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‘They cannot be “swept” away’: DA Rollins criticizes South End police sweep

Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins.
Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins.(Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)

Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins on Thursday said homeless people and those struggling with substance abuse disorders “cannot be ‘swept’ away” after a police operation in a South End neighborhood sparked controversy this week.

“Public safety begins with public health. As I’ve long made clear, we cannot arrest our way out of a health and resource crisis,” Rollins wrote in a tweet thread. “People who suffer from homelessness, substance use disorder, or mental illness are not debris; they cannot be ‘swept’ away.”

Advocates and some residents blasted city officials online and at a South End community meeting this week following a police action on Tuesday in which officers reportedly told the homeless and those with substance use disorders to clear the area and oversaw the destruction of several wheelchairs. The Tuesday operation was carried out in the wake of an assault on a Suffolk County deputy sheriff in the same area last week.

Rollins cautioned that those responsible for the assault on the officer would be held accountable.

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“They, however, do not reflect the overwhelming population of people in that area who are seeking treatment, services and help,” she wrote.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh defended the police actions in a series of tweets Thursday.

“The action that has been taken in recent days in the area of Newmarket Square has been aimed at addressing this crisis in a way that prioritizes both public safety for everyone and the compassion needed for those suffering with addiction,” Walsh wrote. “As the area attracts individuals looking for shelter or services, it also brings people that want to take advantage of their vulnerability, which is why police action has been directed towards those that have violent intentions.”

Sergeant Detective John Boyle, a Boston Police Department spokesman, said Wednesday the officers went to the neighborhood based on crime data “to protect the general public safety in the area.” The wheelchairs, he said, were thrown away because they were damaged and soiled with “bodily fluids.”

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Felice Freyer and Danny McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this report.