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Rollins outlines priorities as state's new US Attorney

Rachael Rollins speaks in front of Boston City Hall in 2021. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Rachael Rollins speaks in front of Boston City Hall in 2021. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Don't expect a so-called "do not prosecute" list from Rachael Rollins in her new role as Massachusetts US Attorney.

Although she had such a list of crimes that her office would not immediately move to prosecute as Suffolk County District Attorney, she said her role as the state's top federal law enforcement officer is different.

"As the U.S. attorney, there's no list," Rollins said in her first public comments since being sworn in to her new federal post this week. "We are going to prioritize the things that the attorney general of the United States prioritizes, and we are going to look to our partners. I intend to be compliant with what the Department of Justice, main justice as we call it, is going to prioritize."

Such a list was controversial for Rollins, especially during the US Senate hearings on her confirmation. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said the list indicated that Rollins was "part of a web of left-wing district attorneys across the country who see as their job not to prosecute crime, but rather to protect criminals."

But Rollins said her policies as DA to focus on serious crimes and more often use diversion for lower-level crimes was efficient and effective. She pointed to statistics showing that violent crime was down in Boston for most of her time as district attorney.

"We have a proof of concept in Suffolk County that I want to bring to scale to the rest of the commonwealth," Rollins said.  "Where I believe that when you involve community and what government can do, it reaps enormous benefits because everything is connected."

Rollins is the first Black woman to lead the office of more than 200 federal prosecutors. Despite receiving racist and sexist threats after her nomination and asking the federal government for increased security because of those threats, Rollins said she "feels safe" and is going to work hard to prove her detractors wrong.

Since her swearing in on Monday,  Rollins said she has met with several former Massachusetts US Attorneys and is receiving briefings on cases before the office. Her focus, she said, is on building relationships, and she plans to meet with special agents at the federal agencies she will now be working with.

As for specific issues, Rollins said she expects to focus on cases involving crimes such as human trafficking and drug trafficking, where federal prosecutors have more resources and can sometimes command tougher sentences.

"I know full well that human trafficking is happening at significantly high rates in our commonwealth, as well as drug trafficking, gun trafficking and those type of things, and I think the federal government is uniquely suited to be involved," Rollins said. "And we can hold people for longer times more often than the state can. I am very clear that when it comes to violent serious crimes, that is where I want to be focusing my attention. Nothing has changed from DA Rollins to US Attorney Rollins regarding that philosophy."

Rollins did acknowledge the differences in state and federal laws on issues such as marijuana, immigration and safe consumption sites (where people can use drugs under medical supervision). She praised her predecessor, former US Attorney Andrew Lelling, for making his positions clear and informing communities that safe consumption sites are illegal under federal law. She said she will be communicating with communities about the "parameters" under federal law and said she will be getting her "marching orders" from the Justice Department.

For many of the specific cases before the US Attorney's Office,  Rollins said she is still being briefed. For example, once there is a US Supreme Court ruling on the death penalty for convicted Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Rollins said her office will be sure to reach out to the loved ones of those killed in the bombings and those who were injured. She said her personal opinion about the death penalty is "irrelevant."

Rollins did say that she was "disappointed" by the recent acquittal of Springfield police officer Gregg Bigda, but "respects the findings" of the federal jury.

Last month Bigda was found not guilty of using excessive force and coercive interrogation techniques, charges that contributed to the federal government opening a civil rights investigation into the Springfield Police Department's narcotics unit. It was the only Justice Department investigation of a police department during the Trump administration.

Rollins promised that her office will continue to review police misconduct cases and "use our immense power to investigate and see whether law enforcement is upholding the high standard that we have to."

She also said she is "proud" to be known as a progressive and that will not change with her new federal responsibilities.

"Do I want to be looked at as a US attorney that's going to think creatively about how to make this exceptional office even better, if that's being labeled progressive?" Rollins said. "Yes, I'd like to. But you know, I inherited an exceptional office that we are going to hopefully try to be maybe a little bit more active in the community than we have been and continue doing the things we do exceptionally well."

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Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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