The Democratic candidates for Suffolk district attorney took part in a debate Tuesday evening that was largely focused on young people’s experiences in the court system but included some sharp barbs from a challenger who had called on the incumbent to step down just one day earlier.
Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo on Monday said Suffolk District Attorney Kevin Hayden should resign after a Boston Globe investigation exposed a coverup by Transit Police officers and raised questions about how prosecutors handled the case.
Arroyo renewed his call in the opening moments of the 80-minute debate at the More Than Words Warehouse Bookstore in the South End, saying, “I understand what it is to be on the other end of a racist traffic stop.”
“The fact that that case was handled in the way that it was, the fact that that power was used in the way that it was, is infuriating,” Arroyo said before a crowd of about 50 people. “Because for individuals who have experienced that level of conduct, you understand that often you do not come forward because you understand it will make you a target or because people will not do their job.”
Hayden said in response that the investigation in question remains open.
“I had actually assigned a new prosecutor because another had left even before the Globe article came out,” he said, adding that he is “fully committed to that case and to doing the job as the DA.”
A Globe report on Sunday examined how Hayden’s office allegedly tried to quash a troubled case instead of prosecuting it. In April 2021, Jacob Green, a white MBTA Transit Police officer, was accused of pointing his gun at a Black man during a traffic dispute. Green was off duty, but summoned other officers to pull the man over. Then Green wrote the man a ticket.
Green filed two police reports, while a friend on the force filed a third, each of which were false, according to Transit Police officials. Transit Police brought the case to then-Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, who launched an investigation. But when Hayden became district attorney, transit officials and Green’s attorney allege Hayden’s office moved to dump the case. Hayden’s office denied that allegation and provided a series of shifting and contradictory explanations for what happened.
Hayden, who was appointed to the office early this year by Governor Charlie Baker after Rollins left to become US attorney for Massachusetts, downplayed the controversy Tuesday and focused on his record.
“I’ve got 25 years of experience in this criminal legal system, working as an assistant district attorney for 11 years, working . . . as the leader of the Sex Offender Registry Board for over eight years, and also more than five years as a criminal defense attorney,” he said.
Arroyo touted his experience on the City Council and as a public defender in the courts.
“I became a public defender because I understood how power works,” he said. “I understood imbalances in structures and systems. And I became a city councilor to address that.”
The debate was moderated by four graduates of the bookstore’s youth program, which works to empower young people who are in the foster care system, unhoused, in the court system, or unenrolled in school, according to the organization.
They asked about issues such as the disparities between white defendants and people of color in the criminal courts, which Hayden and Arroyo promised to address, and about raising the maximum age for the juvenile justice system in light of research that shows human brains don’t fully mature until the mid-20s or later.
Hayden said he would support raising the age to be tried as a juvenile to perhaps as high as 20, but he would like to see more information. Arroyo said he fully supports raising the age to 21.
The candidates were virtually in lockstep on some questions but differed sharply on the issue of police maintaining databases of suspected gang members, a practice Hayden defended in some instances but Arroyo said should be abolished.
“It’s not a reliable system, but what it does is it classifies kids of color because they live in specific neighborhoods. Over 95 percent of that database is actually Black and brown children,” Arroyo said. “And that’s for life.”
Hayden said gang databases need to be reformed but can be useful and have helped law enforcement officials in Massachusetts to eliminate the MS-13 gang, “a gang that was operating on fear, intimidation, and murder, and rape of young women, and recruiting kids as young as middle school.”
“When the MS-13 gang was eradicated, there was almost a two-year period of time when there was no violent crime or no murder committed by the MS-13 gang,” he said.
Arroyo said that was a “wild claim.”
”The gang database is something that has no actual provable results,” he said. ”There’s no data. I know that because I’ve asked for it.”
Hayden and Arroyo are set to face off in the Democratic primary on Sept. 6. Both men are vying for a full term as Suffolk district attorney, which handles criminal cases in Boston, Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop. There is no Republican in the race.