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US Attorney Rachael Rollins talks of threats, priorities, and the work ahead

US Attorney Rachael Rollins during a media round table Thursday.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

In her first week as US attorney for Massachusetts, Rachael Rollins said Thursday that while she was unnerved by racist threats she received after becoming the first Black woman appointed and confirmed to the position, she remains focused on the work ahead.

“I feel safe and took this job because I feel safe doing so for me and my family,” Rollins said during a round-table discussion with members of the media, discussing for the first time her priorities for the office and her transition from local district attorney to the state’s top federal prosecutor.

Rollins, who spearheaded several progressive reforms during her three years as Suffolk district attorney, was narrowly confirmed by the US Senate last month after a contentious, partisan battle. She requested a full-time security detail after receiving a series of threatening e-mails and voicemails last month, but the US Marshals Service denied it after concluding she was not in danger.

“I think we are in a point in this country right now where everyone is on edge,” Rollins said. “I have no problem with criticism of what I’ve done or even, possibly, who I am. But when things go to a place where it’s racist or bigoted or sexist or quite threatening to the safety of myself or my three little girls, that are 17, 12, and 8, that’s a bridge too far.”

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Though shaken by the threats, Rollins said she has also received “many positive and uplifting messages” and is excited about the next chapter of her life. Rollins, 50, who was sworn in Monday, is now leading a team of more than 250 prosecutors and staff, with offices in Boston, Worcester, and Springfield.

She said that white-collar crime, health care fraud, and counter-terrorism will remain top priorities, she plans to increase the focus on human trafficking.

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“I am very clear that when it comes to violent, serious crime that is where I want to be focusing my attention,” said Rollins, adding that it is the same philosophy she held as a state prosecutor. “It’s my hope that we are going to not only work on white-collar crime, which this office does exceptionally well and we will continue to do, but also think about those violent crimes that impact communities.”

As district attorney, Rollins championed reforms aimed at decriminalizing many nonviolent offenses and focused on solving decades-old homicides and uncovering and vacating wrongful convictions. She issued a list of 15 nonviolent, low-level crimes that her office would no longer prosecute, asserting that they lead to unnecessary incarcerations, especially of people of color.

That list triggered a backlash from some judges and law enforcement officials, but Rollins said the strategy worked because it allowed her office to devote resources to violent crimes and more than 1,000 unsolved homicides in Boston.

On Thursday, Rollins acknowledged that as US attorney she doesn’t have the autonomy she had as a district attorney, answerable only to the voters. She, along with 92 other US attorneys across the country, will take her “marching orders” from the Justice Department.

“As the US attorney, there’s no list” of cases that won’t be prosecuted, Rollins said. “We are going to prioritize the things that the attorney general of the United States prioritizes.”

Rollins said she has yet to receive a briefing on cases the office is currently handling or attend what she jokingly called “US attorney’s school” and declined to discuss several pending high-profile cases.

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They include the charges against Shelley Joseph, a Newton District Court judge who was indicted in 2019, along with a now-retired court officer, on obstruction of justice charges for allegedly helping an undocumented immigrant evade a federal agent who had come to the courthouse to detain him. A federal appeals court is currently weighing a request to dismiss the case.

Less than a week after Joseph’s arrest, Rollins, then Suffolk district attorney, and Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan joined public defenders and immigration advocates in a lawsuit seeking to halt immigration agents from making civil arrests at state courthouses.

They dropped the suit last year, saying changes under the Biden administration made it unnecessary. The Department of Homeland Security announced that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents will no longer make routine arrests at courthouses except in cases involving national security or a threat to public safety.

As US attorney, Rollins said she will defend ICE when it is sued. How cases are handled will be determined on an individual basis, and she expects to get “very good advice” from the Justice Department, she said.


Shelley Murphy can be reached at shelley.murphy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.