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Police Sweeps Put Focus On Area Of Boston's South End05:28
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In this June file photo, Boston Police Commissioner William Gross, center, Mayor Marty Walsh and Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins speak to the media following a shooting. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
In this June file photo, Boston Police Commissioner William Gross, center, Mayor Marty Walsh and Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins speak to the media following a shooting. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Recent police sweeps through Boston's South End have focused attention on the city's balancing act in trying to help drug users and maintain public safety in the neighborhood.

Following an alleged assault on a correctional officer last week, Boston police swept the area around Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue, arresting many individuals and telling homeless people there to head out.

Police were also seen destroying wheelchairs, drawing condemnation online from many members of the public, including City Councilor Michelle Wu.

Dr. Dinah Applewhite told WBUR that what authorities are calling "Operation Clean Sweep" looked to her like acts of retaliation over the assault — especially the destruction of the wheelchairs.

"It felt so senseless to be taking people's things on the street and throwing them away," Applewhite said. "It was sending this message up: 'We don't want you here. You're not welcome here. Your mere existence is illegal, right?' "

She posted a photo from the scene to Twitter of wheelchairs being taken away, writing "Tax dollars at work. Crushing wheelchairs" as the caption.

"One man was in shock that his wheelchair had been taken," she said. "He kept saying, 'That was my wheelchair. I got it from MassHealth last week.' He had a boot on his leg and a back brace on, and said he had been in a hit-and-run last week."

Speaking Thursday, Boston Police Commissioner William Gross said the wheelchairs needed to be removed.

"They were used like a pin cushion by discarded needles," he said. "They were a hazard [and] we got them out of the way."

He said anyone who has a medical disability and needs a wheelchair can get one.

Mayor Marty Walsh took to Twitter Thursday, saying the "action that has been taken in recent days in the area of Newmarket Square has been aimed at addressing this [opioid addiction] crisis in a way that prioritizes both public safety for everyone and the compassion needed for those suffering with addiction."

Walsh added that police action "has been directed towards those that have violent intentions."

Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, also on Twitter, said that "[p]ublic safety begins with public health. As I’ve long made clear, we cannot arrest our way out of a health and resource crisis. People who suffer from homelessness, substance use disorder, or mental illness are not debris; they cannot be 'swept' away."

Residents of the South End said Thursday that they know there's a massive need for treatment, but they also need safety in their neighborhood.

The business community in the South End has long complained about the presence of so many drug users.

Located right in the middle of it all is Dipierro Construction. Owner Gerry Dipierro lost one of his six children to opioids, so he understands the need for treatment.

But he says residents and businesses in the thriving area also need security.

"I have a 5-year-old I gotta worry about every day," he said. "She likes to come to work with me. So on Sundays or Saturday I'll take her with me but I'm scared to death. I take her out of the car and literally I have her wrapped around me to get her in the building because you don't know what's gonna happen here."

Former inspectional services chief Buddy Christopher was appointed by the mayor earlier this summer to focus on improving the situation at Melnea Cass and Mass Ave.

Christopher said in addition to stepped-up police patrols, the city has increased outreach to encourage people to access treatment services.

With additional reporting by WBUR's Jerome Campbell and the Newscast Unit

This segment aired on August 9, 2019.

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Simón Ríos is an award-winning bilingual reporter in WBUR's newsroom.

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