Debate erupted in the South End over the city’s approach to the opioid crisis. Here’s what you need to know.

The neighborhood became a focal point after police undertook “Operation Clean Sweep” last week.

Boston, MA - 4/21/2016   - Doug Anglin picks up a discarded syringe used by and addicts in Boston, MA, April 21, 2016. Boston Health Care for the Homeless is setting up to provide monitoring for homeless drug users in hopes of preventing overdoses. (Keith Bedford/Globe Staff)
–Keith Bedford/Boston Globe

The opioid crisis in Boston — and the city’s approach to addressing it — was under a spotlight this week.

The police department came under fire from advocates and politicians alike after it undertook an effort it called “Operation Clean Sweep” with a series of arrests in the area known as “Methadone Mile,” the stretch of city blocks surrounding Mass. Ave., Melnea Cass Boulevard, and Southampton Street dotted with shelters and recovery services for those struggling with substance use disorders and addiction issues.

Days after the action, emotions ran high at a meeting in the South End on Wednesday night, as members of the community expressed frustrations about the impacts of the opioid epidemic on the neighborhood — from discarded syringes and other refuse to witnessing active drug use and overdoses. So many people turned out for the meeting, set to take place inside the South End branch of the public library, that it was moved outside where attendees yelled out at times during the discussion about the crisis and the police actions with the commencement of “Operation Clean Sweep.”

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Here’s what you need to know about the events that have unfolded with the “clean up” and the public outcry that followed.

What the city has done

The city’s police department undertook what it called “Operation Clean Sweep” last week, after a Suffolk County corrections officer was assaulted on Atkinson Street.

According to Boston police, the officer was in his vehicle driving down the street on the morning of Aug. 1 when a man yelled out to him. When the officer rolled down his window, he was struck in the face “with a closed fist” by the man. When the officer got out of his vehicle to confront his attacker, he was then “surrounded by approximately five individuals who proceeded to assault him,” police said.

The officer was transported to a hospital with injuries that were not life-threatening, and a 51-year-old Boston man, Sean Stuart, was arrested and charged in connection with the assault.

Boston police launched “Operation Clean Sweep” the day of the assault, arresting 18 people on Aug. 1. On Aug. 2, the department arrested 16 other individuals, bringing the total number of arrests from the operation to 34.

Charges ranged from drug possession to some arrests in connection with the assault on the officer, while many others stemmed from outstanding warrants for individuals from other municipalities and states. Police said the operation was taken up “in an effort to address ongoing community concerns in the general area of Massachusetts Avenue and Southampton Street in Roxbury.”

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According to NBC10 Boston, after police made the arrests and cleared part of Atkinson Street last weekend, workers cleared the street of the belongings and trash left behind.

Buddy Christopher, a special adviser to the mayor who was appointed in June with the charge of organizing services around Melnea Cass Boulevard and Mass. Ave., told Boston.com “Operation Clean Sweep” was entirely undertaken at the discretion of the police department.

“They are responding to a public safety issue, and they dealt with it as they saw fit,” he said.

Boston police spokesman John Boyle told Boston.com on Friday that the operation over those two days was a “directed patrol” with the goal of addressing concerns in rising crime in the area, which predated the assault on the officer.

“Over the past year we’ve had a 41 percent increase in violent crime in the area,” he said.

In 2018 by this time in the year, the city had seen 45 aggravated assaults in the area, Boyle said. In 2019, there have been 74.

“With that increase in crime, there was a strategy to do something,” he said.

Since those two days of “directed patrols,” the department has continued “maintenance patrols” in the area that are focused on “ensuring quality of life concerns of the neighborhood,” Boyle said.

“We have not made any more arrests,” he said.

Mayor Marty Walsh’s office said in a statement to The Boston Globe last week that the mayor “significantly increased public safety presence in the area, increasing directed patrols, extending patrol hours, and training officers in de-escalation techniques for individuals struggling with mental health or substance-use disorder.”

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“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 said in a statement on Thursday. “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.”

How the public — and officials — reacted

Officers talk with a concerned resident in Worcester Square in Boston on Wednesday. —Craig F. Walker / The Boston Globe

After “Operation Clean Sweep” unfolded, activists and advocates voiced outrage after posts on social media showed wheelchairs being crushed in a garbage truck following police action on Tuesday evening.

Cassie Hurd, a homeless advocate, told Boston magazine she was working in the area with SIFMA NOW, a group advocating for increased harm reduction services and safe injection sites, when she witnessed the actions on Tuesday night. She told the publication about 15 state and Boston police officers began telling people congregating on Mass. Ave. they had to leave and unattended items, including three wheelchairs, were put in a DPW trash truck.

“We spent a significant amount of time with someone who lost his wheelchair. He is not able to be mobile without it, and not having a home, nowhere to sit, nowhere to go, and was having pain. He couldn’t really balance or walk,” Hurd told Boston. “He had left his wheelchair for a minute and his partner tried everything to keep the wheelchair. She pleaded with police and was sobbing and crying. They took it and threw it in the back of the truck and it was devastating to watch. There was nothing anyone could do to prevent them from throwing it out.”

Boyle said wheelchairs were not taken away from anyone. 

“Those wheelchairs were damaged as well as covered in bodily fluids as well as needles,” he said. “They were abandoned. Nobody was taken out a wheelchair and the wheelchair was thrown away. It wasn’t a case of that. It was abandoned property.”

Speaking on the incident, Christopher told Boston.com Thursday that he was only aware of one wheelchair being picked up and thrown away from in front of Boston Medical Center because it was covered in human fluids and considered abandoned.

“Nobody was evicted from that chair,” Christopher said, adding later, “It’s our policy not ever to take a wheelchair away from somebody. That is just so ridiculous.”

But in the days after the images surfaced, the police action — and by extension the city — has been roundly condemned by activists and politicians alike, with concerns raised that the actions would prevent those in need from seeking services out of fear of arrest.

“This image represents a cruelty that government should try to stop, not carry out,” City Councilor Michelle Wu said. “The stories from advocates remind me of how the closure of the Long Island bridge happened—people in need being displaced, destabilized & stigmatized.”

Wu acknowledged the situation around the area of “Mass. and Cass,” as city officials refer to it, has been “untenable for a long time,” referencing efforts by families and residents around the Orchard Gardens Pilot School to demand more action to address the impacts of the opioid crisis, which have included discarded syringes on school grounds.

“Those who attacked a corrections officer must be held accountable,” Wu said. “But the urgent need for clean & safe streets can’t come at the expense of destabilizing treatment for those who need it & destroying property of those who have no home to store things, while just moving people on to somewhere else. … Our public resources should match the scale of the crisis, not set up a conflict between public safety, public health & community.”

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley also condemned “Operation Clean Sweep.”

“We cannot dehumanize our fellow residents,” Pressley wrote. “We cannot further stigmatize addiction or respond with criminalization instead of access to treatment. We need coordinated solutions that center the humanity of all of our residents, not this #operationcleansweep.”

Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins said she would be meeting with stakeholders in the community, saying more had to be done.

“As I’ve long made clear, we cannot arrest our way out of a health and resource crisis,” she said Thursday. “People who suffer from homelessness, substance use disorder, or mental illness are not debris; they cannot be “swept” away. Investing resources in evidence-based solutions isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do. Clearing the streets will not clear up the underlying problems, and in the end will cost us more money and more lives.”

Residents in the surrounding area expressed concerns that the police action only pushed people struggling with homelessness and substance use further into the neighborhoods, like the South End.

At the overflowing and at times heated meeting in the South End on Wednesday, residents also questioned the timing of the action, saying they’d been expressing concerns about safety and public health in the neighborhood related to the opioid crisis for years, according to Boston 25 News.

Jay’dha Rackard, 11, shared that she was transferring from the Orchard Gardens school in Roxbury because of the impacts of the crisis that are laid bare for her and her classmates to see each day. 

“This is not fair, please tell me where is my safety?” she asked officials at the meeting. “We have seen people shooting up on the streets and we have seen people having inappropriate actions and nothing has been done. And now that a corrections officer has been assaulted, now you are doing something? This is not fair at all.”

Christopher emphasized in an interview with Boston.com that the police operation was in direct response to the fact that an assault occurred, not just because it involved an officer.

“What that person does for a living is not our concern,” he told Boston.com. “It was one of our residents, he was not wearing a uniform. So there were no identifiers that this was happening — someone got hurt. And we have to protect our people.”

Chief of Boston Health & Human Services Marty Martinez said during the meeting that the city has a range of services — from outreach workers to treatment programs and needle collection — but emphasized there is “no simple answer to this question.”

“We’re picking up 8,000 needles every month in the City of Boston,” he said.

This summer, the issue has seemed worse, South End residents told the Globe

“People seem more aggressive this year than in past years,” Desmond Murphy, of the Worcester Square Neighborhood Association, told the newspaper. “You’re more likely to encounter someone who’s yelling at you. … Some of the business owners say if someone is loitering and you ask them to leave, they’re more likely to create a scene.” 

Christopher told Boston.com the situation in the area “changes almost every day” but said it has been apparent that the growing use of methamphetamine over the last two or three months has been a “major game changer.”

“The advent of crystal meth in our community is changing the behavior of a lot of our folks that are in need,” he said. “So there is more activity.”

What happens next

A city employee sweeps up a syringe while cleaning Harrison Avenue in front of Boston Medical Center and across from Worcester Square on Wednesday. —Craig F. Walker / The Boston Globe

After the police action and subsequent debate, city officials say their attention is now on reassuring people in need of services that it is safe for them to return to Atkinson Street and the area of Mass. and Cass.

“What took place the other night was the identifying and removing of people who were not taking advantage of our services, but were actually taking advantage of other people,” Christopher said. “That is not a position that we’re going to support or move forward on. The purpose of the shelter and the services that are available there is to help people. And that’s what this has always been about.”

Caitlin McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for the Boston Public Health Commission, called opioid addiction a “national epidemic of historic proportions,” in a statement to Boston.com.

“It is tearing apart families and the effects can be felt in every neighborhood across our City. Boston is at the forefront of the treatment efforts, which results in more people coming to the City from across the Commonwealth seeking care,” she said. “The City of Boston’s recovery services, harm reduction services, and other programs remain open for anyone who is seeking treatment for drug addiction.”

Laughlin said over the past week there has been a decrease in the number of people accessing city services.

“We remain focused on helping anyone struggling with substance use disorder get the services they need,” she said. “We have increased the number of outreach workers across the City. We want to make that clear: Anyone who wants and needs help, it is available.”

In an interview a day after the contentious South End meeting, Jay’dha’s mother, Janina Rackard, said both she and her daughter still felt the city wasn’t listening to their concerns.

“They are pacifying her, they are pacifying the community,” Rackard said. “And they’re continuing to do what they want and not hearing the residents.”

Christopher said the community can expect to see an increased police presence in Roxbury, Dorchester, and the South End as the message about returning for services is spread. Outreach workers are also working to ensure the trust that has been built between them and people in need is maintained.

Last year, the city’s outreach workers and engagement team referred almost 2,000 people to shelters and programs, and the city plans to continue adding to the resources available, according to Christopher.

“If you need assistance, that’s what we’re there for,” he said.

The discussions around the impacts of the crisis to the surrounding neighborhoods are ongoing, and the city will continue to meet with and hear the concerns of residents in the neighborhoods impacted, according to Christopher.

Rollins, Walsh, and Boston Police Commissioner William Gross are also planning to meet with the Suffolk County sheriff after he requested an “emergency meeting” to discuss the issues around the area.

The city’s approach to the opioid crisis is “forever a balance of public health and public safety issues,” Christopher said.

“People are concerned about people loitering on their stairs and in the backyards — we understand that,” he said. “It’s not illegal to walk in our streets. It is illegal to go on people’s property. We try to work with the people to make that [not] happen. If you are doing illegal things in our city, yes, you will be arrested. And that sounds like such a harsh statement. But it’s not our first course of action. The police will approach people and ask them if they need help.”

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