This is the second of two profiles of the candidates for Suffolk district attorney.
When he worked as a public defender, Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo said he was mistaken for a criminal defendant on a number of occasions. But one stands out.
During a trial in Essex County, a police officer identified him from the stand as the defendant, who was facing assault charges. He and the defendant were both Latino, had beards and glasses, and wore suits, Arroyo recalled.
“I played that one up,” he said. His thinking was simple: the officer’s gaffe called his entire testimony into question. If he confused the defense attorney for the defendant, how could he be considered reliable?
”The jury knew I was a defense attorney,” he said recently over a lunch of Udon noodles at a restaurant in Chinatown.
He won that case, but the officer went back to patrolling the streets of Lawrence, he said. For Arroyo, the story starkly illustrates the racism woven into the fabric of the American legal system. A system Arroyo, as a Democratic candidate for Suffolk district attorney, is seeking to reform from within.
It’s not a role Arroyo always envisioned for himself. At the start of his legal career, when he was deciding what kind of lawyer to be, he vowed not “to stand on the side of the folks doing the oppression” and elected to be a public defender.
He spoke often with colleagues about how they were participating in a broken system. He rarely encountered prosecutors who viewed his clients as human beings; most saw only the charges they faced, he said.
“I think it’s one thing to see that on paper, and it’s an entirely different thing to know these individuals and see that play out in such a harmful way,” he said.
But his three-plus years as a public defender also showed him how crucial a district attorney can be, how their policies can directly affect people’s lives, their ability to secure a job, housing, even student loans, he said.
“It has a lot of impact,” he said of the role, which oversees about 20,000 cases a year across Boston, Revere, Chelsea, and Winthrop. So when Rachael Rollins, the Suffolk district attorney, was tapped as the US attorney for Massachusetts, Arroyo saw an opportunity to make a bigger impact and help more people.
A city councilor from Hyde Park first elected in 2019, Arroyo has a habit of prefacing his statements on the council floor with the qualifier “frankly,” as if he’s simply laying out clear, if difficult, truths. He’s known for sharp elbows and a take-no-prisoners approach to political disputes, a tact that at times has angered progressive and centrist colleagues alike.
Arroyo acknowledges he can be intense, but adds that there is a “real life urgency” to his advocacy.
“I’ve never done anything that crosses the line,” he said.
He’s also seen as keenly ambitious, even on a council that had four of its then-members run for mayor last year. At only 34, he would be among the youngest district attorneys in modern state history. He could also become the first Latino to hold the Suffolk DA post.
To do so, he must defeat Kevin Hayden, 54, who was appointed district attorney in January to succeed Rollins. As the technical incumbent, Hayden would seem to have a built-in advantage. But among local politicos, including some Arroyo adversaries, there’s a consensus that Arroyo is the front-runner given his connections and past electoral success. Arroyo cruised to a second term on the council last fall, while Hayden, the former head of the state’s Sex Offender Registry Board (SORB), has never previously run for office.
He has also has received the endorsement of Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, whose candidacy he backed, and other notable progressives, including US Representative Ayanna Pressley.
With the primary less than two months away, the campaign has begun to intensify. Arroyo recently blasted Hayden for his management at SORB, citing a 2017 audit that found problems with the oversight of hundreds of sex offenders. Hayden’s campaign, meanwhile, has cast Arroyo as lacking executive experience and dismissed him as a “novice attorney with zero public safety experience.”
Arroyo bats away the criticism.
“I have been in court more recently than he has,” he said. “I actually think I’m more aware of where we’re at in our court systems than he is.”
Arroyo hails from a large and well-known political family. He’s the fourth of five siblings, and his father, Felix D. Arroyo, was a Boston city councilor and school committee member and currently serves as the Suffolk register of probate. His brother, Felix G. Arroyo, was a city councilor and mayoral candidate who served as a cabinet chief in Martin J. Walsh’s mayoral administration. His brother was fired from that post in 2017 amid sexual harassment allegations that he denies.
Both his parents grew up in Puerto Rico, moving to Boston in early 1970s. From a young age, Arroyo said there was an emphasis on education and community in his family. He said he came to understand “the ways the system works against people like me.”
But, thanks to his father’s political experience, he said growing up, “I never felt like there was a room I didn’t belong in.”
Still, Arroyo said he was reluctant to run for public office. There are aspects of life as an elected official he was not “super thrilled to be taking on,” noting that his mother’s house was recently targeted by antivaccination demonstrators.
He is a progressive’s progressive, particularly on matters of law enforcement and public safety. During his maiden speech as a councilor, he declared racism a public health emergency in Boston; racial and socioeconomic inequity is a consistent theme of his council tenure. He spearheaded an ordinance that limited how police use crowd control tactics such as tear gas and championed a new police watchdog agency. During a contentious vote in 2020, he joined others in opposing Walsh’s budget because he felt it did not do enough to address systemic inequities and structural racism.
As district attorney, he would support “moving toward” a system where there is no bail for nonviolent offenses and backs ending mandatory minimum sentencing. He has pressed for answers about the use of overtime in the Boston Police Department, which chronically goes over budget. As a public defender, he helped write Rollins’s do-not-prosecute list of 15 crimes, including trespassing, shoplifting, and drug possession, and he wants to build on her policies, believing they helped Boston avoid the sharp increase in street violence seen in other American cities during the pandemic.
On Mass. and Cass, the heart of the city’s opioid and homelessness crises, Arroyo said that while violent crimes and sex trafficking must be prosecuted, putting addicts behind bars will only exacerbate the problem, citing a number of his clients who overdosed during short-term incarcerations.
Arroyo supports an end to qualified immunity for police. Undeniably, he is not the cops’ candidate in this contest. He said that while it’s important for the district attorney’s office to have a productive relationship with police officials, that doesn’t mean “you should turn a blind eye to criminal behavior.” He said he is not afraid of “having people be mad at me” and said change is often accompanied by tension.
”It shouldn’t be revolutionary to say we’re going to say we’re going to hold police officers accountable when they break the law,” he said.
A local prosecutors’ “do-not-call” list, an inventory of officers who have engaged or been accused of serious misconduct, such as lying or falsifying police reports, needs to be expanded, he said.
“If an officer has been caught not telling the truth under oath, that is relevant in every criminal case where they testify,” he said. Such officers should not remain on the force, he said.
Arroyo wants to adopt policies that are “data driven and evidence-backed.” He rattles off various recidivism rates, but he also is quick to back up statistics with human anecdotes.
When he shifted his law practice from Essex County to Suffolk County in early 2017, he was shocked to see prosecutors dropping minor charges before an arraignment, meaning they would not show up on the person’s criminal record. To him, it underscored the difference various prosecutorial approaches can make in someone’s life.
When Arroyo’s parents first moved to Boston, they lived in public housing in the South End, where his three older siblings were born. By the time Arroyo was born, they had moved to Hyde Park, where he grew up.
He attended the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science for high school, but left before graduating to tend to his mother, who had mental health struggles and problems with alcohol. He obtained his GED, graduated from Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, then received his law degree from Loyola University in Chicago.
He and his mother remain close, and her struggles have impacted “every other issue in my life.” Having seen the effects of her drinking, he abstains from alcohol.
And his care for her, a longtime public school teacher who would sit and read with him as a child, informs his advocacy for those less fortunate.
“I recognize the humanity in those people the same way I recognize the humanity in my mother even if at some times she was not some perfect individual, she was a human,” he said. “She was my mother.”