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Big changes in Rollins’ first eight months at Suffolk County DA office

Suhra Nahib
Big changes in Rollins’ first eight months at Suffolk County DA office
Rachael Rollins BANNER PHOTO

On the campaign trail, Rachael Rollins ran as a reformer, promising among other things to shift the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office away from prosecuting petty misdemeanor crimes and focus more resources on violent crime.

Now more than eight months into her first year on the job, Rollins has already made her mark on the county’s criminal justice system, filing a lawsuit against federal immigration authorities over their practice of making civil arrests in court houses, clashing with Gov. Charlie Baker over her reform policies and, most recently, checking a Boston Municipal Court judge who sought to override her prosecutor’s discretion.

That latest flap ended up with a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court justice stepping in to vindicate Rollins, ruling that Judge Richard Sinnott overstepped his role. Sinnott had denied a prosecutor’s request to drop a disorderly conduct charge against a counter-demonstrator arrested during an August “Straight Pride” parade. Rollins’ insistence on dropping the charge drew criticism from police union officials, among others.

Rollins is determined to stand her ground.

“When I hear police officers saying, ‘She just needs to prosecute every person we arrest,’ well, that’s not my job,” she said in a recent interview. “My job is to make sure that we can sustain the burden that we have as the commonwealth. If I have a group of nonfatal shootings that we haven’t solved yet, and you bring me eight people that disturb the peace, is that annoying? Yeah, of course it is. But that is not what I want my time spent on. I want to start getting a higher solve rate on non-fatal shootings.”

Despite the criticism she has fielded from police union officials, Rollins says she is working hard to maintain a positive relationship with the police departments in Suffolk County — Boston, Chelsea, Revere and Winthrop. But that doesn’t mean she’s giving up her power as a prosecutor.

“I’m the last word on whether or not this office is going to do something, and I owe it to the people of Suffolk county to remain a little bit distant at times when it comes to the police,” she said. “That doesn’t mean I don’t fully respect how hard their job is, and all of the great police work that happens every single day — but they’re not understanding my role.”

Last year, Rollins was one of six candidates for the Suffolk County District Attorney seat. While her campaign website listed 15 misdemeanor charges she said she would only prosecute under extraordinary circumstances, the policy went largely unnoticed as political pundits put their bets on former prosecutor Greg Henning, who raised more than $500,000 leading up to the primary and had the backing of police unions and former District Attorney Dan Conley.

After Rollins garnered 40 percent of the vote in the six-way primary, to Henning’s 23 percent, representatives of police unions raised the alarm over her list. Rollins sailed into office, easily beating the sole Republican in the general election, and implemented her policy in March, drawing fire from Gov. Charlie Baker’s secretary of Public Safety Thomas Turco, who released a memo claiming her refusal to prosecute misdemeanors would jeopardize public safety.

Rollins and Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan filed a lawsuit in January against the federal Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after they learned agents had conducted civil arrests of undocumented immigrants while they appeared in court. Rollins argued that the arrests of defendants, witnesses and others attending to court business would have a chilling effect on all cases in which undocumented immigrants are involved, whether as victims, witnesses or defendants.

In June, a federal judge issued a temporary injunction barring ICE agents from making the arrests. Rollins lauded the action.

“ICE can’t just sit around and watch to see if somebody they would like to deport or they believe they have the authority to deport walks in, goes through the metal detector, and then they get to take them and arrest them,” Rollins said. “When you civilly arrest someone, their constitutional rights don’t apply. But when you criminally arrest somebody, you have to bring them before a court. I’m appreciative that the judge had such an exhaustive hearing process and also wrote a great opinion.”

While many of the changes Rollins implemented have made headlines, some other major changes inside her office have been less visible. To investigate police shootings, Rollins formed a Discharge Integrity Team, which includes a retired Superior Court judge, former heads of the homicide units in Suffolk and Middlesex counties, a criminal defense attorney, a community member and a Boston police officer or state police officer.

“We are rebuilding an at-times broken trust with the community, where, when an officer discharges his or her weapon, we are the neutral, unbiased entity that looks into whether that was reasonable and non-criminal, or unreasonable and criminal,” she said. “We recognize the inherent bias of somebody internally here conducting that investigation, or at least the appearance of impropriety.”

The team is currently investigating three police shootings that have happened this year and two additional cases that occurred before Rollins was sworn in.

Other changes in the office include the addition of social workers, a first for Suffolk County.

We’re the last catch basin at the end of many different systems that people have slipped through, or that have failed them,” Rollins said. “We’re looking at victims differently to make sure that, A, we listen to them or hear from them, and B, we get them the services that they need and we have subject matter experts speaking to them.”

Rollins has also promoted women and people of color within her office, diversifying traditionally male-dominated roles including chief of staff, general counsel and chief of the office’s Gang Unit.

Rollins freely admits that she’s ruffled feathers with the more audacious changes she’s made, but she points to the voters in Suffolk County who elected her, implicitly backing her reform agenda. The changes she’s made are the same changes she outlined on the campaign trail.

“I think we are absolutely shaking things up,” she said. “I think for the first time in a long time, there are large groups of people that are interested in who the DA is and what the office does.”

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