Mass and Cass drug arrests prompted questions. New documents offer some answers

Police sent dozens to court on the kinds of simple possession charges they say they tried to avoid. Now, they're ignoring a push for transparency.

A graphic shows a Boston Police cruiser over an incident report recently obtained via public records request. (Graphic by Dakota Antelman)

Police say a recent operation in the Mass and Cass area of the South End protected people battling addiction by targeting “drug dealers.”

New records show, though, that such rhetoric does not line up with reality.

Obtained via public records request, a 50-page packet of incident reports sheds light on the complex action police dubbed “Operation Mass and Cass.”

Though these revelations peel back the curtain on a sprawling investigation, questions remain unanswered, nonetheless, as police withhold additional documents.

Police say they targeted ‘dealers.’ But people using got wrapped up too

The BPD announced, Oct. 5, seven new arrests on drug distribution charges and at least 25 other summons for drug possession in the South End. This was the culmination of a weeks-long investigation that police say aimed to disrupt the Mass and Cass drug trade.

Incident reports obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request now help understand those 25 possession summons, documenting cases where police clearly arrested or targeted people just using substances, not selling them. 

  • On Sept. 18, one report says, two officers near the Woods Mullen Homeless Shelter saw a man walk up to another individual known to police. 

    The men walked together for a few steps, then exchanged money and something officers thought was a packet of drugs. Then the pair split. 

    Rather than following the man they saw allegedly distributing drugs, though, officers called in their observations and had colleagues follow the man who just presumably bought drugs. Eventually, they cornered him, questioned him, and filed a complaint against him, earning this man a court summons for cocaine possession.

  • A few days later, on September 21, police spotted a man in a wheelchair presumably dealing drugs to multiple people. 

    Having watched that scene, police followed one suspected customer, questioned him, found drugs on him, and went through another process of summoning him to court on a possession charge.

These interactions are but a sampling of the dozens contained in the BPD’s incident reports from Operation Mass and Cass.

As their initial statements indicated, records do, indeed, show the BPD referring individuals to treatment. Likewise, those records also show police using information gleaned through these interactions to help obtain arrest warrants for the people they suspected of actual drug distribution.

Still, though, these interactions introduced possession cases into the judicial system through an operation that officials have simultaneously said never focused on those kinds of charges.

At least 25 people now face court dates to discuss possession. They may, later, face incarceration.

Records still leave unanswered questions

Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins says she plans to prosecute the seven people brought before her on drug distribution charges. 

She’s less committal, though, when talking about those possession charges.

“The assigned ADAs are reviewing each of these cases for decisions on disposition that will appropriately consider the specific facts and circumstances of each incident,” she said in a statement through a spokesperson. 

Elsewhere, even the full picture of this law enforcement action remains murky. 

Substantive filed a public records request for all incident reports relating to Operation Mass and Cass distribution arrests and possession summons shortly after news of the operation broke. 

Though comprehensive, the 50 pages of documents police turned over fall far short of the terms of that request. 

They note a handful of arrests, summons and referrals to treatment. But they only list interactions through Oct. 3, even though public statements from police confirm that arrests continued until at least Oct. 5. 

On top of omissions of entire reports, one officer narrative, which seems to describe the biggest instance of use of force by police during Operation Mass and Cass, is heavily redacted. 

  • On Oct. 1, officers say they observed on a man meeting with a crowd of people, exchanging money, and repeatedly rummaging through his backpack to retrieve items for other people. 

    “Officers believing they had observed multiple drug transactions continued to conduct surveillance,” their report narrative reads.

    In time, the report says, officers exited their car to question the man they thought was dealing drugs. Seeing police, that man immediately reacted, clenching a hand behind his back in a move police saw as an attempt to destroy evidence.

    So, two officers grabbed the man by his arms and wrestled his fingers open. It seems they then held their suspect in a restrained position for some time.

    Police went on to recover a myriad of drugs, which they itimized in their report. 

    They also, though, appear to have had a conversation with this man which records officers have decided the public should not see.

    “As officers were securing the drugs [REDACTED] stated [REDACTED],” the incident report reads. “He further stated [REDACTED]. [REDACTED] motioned with his heads towards a lottery ticket at the top of the steps where he had been observed next to and further stated [REDACTED].”

As the police face a review of past brutality accusations amid a larger national conversation on police, this lack of transparency on a physically violent situation raises eyebrows.

In the shadow of ‘Clean Sweep,’ ‘Mass and Cass’ earns criticism

Buried in this trove of documentation lies the story of a police drug raid conducted just 13 months after a nearly identical operation. 

Police carried out “Operation Clean Sweep” in response to an attack on a corrections officer traveling to work in the Mass and Cass area, late last year.

Over a series of weekends in August, 2019, they sent officers into the South End and brought dozens of people into court on outstanding warrants.  

That action sparked a civil rights lawsuit from the ACLU and, advocates say, did little to solve problems in the South End and Roxbury. 

Resident complaints about defecation, discarded needles and public drug use have soared over the past year. People are getting fed up, leaders say. 

These days, one group regularly occupies portions of Mass Ave demanding action from political leaders. 

Online, a recent South End forum with Mayor Marty Walsh was largely dominated by angry outcry over conditions. 

Earlier this year, Damien Hughes, a young man seeking addiction treatment, was stabbed to death in the area. His mother has since rallied with South End residents. They all point to Hughes’ killing as an example of the deteriorating situation on their block. 

Police see this. They reiterate that much in several recently released reports.

“This specific location has ongoing drug related issues and an overwhelming amount of 911 calls, community complaints and general quality of life issues concerning large groups of individuals loitering on the busy sidewalks and blocking business entrances as they unlawfully deal and ingest drugs openly in the public,” they write.

DA Rollins says she supports this operation even after opposing Clean Sweep. 

Despite documentation showing numerous arrests of people on simple possession charges, she maintains that Operation Mass and Cass was a targeted assault on drug dealers. 

City Councilor Frank Baker, meanwhile, even more broadly supports recent police activity.

“We need to have some arrests down there,” he said, recently. “People are becoming a little too comfortable hanging around.”

Not everyone agrees, however. And many leaders are demanding change.

“We need more accountability in the area,” said community organizer Domingos DaRosa shortly after news of the latest police raids broke. 

City Councilwoman Julia Mejia, meanwhile, was scathing in her statement to Substantive. 

“A lot of people refer to what's going on at Mass and Cass as a ‘crisis’ or an ‘epidemic,’” she said. “But let's be clear: the only crisis that is going on is one in which the system continues to try and arrest their way out of substance use disorder and homelessness.”

The Boston Police have not responded to a follow up request for more documentation on their activities in the South End.  

A particular BPD spokesman contacted for comment on the issues raised in this article has, similarly, not responded.

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