Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins on Friday rejected the Boston Police Department’s claim that its recent sweep of a troubled South End area was aimed exclusively at violent criminals, and not designed to roust the broader population of homeless people and drug users who congregate there.
Police have said the sweeps — which followed an attack on a sheriff’s deputy — were designed to protect drug users and homeless people in an area disparagingly known as “Methadone Mile.” They said officers were targeting violent people and drug dealers in response to longstanding community complaints about open drug use, panhandling, and aggressive behavior.
But Rollins said the operation, which netted 34 people, clearly swept up some mentally ill, homeless, and drug-addicted people who were not harming others.
“All of those different groups of people were penalized for the behavior of one or two or a small group of people who have engaged in violence,” she said.
Many of those arrested were picked up for warrants for previous offenses, including drug possession and trespassing. Others face charges related to drug dealing and assault and battery.
Rollins, who was elected on a reform platform that included a pledge to not prosecute certain drug cases, said she would scrutinize the charges and decide which to pursue.
Those charged with violent crimes will be held accountable, she said, including those accused of assaulting the sheriff’s deputy and trying to steal his car. But those who were charged with drug possession and have no criminal record should not be prosecuted but sent to treatment instead, she said.
“I don’t think we can arrest our way out of a health and resource crisis, and that’s what I think we’re dealing with now,” Rollins said.
Her comments came just after she met with Police Commissioner William Gross to discuss the matter.
Gross, along with Mayor Martin J. Walsh, on Friday strongly defended the police operations.
“It was no sweep,” Walsh said after a Boston EMS graduation and promotion ceremony at Faneuil Hall. “There were drug dealers out there. There were people prostituting people. There were violent acts out there. . . . It had gone a little too far.”
Gross also said the operation was long planned.
“Dependencies cannot be arrested away,” he said, “but we will arrest the predators that prey on these folks. They deserve justice, as well.”
Gross and the mayor also addressed an image that circulated widely on social media this week of a wheelchair being crushed in the back of a garbage truck. The photo sparked outrage from activists and advocates for the homeless. Gross said the wheelchair was broken, covered in feces and blood, and being used as a pin cushion for needles.
“That same wheelchair, if it was in the middle of Dudley or downtown, I would be getting a million calls, ‘What are you doing? Why aren’t you removing it?’ So we removed it,” Gross said.
Walsh added that the “focus was to help people and assist people. We have not and will not ever take somebody out of a wheelchair – God forbid.”
Steve Hescock, who is 41 and homeless, said Friday that the police have been questioning him and others in the area, asking where they’re going and telling them to move along.
“We don’t know what to do. Where do you want us to go?” he said, as he leaned his blue bicycle against a pole at the corner of Worcester Square and Harrison Avenue.
Hescock said he is frustrated that the city has not replaced the shelter and treatment program on Long Island, which provided beds for 1,000 people but closed in 2014. He hopes the city will rebuild the bridge to the island and restore services there.
“If they want us out of here so bad, how hard is it to throw a bridge up?” Hescock said. “Mass Ave. will always be Methadone Mile, but it would clear out 600, 700 people when the buses take everybody over there.”
Dr. Jessie M. Gaeta, chief medical officer of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, sees “one very clear-cut thing we should be doing now”: providing places where people can inject drugs under observation and be rescued if they overdose.
“We owe it to this population to give everyone an opportunity to survive addiction” and potentially enter treatment, she said.
Such a site, Gaeta said, would do what neighbors are asking for — reduce public injection and discarded needles. Studies in other countries show that such sites serve the immediate vicinity and don’t attract out-of-towners.
Short of that, Gaeta said, people need safe, indoor places to gather — shelters and programs that accept them as they are instead of imposing rules that exclude them.
Walsh said Friday that safe-injection sites in Canada have helped keep people alive and get them into treatment. But he said they would face significant hurdles in the United States because they are illegal under federal law.
“There’s a long way before Boston or Massachusetts has one,” he said. “But we should have the dialogue.”
Walsh said the city is committed to helping people struggling with drug addiction through a range of other approaches, which City Hall has been pursuing for years.
“The solution is: try everything,” Walsh said. “See what works. And we have treatment facilities that we have. We have needle exchange programs. We have outreach counselors.”
At the same time, Walsh, who has spoken openly of his own recovery from alcoholism, noted, “You can’t force someone into treatment. You have to get them to the point where they want to go into treatment.”
Susan Sullivan, executive director of the Newmarket Business Association, said the 235 businesses in her group are forming a “business improvement district.” Under the proposal, every business would be assessed a fee to supplement city-provided services.
That could include outreach workers for homeless people, trash cleanup, and a shuttle system to bring workers to and from public transit stops. She said the association will bring the proposal to the City Council in about six months.
“This would give additional eyes and ears on the street,” she said.