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Candidates for Suffolk district attorney face off in online debate

Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden is photographed in his office on May 25, 2022.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Candidates running for Suffolk County district attorney and sheriff took part Tuesday evening in an online debate sponsored by Democratic ward committees in Boston.

First up during the two-hour forum were interim DA Kevin Hayden and Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who is also running in the Democratic primary in September.

Hayden and Arroyo are vying to win a full term as the county’s top law enforcement officer after former DA Rachael Rollins was appointed as US Attorney for Massachusetts.

Moderator Danielle Allen, a Harvard professor who briefly sought the Democratic nomination for governor, engaged each candidate in a 15-minute solo question-and-answer session as well as a 30-minute debate. Hayden and Arroyo sparred over Mass and Cass, epicenter of the city’s opioid epidemic, the list of 15 low-level offenses Rollins’ office chose not to prosecute, and what to do with the Boston Police Department’s gang database.

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Arroyo has pledged to continue Rollins’ reformist agenda, which included de-emphasizing the prosecution of certain minor crimes and said he would add additional charges to the list.

“It allows us to free up resources to focus on violent crimes and the most impactful crimes while also decreasing and reducing crime on the front end,” Arroyo said. “Because when you disengage people from the system for crimes of poverty, it actually ends up having better effect.”

Hayden said he prefers a case-by-case determination of which cases to prosecute and which to divert toward services and other alternatives but isn’t against considering charges beyond the list of 15.

“Our focus is on the individual that is involved in the case, not a formulaic approach based on the charges and how many of which charges we’re going to prosecute or not prosecute,” said Hayden, who participated in the debate held over Zoom while riding in a car.

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Governor Charlie Baker in January appointed Hayden, 54, to serve out the remainder of Rollins’ term. Hayden served as a Suffolk assistant district attorney for 11 years and spent eight years as chairman of the Sex Offender Registry Board.

Arroyo, 34, brings political experience and family clout to the race. He is the son of Felix D. Arroyo, the city’s first Latino councilor. He is a former public defender with a reputation as a police reform stalwart.

When asked to name “the three most import levers you think you’ll have available to you to pull as DA [to achieve your goals],” Arroyo listed the DA’s power to charge and determine how, when and what charges to seek, followed by lending his voice to causes, political actions, and legislative fixes, and engaging community.

Hayden’s response to the same question produced a jumbled retort about community, prompting the moderator to say “I didn’t follow that. What’s the lever?”

“To focus on returning citizens and focusing on the importance of access and opportunity for them in order to prevent them from reoffending,” Hayden said, attempting to clarify his response.

When it comes to the controversial gang database, Hayden said it is a “necessary and important” tool.

“It’s an important part of understanding the intelligence world that gangs operate in,” he said.

Arroyo said he would dismantle and eliminate it because it is “racist and ineffectual.”

“It’s more of a classification tool than a crime fighting tool,” Arroyo said.

In closing, the moderator posed about half a dozen rapid yes-or-no policy and issue questions.

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Both candidates said they would support eliminating cash bail, as well as expunging cannabis offenses.

Arroyo said he would eliminate qualified immunity or seek to pursue elimination of qualified immunity for law enforcement. Hayden said he would not.

Arroyo said he would ban no-knock warrants, while Hayden said “depends.”

Arroyo said he would not accept contributions from law enforcement union; Hayden said he would.

Candidates for sheriff were also invited to the forum, though Sheriff Steven Tompkins did not participate.

Sandy Zamor Calixte, a longtime senior aide in the Suffolk County sheriff’s office is hoping to unseat Tompkins after nine years. She stepped down as the office’s chief of external affairs and communications in January to focus on her campaign.

The primary function of the Suffolk County sheriff, Zamor Calixte said, is ensuring that when inmates get released they “come back to the community in a better place.”

“That means dealing with whether it’s mental health, substance use disorder, or education.”

Zamor Calixte said she wants to reevaluate the 80 programs the sheriff’s office currently uses to prepare inmates for re-entry to see which ones really work and whether funding might be better allocated elsewhere.

Zamor Calixte worked in the sheriff’s department for 16 years, according to her campaign. She held positions as coordinator of community outreach and youth programming as well as director of external affairs, before becoming the department’s chief of external affairs and communications in 2014.

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“I have learned that I’m extremely passionate about corruption in our communities, and I’ve learned that we need to do a better job of bridging the two, and we need to be more transparent with the community, and we need to allow people’s voices to be heard,” Zamor Calixte said.

Zamor Calixte would be the second woman and first Haitian American to hold the position, if elected.



Tonya Alanez can be reached at tonya.alanez@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @talanez.