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'Operation Clean Sweep' Arrest Reports Show Most Arrests Were For Drug Possession

On a one-mile stretch between Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard in Boston, it's not uncommon to witness people using drugs. Here, we’ve digitally blurred this person’s face to prevent identification. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
On a one-mile stretch between Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard in Boston, it's not uncommon to witness people using drugs. Here, we’ve digitally blurred this person’s face to prevent identification. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Last month, in a two-day mission the Boston Police Department named "Operation Clean Sweep," officers arrested dozens of people in the South End area of Melnea Cass Boulevard, Massachusetts Avenue and Southampton Street.

It's a location frequented by people struggling with homelessness and addiction. Police describe the area as an "open-air drug market."

In the days after, "Operation Clean Sweep" was met with a wave of criticism. Police and city leaders repeatedly pushed back, saying officers had mostly targeted dangerous drug dealers.

"We got rid of a lot of drug dealers, a lot of people preying on the sick and suffering that are there and that's really what it's all about," Mayor Marty Walsh said. "People preying on sick and suffering, we're not going to stand for it."

But a WBUR review of police reports shows the majority of the people arrested were not charged with crimes like drug dealing or any violent crime. Instead, most were booked on charges related to drug possession or old warrants.

The Arrests

The police reports detail how on Aug. 1 and 2, for three hours each night, officers blocked off at least one street and arrested 34 people in the half-mile radius around Southampton and Atkinson streets.

Of those 34, nine were arrested for dealing drugs on the nights of the sweeps, police records show. One of those nine people had active warrants for drug distribution. Two other people police also arrested on a warrant for drug distribution were not actively selling drugs, however, during the sweeps.

Another eight people were arrested on charges related to drug possession, including heroin, cocaine and prescription narcotics.

Of those arrested, a majority — 18 people in total — were taken into custody solely on active warrants, the records show. Nearly half of those arrests were for outstanding warrants for drug possession. Less than a fourth of people arrested on outstanding warrants faced charges for both drug possession and assault and battery. Police records also show that three people were arrested for warrants for larceny, and one other person was arrested on a trespassing warrant.

Only one person was arrested and newly charged with assault related to an incident that occurred just a half hour before "Operation Clean Sweep" began. That man had gotten into a fight with another man, who was transported to a nearby hospital.

The records again appear to contradict the narrative of the sweep given by BPD leaders like Commissioner William Gross. He said most people arrested in the sweep lived outside the Boston area, and implied that most had committed crimes intended to prey on those struggling with addiction and homelessness.

"Nobody seems to be getting that these people are preyed on constantly by drug dealers, extortionists, sexual assault, intimidation," Gross said at a news conference in the days following the sweep. "I just think it's unfair that we're judged for locking up the people that are preying upon those individuals as well as anyone else in that area."

But most facing charges in the sweep — 19 in total — are from Greater Boston. Nearly half of those arrested gave police the address of a recovery shelter as their residence or told BPD they were homeless.

"It is criminalizing people who have a substance use disorder, as well as people experiencing homelessness or [those who] are poor," said Cassie Hurd, who works with SIFMA NOW, a harm reduction and supervised injection advocacy group in Boston.

She underscored that some of the charges in the arrests reports — like disorderly conduct and larceny — are commonly used to criminalize the actions of people in poverty with no place to go.

Fear of arrest, she added, also may prevent drug users and people struggling with homelessness from seeking help in the area near Southampton Street. It's widely known as a stretch unique in Boston for its large number of shelters and recovery programs.

"After the sweeps, people have begun to go as far as Milton because they fear the sweeps, and now they are even farther from the help that they might actually want," Hurd said.

Neither Walsh's office nor BPD responded to WBUR's repeated requests for comment on the police reports.

How The Arrests Went

The arrest records paint a picture as to how the sweeps went down.

In a few cases, per the reports, police conducted surveillance on individuals that were recognized by officers as people they had previously arrested for drug-related crimes.

In other cases, police identified people as potential suspects for reasons like that they walked away from patrolling officers or put something in their pockets, which officers noted in their reports constituted "suspicious behavior."

In three cases, officers arrested people while they were consuming drugs — including a 44-year-old South Boston man. Police said he was crouched behind a vehicle injecting himself with heroin before his arrest.

As officers approached, he yelled out: "One more second," and injected again, the report said.

When an officer tried to stop the man, a tan bag fell from his clothing. Police believed the bag contained heroin and arrested him for drug possession. He was released from Roxbury District Court without bail the next day.

Thirty-six-year-old Marshall Burton was the only person arrested and newly charged with a violent crime in the sweep. Burton had gotten into a fight with another man before officers arrived on the first day of the police action. According to the police report — which cited security footage — he grabbed a man by the shirt and pulled him to the ground, causing him to hit his head on the pavement. The victim was taken to a hospital and is expected to survive.

Officers searched Burton and found green metallic knuckles with an attached collapsible blade in his possession. He was arrested on assault and weapon charges.

Most of the arrests, however, were for drug charges — like the arrest of a 46-year-old man outside of a Best Western on Gerard Street. Officers saw he was seated below a "no trespassing" sign and asked if he was staying at the hotel.

During the exchange, records show officers saw a small bulge in the man's sock, and believed it was drugs. When they searched him, officers said they found a small paper fold of a powdery substance believed to be cocaine, as well as seven unprescribed packets of Suboxone — a drug that can be abused but also is prescribed to help people quit opioids. He was arrested and charged with drug possession and trespassing.

One woman was confronted by police on both nights of the sweep when police saw her car repeatedly in the area.

On the first night, an officer saw her toss a zebra-patterned bag inside her car, which was parked illegally on Southampton Street. She walked away from approaching officers. They looked in her car and wrote in the report that they saw a red knife inside.

After an exchange, officers searched her car. They looked inside her bag and found what they thought was cocaine. She was arrested on drug charges, and her car seized.

The next day, police saw the same woman inside her car less than a quarter-mile away near Northampton Street. This time, she began crying when police approached and was let go without any charges, the report stated.

Police arrested another woman in the car, however. Hidden in her pants, an officer found 18 plastic bags of what they believed to be fentanyl she was intending to sell. That woman was charged with drug trafficking and possession with intent to distribute.

The suspects were all arraigned in Roxbury District Court last month and are due back between this month and October. At least eight were released without bail.

Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins said she did not believe the Suffolk County House of Corrections was the best place for those suffering from a substance use disorder.

"There were many, many people who were near [the area of the sweeps] because they have a health crisis," said Rollins. "I think we need to collaborate with state, local and federal organizations and entities that are put here to help them. That's where we need to send them. Not to jail."

All of the defendants were given orders to stay away from the area where they were arrested. In the cases involving drug dealing charges, prosecutors filed motions for the defendants to forfeit money found on them, ranging from $85 to $500.

Some of the people who were arrested on outstanding warrants were transported to the court that issued the warrants, including municipal courts in Boston, Malden and Chelsea. The farthest court was in Northampton.

Related:

Jerome Campbell Twitter Reporter
Jerome Campbell was a WBUR Poverty and Justice Fellow whose reporting was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

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