Rollins discusses recent Mass and Cass drug arrests, will prosecute on distribution charges

In her first public comments on a coordinated series of drug arrests in the South End, DA Rachael Rollins is emphasizing key differences between this action and last year's 'Operation Clean Sweep.'

Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins (Photo via suffolkdistrictattorney.com)

The recent surge of drug arrests in the South End was not a repeat of last year’s controversial “Operation Clean Sweep” —

That’s a distinction Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins is seeking to draw, this week, in exclusive comments to Substantive.

“These recent arrests were targeted and focused on specific individuals engaged in harming a population in crisis,” she wrote, through her communications director. “Operation Clean Sweep was neither targeted nor specific.”  

Rollins and her team of assistant district attorneys (ADAs) are currently sifting through at least 32 case files after Boston Police capped a weeks long investigation with a series of arrests in the ‘Mass and Cass’ area of the South End, Oct. 1 - 5.

A fiercely progressive prosecutor with a record of leniency in certain legal strategy decisions, questions have swirled over what Roillins will actually do with these cases.

In her first comments to the media on this issue, Rollins has confirmed that she’ll pursue convictions at least against seven individuals police picked up on drug distribution charges. 

She’s less clear, meanwhile, in the cases of the more than 25 other people caught and summoned to court on possession charges connected to this investigation. 

“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.

The Mass and Cass area, where this police operation focused, has long been the effective epicenter of Boston’s addiction crisis. 

Circumstances have only worsened particularly since COVID-19 hit, prompting broad outcry from residents of the South End and Roxbury. This, in turn, put pressure on police to take action. 

As news broke of this eventual police response, though, advocates and elected officials called for transparency and accountability, quickly recalling Clean Sweep, which put dozens behind bars in August, 2019, and earned police a civil rights lawsuit from the ACLU. 

Rollins, who sharply criticized Clean Sweep last year, did so again in her latest comments.

“Many [people arrested] had committed no crime other that being physically present when the police arrived,” she said. “Substance Use Disorder is not a crime, it is a public health issue.” 

She reiterated that this latest effort takes that latter fact into account. 

It focused on people distributing drugs, she said. 

It involved close collaboration between police and her office. 

And it used police as a surgical law enforcement body, rather than as a proverbial hammer. 

See DA Rachael Rollins’ complete comments in response to Substantive questions…

DA Rollins criticized “Operation Clean Sweep” last year. How does this action compare to that event?

These recent arrests were targeted and focused on specific individuals engaged in harming a population in crisis.  Operation Clean Sweep was neither targeted nor specific.  Rather, it "swept" up a group of people that were present in a place they had to go to receive much needed services.  Many had committed no crime other that being physically present when the police arrived.  Substance Use Disorder is not a crime, it is a public health issue. 

With the most recent arrests, the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office worked closely with Boston Police and public health officials to have an intelligence-driven approach to remove individuals who are preying on the highly vulnerable and impeding their progress.

The city has often said it focuses on drug dealers, not users, in situations like this. Does the DA support this strategy? Should we be arresting on drug distribution charges?

In Portugal they have essentially decriminalized drug usage, but still prosecute distribution and trafficking. I am open to the Mayor's proposals.’

Does the DA plan to prosecute the seven individuals arrested on distribution charges? 

Yes.

There are 25 others diverted to treatment by this operation who still face summons on possession charges. Does the DA plan to prosecute those cases? 

The assigned ADAs are reviewing each of these cases for decisions on disposition that will appropriately considering the specific facts and circumstances of each incident.  I reiterate, Substance Use Disorder is a public health crisis, not a crime.”

The DA’s recently released list of police with misconduct claims against them includes BPD Capt. John Danilecki, who has also recently been criticized by the ACLU for possible unconstitutional behavior during Clean Sweep last year. Does the DA have any way to evaluate whether possible misconduct occurred in these latest interactions with disadvantaged Bostonians facing homelessness and addiction? 

Each case investigation includes looking at all of the evidence available, including taking witness statements, scrutinizing surveillance footage, and reviewing police reports. The assigned ADAs consider all of these factors when they review cases for decisions on disposition, appropriately considering the specific facts and circumstances of each circumstance.”

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled DA Rollins’ name. It is spelled “Rachael” not “Rachel.” I regret the error.