be clear, those who engaged in violence will be held accountable. But many of the people ‘swept’ up did not assault the corrections officer.”

Boston Police officials, and Mayor Martin Walsh, said the sweep was focused on dangerous people who had migrated to the area, as well as drug dealers preying on vulnerable people.

“This is an epidemic,” he said. “We can’t have people shooting up on the streets. We can’t have that kind of devastation, people preying on others. We have prostitution that I’m hearing about – young people being prostituted for drugs. We have drug dealers coming down and preying on these folks. We need to do everything we can to keep them safe as best we can and get them into treatment. You can’t force someone into treatment. A lot aren’t ready or don’t want to go into treatment. It doesn’t matter if you’re on the street or in your living room, you have to be willing to go into treatment…

“When the police took that action last week, we got rid of a lot of drug dealers and people preying on the sick and suffering that are there,” he continued. “That’s really what it’s all about. We’re not going to stand for people preying on the sick and suffering.”

While there have been numerous opinions on the matter publicly, with some elected officials not supporting the clean sweep approach, and other supporting it, those in the neighborhood dealing with the results of the epidemic see it as a very complicated situation. However, virtually everyone agrees that the tactics used earlier this summer had gotten off-track, and the situation had to be quelled.

“Consensus from residents and businesses around WSANA is that the City’s attention at senior levels, beyond the public health department, was needed at Mass and Cass long ago,” said Desi Murphy, vice president of the Worcester Square Area Neighborhood Association (WSANA). “When I speak with community leaders from Newmarket, Roxbury, and Dorchester, I hear the same thing. We are grateful that the City assigned a full time employee that reports directly to the mayor (via Christopher) to ensure that the Mayor is aware of what life is like here for patients, residents, guests, and employees across health care and industrial sectors. Moving forward, we want to see our elected officials, public health organizations, patients, guests, law enforcement, businesses, and residents come together to ensure that we have an environment that is safe and livable for everyone and one that we can all be proud of – whether you are a resident, business, employee.”

Sue Sullivan, executive director of the Newmarket Business Association, said there had been a tactic used recently after many of those on the streets had been displaced from the Connector, Mass/Cass and Harrison Avenue. That tactic was essentially to pen everyone into Atkinson Street, and to an extent Bradston Street. While she said that was effective in allowing public health officials to stop overdoses – with some 90 overdoses reversed there in July – it also created a dense and chaotic situation.

“It was definitely open drug use and it was increasingly violent,” she said. “It was a different atmosphere with the mob mentality. I look at both sides. Having them all down there, we got less complaints from businesses and neighbors. It was devastating for businesses right there, but it allowed the health personnel to more readily take care of overdoses. There were 90 overdoses reversed in July on that street. It probably stopped people from dying…On the other hand, it did create a mob mentality and a situation where every drug dealer only had to go a few hundred yards. It was every pimp and every person looking to prop someone up. That’s a vulnerable population and they were being preyed upon.

“In my opinion, it was exactly right to get people out of there with serious warrants and who were causing havoc,” she continued.

Sheriff Steven Tompkins has also led a part of the charge after his deputies were attacked on Aug. 1, convening a meeting of City and state leaders on Aug. 8 to focus on long-term and short-term situations. That meeting was attended by DA Rollins, Police Commissioner Willie Gross and others, such as Mayoral Advisor Buddy Christopher.

“I am heartened by this first response to our call for action to protect the people who work in and visit this facility and those who work in and travel throughout the Newmarket Area,” said Sheriff Tompkins. “The key, of course, will be to continue to communicate and work together across agencies and organizations to ensure that things don’t return to their former state.”

Additionally, Sheriff Tompkins committed the services and skills of his department to work with the Boston Public Health Commission Police to provide them with new skills and training to bolster their abilities to maintain the safety and security of the area while managing a population that has increased beyond the original scope of expectations. Sheriff Tompkins is also providing officers to assist the other members of law enforcement with the preservation of safety and security on the perimeter of the House of Correction and adjoining streets.   

For most, the answer just isn’t an easy one, but Mayor Walsh said he did sympathize with the neighbors, who have been living a long time with a challenging situation that was getting worse.

“Residents have every right to be upset,” he said. “They’ve been putting up with this a long time. There’s a whole combination of issues here. There’s the public safety side of it, of drug dealing. There’s a hanging-out side of it. There’s a human side of it. People in this neighborhood today are concerned about people sitting on their front porches and shooting up, about people walking in the back alley and going to the bathroom. They’ve been living with this for a long time. This is something that was before Long Island Bridge even closed. This is not a new issue or a new creation. It’s gotten worse because the epidemic has gotten worse, no question about it.”

Rollins said she is committed to working on solutions, but only if those impacted by the “sweep” have a seat at the table too.

“I do not have all the answers, but I am committed to asking the right questions,” she said. “Those directly impacted by the ‘sweep’ need to have a seat at the table, along with our partners in law enforcement, public health, government, and non-profits. Let’s turn these conversations into action. I am proud that on Monday I met with approximately 15 such partners, none of whom were members of law enforcement, all of whom work directly with, or are, the impacted community. Solving this ‘problem’ will not be easy; this will not be resolved in one night; to suggest otherwise is irresponsible.”

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