Suffolk DA candidates face police officers after focusing on criminal justice reform
The six candidates vying to become Suffolk County’s top prosecutor have so far faced forums moderated by lawyers, civil rights organizations, neighborhood groups, and even inmates.
On Wednesday, police officers took their turn asking questions.
In a large classroom at the New England Law school in Boston, the candidates running to succeed outgoing Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley were asked questions ranging from their position on police body cameras to plea deals for defendants who may go on to commit more crimes.
The event, hosted by the Massachusetts Fraternal Order of Police, marked the first time the group faced a forum sponsored by law enforcement officers, who work closely with prosecutors to bring charges in criminal cases.
“The job of the district attorney’s office is to keep the public safe,” said Michael G. Talbot, second vice president of the organization, who introduced the candidates. “Without that collaboration with the police, that’s impossible to do . . . There is no bigger partnership than the one between Suffolk prosecutors and police. That’s our big concern: that the relationship can continue.”
Candidates running to replace Conley include five Democrats — state Representative Evandro Carvalho, former Suffolk prosecutor Linda Champion, Suffolk Assistant District Attorney Greg Henning, defense attorney Shannon McAuliffe, and Rachael Rollins, former legal counsel for Massport and the MBTA.
The winner of the Sept. 4 primary will face independent Michael Maloney, a Brockton defense attorney, in the November general election.
No Republicans are running.
Throughout the campaign, some candidates have been sharply critical of the relationship between law enforcement and Boston’s minority communities, which they say don’t trust police and prosecutors.
The candidates did not back down from those positions during the 90-minute forum Wednesday.
Rollins noted a recent Washington Post report that showed Boston had the widest gap in arrest rates for white and black homicide victims among major American cities. That shows the need for police and prosecutors to build more trust, she said.
“I understand it makes people uncomfortable. It doesn’t mean you aren’t doing your jobs,” Rollins said. “We need to mend the relationships with the community.”
Champion described the challenges facing prosecutors who must respond to the fears of residents living in violent neighborhoods, but also be cognizant of the complexities surrounding some crimes that might seem obvious.
“We have to balance out the needs of the community,” she said. “Sometimes kids are packing heat because they are doing it for the purpose of protection. Other times it’s because they’re the perpetrator.”
On the issue of police-involved shootings, only Henning, a longtime prosecutor in Conley’s office, said he would not appoint a special prosecutor to investigate.
But he joined the other candidates Wednesday in their support for police wearing body cameras. He noted the case of a Baltimore police officer indicted recently after a body camera caught him planting drugs at an arrest scene.
“That one officer smears the good name of other police officers,” Henning said. “That body camera can help shed light on [corruption] so that person can be removed.”
A question over support for dangerousness hearings — which prosecutors can choose in order to hold defendants believed to be too dangerous to be out on bail while charges are pending — touched off the most heated exchange of the evening.
Maloney said for the most part, prosecutors should seek alternatives to incarcerating a person while they are awaiting charges.
“But if this is the defendant who has hurt someone, then the hell with him,” Maloney said.
McAuliffe quickly objected.
“This is a job about being a minister of justice,” she said. “I don’t think that’s an appropriate way to speak about anyone.”
Maloney was unapologetic: “I speak casually sometimes. Get over it.”
Carvalho, a state representatives who also spent two years working as a Suffolk prosecutor, said he was disappointed more officers did not come to the forum, which drew about 40 people to the classroom.
He said he wondered if the officers had already decided they were voting for Henning, who has received campaign contributions from police.
“I hope you will keep an open mind,” Carvalho said. “It’s time to elect someone from the communities that are most impacted.”
After the debate, Boston police union officials said they have invited all six candidates to speak before their members: only Champion and Henning have accepted so far.