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Pulling Back the Curtain on Boston’s ‘Operation Clean Sweep’

Most coverage of police raids targeting homeless people and substance users parroted official—and fraught—talking points.

BPD crushed wheelchairs
Dinah Applewhite/Twitter

On Aug. 6, the Boston Police Department drew national attention for destroying wheelchairs of homeless residents in the trash compactor of a garbage truck as family and friends begged officers to stop. It was the sixth night of “Operation Clean Sweep,” a series of raids targeting Boston’s transient community living along a stretch of the South End known as the “Methadone Mile” or “the Mile,” named for its concentration of health infrastructure serving people who use opioids.

At least 34 people were arrested as part of the sweep on Aug. 1 and Aug. 2, many of whom were taken into custody over old warrants. During the operation, homeless people were pushed from Atkinson Street and then told to return to the same street for no discernible reason. As a result, those displaced are unable to find a place to sleep, which has caused justified frustration and confusion about where the city expects them to go.

Boston Users Union, a collective of current and former drug users who advocate for harm reduction, has reported a heavy police presence on the Mile each night since the sweep, saying police are searching Mile residents for contraband and requesting identification so that they can search for open warrants.

Mainstream news reports haven’t been much help. They have misrepresented the origin of the operation, amplified misleading anecdotes and racist tropes about Mile residents, and failed to explain to readers and viewers how the city of Boston caused instability on the Mile through inadequate policy responses to opioid use. This problematic coverage props up a stigmatizing narrative about people who use opioids, facilitating Boston’s crackdowns on the Mile. 

The origin of ‘Operation Clean Sweep’

The majority of reporting noted that Operation Clean Sweep was a direct response to a fight on Aug. 1 between Sabat Tejeda, a Suffolk County corrections officer, and an unknown man on the street. The police action took place just a few hours after the fight, resulting in the arrest of 18 people that night and 16 the following night, most for unrelated charges.

But almost every article portrays Tejeda as the victim. CBS Boston said Tejeda was “attacked,” NBC10 called him a victim of a “beating,” and the Boston Globe called the incident an “attempted robbery.” TV news station WCVB called the fight a “savage attack,” and during its news segment, the officer’s father called participants in the fight a “pack of animals.” In the CBS Boston segment, the correspondent even claims the fight took place in an “open-air drug market.”

According to Massachusetts law, a violent action is not considered self-defense unless the individual has no chance to retreat and has “exhausted all other reasonable alternatives” to avoid conflict. Even in the edited video, it is apparent that Tejeda had an opportunity to disengage or de-escalate: He was seated in his car, and it was possible for him to drive away. Instead, he got out of the car and punched the man in the face, which initiated the larger engagement.

If Tejeda cannot argue self-defense, then his actions could constitute the crime of affray—two or more people fighting in a public place, causing the public fear—per Massachusetts law.

But even the police narrative that Tejeda was attacked outright does not justify the sweeps. Punishing the entire transient community is needlessly cruel as a consequence for violence between individuals.

Questionable crime stats

A number of news outlets have reported that, beyond the fight, Operation Clean Sweep was a response by city officials to increases in violent crime on the Mile. WCVB claimed that police calls in the area have “surged here over the past few years,” and the Boston Globe quoted residents’ perceptions of aggressive behavior without supplying empirical context. In the same piece, police Commissioner William Gross claimed that the operation had been planned far in advance, and articulated a commitment to arresting “predators that prey on” homeless residents. 

Mayor Marty Walsh has perpetuated this narrative: He tweeted that “police action has been directed toward those that have violent intentions,” and later insisted in a Globe article that Operation Clean Sweep was not a “sweep.” Deputy superintendent Michael Stratton claimed in another Globe piece that in the first eight months of 2019, robberies and aggravated assaults have increased 41 percent in the area. 

In a limited sense, Stratton’s claim is true. According to police incident data obtained by The Appeal, there were 84 aggravated assaults and 35 robberies on the Mile in the first seven months of 2019, up from 54 and 30 incidents during the first seven months of 2018. But this shouldn’t be surprising to Boston’s police, as they have pushed people experiencing homelessness into a tiny stretch of land without providing them the resources they need to succeed. Nevertheless, with help from recovery services, people who live on the Mile manage to look after one another quite effectively: Boston police were called to respond to a heroin overdose only 16 times in 2019, a slight decrease from 20 so-called sick assists in the first seven months of 2018. This is yet another argument in favor of safe consumption sites: When people use opioids together in a safe environment, fewer people die

And across Boston, both aggravated assault and robbery are down this year, about 4 percent and 19 percent. Reported assaults on the Mile make up just a tiny fraction of the 1,422 citywide.

Public safety or public harm?

Police have also cited public safety concerns as justification for Operation Clean Sweep, but they simply don’t add up. 

After community members expressed outrage over the wanton destruction of homeless residents’ wheelchairs, Gross, the commissioner, insisted in a Boston Globe report that one of the compacted wheelchairs had been a biohazard, as it was covered in feces, blood, and needles. Eyewitnesses dispute that account, and the chief of Health and Human Services, Marty Martinez, said on Twitter that he had “no facts” to support police claims about biohazards. If it were true that the wheelchair was a biohazard, it would be worrying that city employees were disposing of hazardous waste alongside ordinary trash, especially considering that police chose not to make use of the biohazard truck that followed them during the sweeps.  

Police also claimed they were asked to work with city health providers, but providers say Operation Clean Sweep took them by surprise. During a community meeting on Aug. 7, police Captain Steven Sweeney said Gross had instructed him to work collaboratively with Boston health services organizations. But a case worker who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from the city told The Appeal that no effort was made to notify recovery service providers before the operation began. 

As a result, the case worker said, they and their colleagues are unable to locate people who were displaced to adjoining neighborhoods as a result of Operation Clean Sweep. The case worker also expressed concerns that those people may experience higher overdose risk. According to the Boston Users Union, continued police presence on the Mile has discouraged people who use opioids from seeking treatment due to fear that they will be arrested on an old warrant.

Reached by email, a spokesperson for Walsh declined to say whether his office knew of the police operation before it happened, or whether efforts were made to notify health services. The Boston Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Failed policy responses to opioid use

Mainstream reporting failed to address the complex historical context that gave rise to the Mile. 

When Boston’s Long Island Bridge was condemned in 2014 (and the 1,000 beds in relevant treatment centers were made unavailable), hundreds of individuals experiencing homelessness were displaced with only three hours’ notice. The city opened the Southampton Street Shelter soon afterward, and a number of substance use treatment centers in the area quickly followed

Because the city’s public health infrastructure is so concentrated in that area, people from all over the state who use drugs congregate there to gain access to clean needles and life-saving substances like Narcan and methadone. In this light, then, that stretch of the South End is more accurately described as a temporary settlement filled with mutual aid networks than an “open-air drug market,” as CBS Boston put it. 

According to the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, overdose is a leading cause of death for its clients, and opioids accounted for more than 80 percent of overdose deaths between 2003 and 2008. And Massachusetts Department of Public Health data shows that the overdose death rate is 120 times higher for people with a history of incarceration, and 16 to 30 times higher for people experiencing homelessness. 

A large proportion of Mile residents have also cycled through the Suffolk County House of Correction, located on the Mile. People were effectively camping out on the front steps of a county jail, a morbid irony in light of last week’s police action. 

Public pushback

It appears that many Bostonians are already rejecting the police narrative about Operation Clean Sweep: In a Boston 25 News segment, the reporter notes that several people told the outlet that they thought the sweep was “a publicity stunt.” One resident said as much at a community meeting: “It’s a shame that it’s taken one act of a correctional officer being attacked for the city to finally take notice.” 

Elected representatives have pointed to the fact that the South End and Roxbury are doing more than their fair share of work in supporting people experiencing homelessness. Massachusetts state Representative Liz Miranda told CommonWealth magazine that the healthcare infrastructure on the Mile is centered in a working-class community of color that has historically welcomed programs and services for homeless people. Miranda also called for state investments in harm reduction: “There’s a clear saturation of services at this corner that I don’t see another city or town or even another neighborhood being able to withstand. This is a statewide problem. Boston cannot solve it alone.” 

District Attorney Rachael Rollins, a reform prosecutor who was elected on a promise to decline prosecution of minor charges including drug possession, has criticized the city’s punitive approach toward people living on the Mile. “All of those different groups of people were penalized for the behavior of one or two or a small group of people who have engaged in violence,” she told the Boston Globe. On Twitter, she emphasized that “clearing the streets will not clear up the underlying problems.”

Nevertheless, Rollins has arraigned three people who allegedly fought with Tejeda. The cases of several others continue, too, but are intended to be dismissed if those arrested show proof of treatment. 

Beyond Boston

Boston’s punitive approach to crisis levels of opioid overdoses is far from unique. The federal government’s draconian criminalization of substances has exacerbated the problem. Across the U.S., police are sweeping homeless camps and forcing people into treatment programs, despite evidence demonstrating that involuntary treatment might expose patients to overdose risk. 

Walsh has both publicly lamented federal prosecutors’ promise to crack down on safe consumption sites and cited the risk of federal law enforcement intervention as a justification for not opening such sites. But according to Leo Beletsky, a Northeastern University law and health sciences professor, that argument is flimsy. “It’s illegal in the same way that cannabis dispensaries are illegal, and there are plenty of those in Massachusetts and more on the way,” he told The Appeal. 

In Somerville, Massachusetts, Mayor Joseph Curtatone recently announced plans to open a safe consumption site. “We understand the U.S. attorney’s position,” he told WBUR. “What I’m more worried about and what keeps me up at night is the ever-expanding opioid epidemic and the lives that are being lost every day.”

We should treat people who use opioids with compassion and offer them assistance, not blame and punish them. Adopting a punitive approach costs lives—and media outlets should keep that in mind when covering law enforcement crackdowns on opioid use.