Rachael Rollins was sworn in as Suffolk district attorney Wednesday, becoming the first black woman to hold that position in Massachusetts, an achievement she told a packed crowd at Roxbury Community College that should motivate them to chase any goal that seems impossible.
“This is a day for anyone in this room to think about where you are in your life and what you want your life to be,” Rollins said.
A former federal prosecutor, Rollins was elected in November on a criminal justice reform platform that has thrilled advocates but unnerved some law enforcement officials. On Wednesday she seemed intent on easing those concerns during a brief address that followed a spirited and, at times, emotional inaugural ceremony.
Rollins told prosecutors in the office she would “work so hard to gain your respect and to listen so hard to what you want this job to be.” She then turned to Boston Police Commissioner William Gross, who was surrounded by top brass and other officers.
“I have a lot of work to do with you guys and I know you’re nervous,” Rollins said. “But guess what? Nervousness is what change needs and we’re going to be okay.”
The ceremony had a party-like atmosphere. Rollins, a 47-year-old single mother, entered the room to the sounds of “Celebration” by Kool & The Gang. Her 14-year-old daughter, Peyton, and her two nieces, Meya, 9, and Victoria, 5, accompanied her as she high-fived and hugged supporters on her way to the stage.
She was joined there by political leaders that included Governor Charlie Baker, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, and Massachusetts Senator Edward J. Markey, who described Rollins as a “warrior for justice” and a leader with the courage “to help lead a revolution.”
“Rachael recognizes that our current justice system faces a reckoning,” Markey said.
Peyton Rollins had to be comforted by her mother as she struggled through tears to introduce her before the official swearing-in.
“It has been amazing to see all of your hard work pay off,” Peyton said as her mother hugged her. “I am so proud of you and love you.”
Rollins was sworn in by former Justice Geraldine Hines, the first black woman appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Rollins took her oath on a Bible held by Peyton and her two nieces, whose parents, two of Rollins’s siblings, have battled addiction or served time in prison. Rollins is the girls’ legal guardian.
Andrea Campbell, Boston City Council president whose twin brother died seven years ago in jail while awaiting trial, said Rollins will remember the struggles of people affected by the criminal justice system.
“She, too, is seeking justice and I know she’s going to work tirelessly,” Campbell said. “As district attorney she’s going to remember my twin brother’s story, her own family’s story, and each and every one of your stories.”
Rollins scored a stunning victory in the September primary, soundly defeating four Democratic candidates, including Greg Henning, a longtime prosecutor who had the backing of police and the sitting district attorney, Daniel F. Conley.
Her victory, part of a wave of newly elected minority and female candidates across the state, was celebrated by criminal justice reform advocates and touted by former President Barack Obama. But she drew criticism from some police leaders and business groups over her pledge not to prosecute 15 low-level crimes, ranging from shoplifting to resisting arrest and drug distribution.
Rollins has since said the list was “aspirational” and represented a policy she plans to craft with the guidance of law enforcement officials.
Gross said Rollins has told him the policy will be implemented on a “case by case basis.”
“I know from the Boston Police Department: you commit a crime, we have the discretion to lock you up,” Gross said in a brief interview before the ceremony. “The decision of whether to prosecute or not, as speaking to the district attorney, is going to be on a case by case basis, and we’re looking forward to working collectively with her.”
After the ceremony, Rollins told reporters she plans to work with Gross on her proposal. She said she will work to make “jail the last option” for low-level offenders and meet the demand of voters whose call for reform has been “very loud and clear.”
“They don’t want mass incarceration,” Rollins said. “They don’t want the criminalization of mental illness and poverty, and we’re just going to start looking at things a little bit differently.”