Suffolk County D.A. hopeful Ricardo Arroyo: The interview


“I care very strongly about systems working for everyone. I’m honest about how our systems don’t.”

Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe
Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

Before he became a Boston city councilor, Ricardo Arroyo was a public defender.

His three years on the job gave him an education in just how broken the criminal justice system can be, he said.

“It frankly does a really poor job by people of color, by people who are dealing with mental health illness, by people who have substance use disorder,” Arroyo said in a recent interview with

“And it often works as sort of a factory processing floor,” he added. “So rather than looking at individuals, as individuals who have needs and things that we can do to stabilize their lives, which would help reduce crime, it instead looks at individuals as sort of problems to be solved through sentencing or through convictions.”

With that frankness and critical approach to the law, Arroyo, 34, hopes to convince voters he’s the Democrat to back for Suffolk County district attorney in the party primary on Sept. 6.

He’s facing off against Interim District Attorney Kevin Hayden, a 54-year-old appointee selected earlier this year by Gov. Charlie Baker to temporarily serve as the county’s top prosecutor after former District Attorney Rachael Rollins was appointed the state’s U.S. attorney.

In fact, it was Rollins’s departure that propelled Arroyo into the race.

“She took with her a sort of progressive vision for criminal justice reform and how our system should work,” Arroyo said. “And so when that happened, I made a determination that it was really important to me that we try to put together a system that works for everyone, not just some, not just those who have access to money or access to connections, or are the dominant racial class at any given time, but for those who come in contact with it every day — it should work best in that arbitrarily.”

The race has taken a sharp turn within the past week, however.

A Boston Globe report found Arroyo was investigated as a teenager twice for possible sexual assaults, though neither he nor any suspect was ever charged in the two cases.

Arroyo has denied any wrongdoing and said he was unaware of the investigations before the Globe report, although at least one of the police reports reviewed by the newspaper contradicts the latter statement. The woman in the case from 2007, via an attorney, recently said Arroyo “never assaulted” her, but more recently, the other woman stood by her 2005 allegations, which involved pressuring her to perform oral sex and threats, according to the Globe.

Arroyo has also alleged an “abuse of power” over the leaked police reports. Meanwhile, Hayden has denied he, his office, or his campaign illegally leaked the documents to the press. spoke with Arroyo over a Zoom call on Aug. 18 — five days before the Globe story published.

In the interview, Arroyo, among other topics, talked about the need for Rollins’s “List of 15,” law enforcement’s handling of white supremacy groups, qualified immunity, and why his progressive policies are not incompatible with working with police.

Here’s what he said:

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. As part of these interviews, we like to open it up for readers to ask any questions they might have for the candidates. So I’ll just jump in with one of those. The first question comes from Philip Wright, who lives in Boston, and they want to know, “Which of former D.A. Rollins’s policies do you agree with?”

Arroyo: I agree with several, but I helped create the “List of 15,” which she implemented.

I think it’s a fantastic piece of policy that has been proven to work. We’ve had multiple studies done on this where, what it does is it diverts lower-level offenses, all of them nonviolent, from the system towards resources and non-arraignment. And when that happens, what the studies have found, is that 64 percent of people are less likely to ever come back to court. And of those folks who do, 74 percent are less likely to come back with a felony or a greater charge.

So I’m a really big fan of the “List of 15” because it helps redirect resources to more serious things in terms of serious crimes. These are nonviolent, low-level offenses.

Because we’re not stuck prosecuting those lower-level offenses, and we are instead providing the resources and diversion people need, we can then use that resource, that human resource, … to focus on things like the Integrity Review Bureau that … looks at wrongful convictions and we can do work on PUSH, which is the Project for Unsolved Homicides, which allows us to open cold case files.

So … that makes us safer as a whole, lets us address past wrongs, while also having an actual reductive effect on crime.

In July, after the white supremacist march through Boston, you were, I would say, one of the more critical people speaking out about the apparent lack of prior knowledge of this event from law enforcement. If you’re elected district attorney, how would you respond to the growing concerns of white supremacy in the city? Is there anything that you could do proactively to address this?

Absolutely. I think we have to make it very clear to anybody who’s going to come to Boston to practice hate or practice hate crimes that they will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

And there has to be an actual diligence about taking intelligence and creating intelligence for, sort of, white supremacist actions. The biggest criticism I had about that was that we had a group, Patriot Front, who had just been arrested, three weeks prior, by the FBI in Iowa to go and cause a riot at an LGBT pride event.

The issue with that was, we were told, that the reason that they couldn’t monitor them apparently on this was because they had not made any threats of violence. But that didn’t make sense to me — that individuals who had made threats of violence, essentially in their actions, (who were) at least charged with the criminal acts that they were alleged to have been on their way to do just three weeks prior, can then just travel across state borders into Massachusetts, into Boston, and we would have no intelligence whatsoever that they were organizing or doing that.

And so, I thought that was — I believe Tom Nolan, a former Boston Police Department lieutenant, called that a “critical intelligence failure.” I agree with that.

So I think part of this is making sure that we give white supremacy and white supremacy organizations the priority in our attention from a law enforcement angle that they merit.

What exactly do you think is the missing component here, because I downloaded the Telegram app the (white supremacist groups) use so I could fact check this stuff at the time, and they were talking about this stuff very openly, (and) bragging about it.

Yep. I think the issue that I have seen that people have voiced is we have a Boston Regional Intelligence Center.

The Boston Regional Intelligence Center was created to combat, in part, terrorism. That’s literally in its mission statement.

When you look at white supremacist organizations, whether it’s Jan. 6 or July 3 in Boston, their threat and the level of threat that they pose never gets or seemingly never gets taken very seriously. One of the issues that I have had is that speaks directly to what and who we are prioritizing when it comes to surveillance, and unfortunately, we have a gang database that is well in the upper 90 percent of Black and brown people and Latino people, and yet he had no intelligence on something that was openly being spoken and planned on a social media app.

And it leads to questions about where is the focus at the Boston Regional Intelligence Center and the Boston Police Department? Why is that focus not on folks like Patriot Front and the National Socialist Club 131? And how do we fix that? For me, we fix that by being very open about the fact that that focus isn’t where it needs to be and should change.

And so that’s part of answering that fully for me: making sure we are keeping a vigilant state on how we are using surveillance and who we decide is worthy of surveillance and who we decide isn’t. Right now, it seems that for law enforcement, white supremacists have not merited the level of scrutiny or surveillance that Black and brown children in Boston have.

The city in the past year has taken a different approach to the crisis around the Mass. and Cass area. Your opponent expanded a program that started under former D.A. Rollins, “Services Over Sentences.” How would your approach to what’s happening at Mass. and Cass be different than the interim district attorney’s?

He’s also continued to criminalize addiction. He’s also closed staleways for that area, and there’s real questions about the efficacy of that.

But what I can tell you about what my policies are is that I will never criminalize somebody simply for being addicted to a substance. I mean, what we will do is we will make sure we are arresting and prosecuting individuals who are violent and causing physical harm. We will arrest and prosecute people who are trafficking drugs. But we will not do any kind of prosecution frankly on people who are suffering from substance use disorder.

What we will do with individuals who are dealing with that is we will redirect them to programming and to resources. And the reason I say that is I was a public defender. I represented people who lived on Mass. and Cass, and I realized that what they needed more than anything else was stabilization, and there’s little more destabilizing than jail and our justice system. What they needed was housing. What they needed was access to rehabilitation centers and treatment centers; they needed a stable place to call home.

One of the ways I think you address that is … low-threshold housing, which is housing that’s provided to individuals without them being required to be in a treatment facility or in a mental health facility first. You provide them that housing, and then you give them that treatment and the ability to access that treatment once they’ve been stabilized in a location.

(At Shattuck) … I believe we have about 800 units in the pipeline for low-threshold housing. I believe one of the first things we can do is decentralize through that housing process and ensure that we’re not creating a location that people can prey on individuals.

We have another reader question for you. This one is from Laurie Berman, from Dorchester: Can you please specify what you plan to do as D.A. regarding qualified immunity?

Yes. I plan to be an advocate against the continuation of qualified immunity.

Qualified immunity is something I actually have been pushing against before I ran for this office. There’s a Boston Globe op-ed that I wrote with Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley. She has legislation in Congress.

And one of the things that is really important about the district attorney is that we have a podium as elected officials to speak for legislation that we believe we should be passing.

One of the pieces of legislation I believe we need to pass because I believe it makes us all safer is ending qualified immunity. And I would include (that) often people take my qualified immunity stance and pretend that I’m simply speaking about law enforcement. I consider prosecutors to be law enforcement. I think in issues in cases where there is prosecutorial misconduct, where there’s willful prosecutorial misconduct, we should also be liable for being civilly sued in the same way that I’m asking for law enforcement officials. That’s just me being very clear.

When it comes to qualified immunity itself, that is a legislative issue that I will continue to push for. And the difference between me and my opponent is whereas he supports the continuation of qualified immunity, I will support and I will advocate at the House and publicly in a similar fashion to what I have always done, for legislative fixes to that issue. He’s not even calling for fixes to that issue.

As a city councilor, you’ve called for re-allocating portions of the Boston police budget for funding community programs. As a district attorney, how would you reconsider your department’s budget in a similar vein? When we talk about budget being a statement of values, are there ways that you would want to reshape the district attorney’s budget?

So I’d have to see the budget first. It’s about $24 million, but I don’t have — I don’t know if anybody has — a breakdown of department by department, how much of that is employee salary, how much of that is programming.

What I would say is, these are focuses that I would like to look at as soon as I see this budget. Is there a way for me to attract diversity to our district attorney’s office by seeing if we can establish a pilot or an actual program for the handling of student loans for new assistant district attorneys? (These are) things that make these jobs more accessible to diverse individuals from multiple communities, multiple religions, multiple races, and make sure that we are sort of fueling the diversity in that office.

I think that the way in which we allocate funding to nonprofits, there’s some grants that the district attorney’s office gives out. Under Rachael, it doubled. Under Dan Conley, it was $100,000. Under Rachael, it doubled to $200,000. That’s money that is distributed to nonprofits of the district attorney’s office choosing. I will certainly be making sure we are pushing that money towards people who actually interact with our court systems. In other words, rehabilitation treatment centers, mental health treatment centers, people who work with at-risk youth — those kinds of programs.

It’s difficult to be more clear with super specifics because I don’t have the full breakdown of that budget in front of me. What I can say is I believe it’s really important to the prevention of crime that we allocate money to what I believe causes crime, which is the lack of programming resources and stability. So I think the more money that we are able to use from the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office to these outside nonprofits, to these outside agencies, allows us to do a lot of good there.

The other thing that I believe should be accounted for is it’s expensive to prosecute addiction. When you’re taking people in and out of jail, when you’re using court resources because they are being arraigned and they’re being brought in on warrants or they’re doing all these different things; when you have policies like the do-not-charge list, when you have policies against criminalization of addiction, you end up actually saving the state money.

What I would like to see the state do with that money is refocus that money to those populations — making sure … that money gets re-allocated to rehabilitative treatment services.

One of the nonprofits to get money during former District Attorney Rachael Rollins’s time in office was the Violence In Boston group, and (its founder) Monica Cannon-Grant is now being sued by the federal government for allegedly misusing funding. Do you think there needs to be more oversight in how the district attorney’s office gives out that money?

I can’t speak to anything that’s happened under prior administrations. What I can tell you is that was one of I know many nonprofit grants that went out …

What I would like to see is whether or not we can make larger impactful grants, and so one of the things that I would be looking at is instead of spreading out sort of these small dollar grants that I don’t really know how much of an impact they have on any overall organization, we are instead focusing in on a handful or more than a handful of institutions that we think do really good work and that added amount of money would make a real impact on it.

So there’s ideas that I have around that, but I can’t speak to a program that I haven’t overseen in the sense that I don’t know what controls or things they already have in place.

During your time on the council, you sponsored and passed an ordinance that limits when police can use crowd control agents, such as tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray. I remember speaking to you earlier this year about this story that police had concerns with the law initially, and I think in March, we heard that MetroLEC said it will no longer support Boston police due to the limitations in the ordinance. If elected, how will you work in partnership with local law enforcement?

Are you saying in general or around crowd control?

Yeah, I feel like there’s this narrative a lot of times that we get into that you’re branded more as the progressive candidate, and we hear like an anti-cop narrative, and I was trying for a question that speaks to that.

I get what you’re trying to get to.

So, you know my grandfather was actually a police officer who was injured in the line of duty. And I think people often run with a narrative that somehow because I believe in smart reforms based on data, based on evidence-backed police, that that somehow is incompatible with law enforcement and law enforcement agencies.

I think the reality is I’m a big fan of agreement. I believe there’s place where we can meet and agree on policies, on things that we want to do.

But … I’m not pushing policies because I think they’ll make us less safe. I’m not pushing policies because I think they’ll make us worse off. I’m pushing policies because I believe in the data and the evidence that says that they work. I think once we start to see them work, I think that you get more buy-in from those organizations. … I think from the nature of building cases and prosecuting cases, obviously law enforcement is a really important partner.

And I would just note that the MBTA Transit Police have been outspoken in their lack of faith in this current administration’s ability to work with them, even though this is the candidate who I guess if you were to sort of stereotype me as the progressive who police don’t like, he would be the non-progressive who, under that kind of stereotype, the police are more conducive to. But what led to that lack of trust was an unwillingness from his office to prosecute police misconduct.

So I think there is a lot of alignment that people often miss based on sort of a surface-level understanding of what they believe the case to be.

To be clear, I don’t want to put you in any sort of box, I just know that those are…

I consider that totally fair. I get that, at least on Twitter, I’ve seen that.

Is there any particular area of the law that you want to see the district attorney’s office play more of a role in? What’s at the top of your priorities? What conversation (are you) having with your staff on day one about what things you should be prioritizing?

I think what we should be trying to do is figure out how to get to a workable policy on no cash bail for nonviolent offenses as quickly as we are able to effectively implement it and safely implement it.

I think we have to be working on making sure that — I’ll give you an example, there was the case that just happened on emerging adulthood, which basically just went to the Supreme Judicial Court and essentially says that the court should no longer be required to do mandatory life without parole for juveniles. … I would be articulating and arguing for ending life without parole both mandatory and even having the option or opportunity to do that for juveniles. I think that’s incredibly important.

If you’re talking about larger open-ended policies, the reimplementation of the “List of 15,” focus on data collection, making sure we are seeing how our offices are working and what they’re working on, and what our district courts are doing, and our Superior Court is doing, and what kinds of cases are we indicting and why, and who are the … general races and populations and economic classes of who is being impacted by all of these different things, so that we can make data-driven, evidence-based decisions on what we are doing, what’s working, what isn’t.

I’d like to see the office get into expungement. I think there’s a real question about how we can maximize expungement, and I think expungement is really important because it allows people to find work … if you allow people to stabilize their lives, you reduce crime. I see that as part of our mission.

So there are certain aspects that people may not traditionally believe are a district attorney’s purview or has an impact on, but it does. I think all of those things are sort of the things that day one I’m sitting down trying to get to figure out how we do that.

I think the other thing that I’ve talked about is two offices that I’d like to basically start or bureaus within the district attorney’s office that I don’t believe exist in any other district attorney’s office.

One is a Mental Health Unit that teaches our ADAs about mental health and what certain diagnoses mean and what resources are available to people … and how their diagnoses and how they are presenting in court reflects with the law and best practices for that, creating best practices for that. We don’t have that right now and it should happen.

The other one is a Crimmigration Unit, which is basically criminal law meets immigration law and the way in which there are collateral consequences for certain types of charges or certain types of sentences, or certain types of dispositions.

And so, making sure that our assistant district attorneys are equipped with the information they need to make the best, most-just decisions on a day-to-day basis is incredibly important to me and I’d be working on that, day one.

I’ve got the last reader question for you. This one has to do with guns, and the question is from William Corrigan from the South End. The question is, “Are you going to take gun crime seriously and prosecute the people with illegal guns that the BPD arrest every day? Reading the arrest records of these people, many have been arrested in the past and have had charges lessened.

Yeah. So one of the things I talk about that often gets ignored by folks who want to sort of paint progressive policies as pro-crime is that, one of the things that I believe I’ll be able to do because we’re bringing in the “List of 15,” because we’re lessening that load on our frontline ADAs, is that I can create a Nonfatal Shootings Task Force in the office, whose job it is to help actually solve nonfatal shootings. That’s based out of the Boston Police Department study that they conducted themselves into why they weren’t effectively able to close nonfatal shooting cases.

Essentially what that study found was that if you actually implement and get resources, so there’s nothing stopping you from solving the nonfatal shooting, it’s as solvable as a homicide. But we give more resources for obvious reasons to homicides than nonfatal shootings. If you give resources, however, to nonfatal shootings, what the study found was you would actually be preventing and reducing homicides.

So that’s, to me, something worth investing in and doing. So we are going to be taking gun crime seriously — all violence will be taken seriously.

I think … people deserve to live in safety, and I think when we talk about that, that includes folks who … should not be subjected to nonfatal shootings on a monthly or weekly (basis). They shouldn’t have to live under those conditions.

The more we can focus and send resources into actually solving those (shootings), the more preventative (we can be about) future homicides.

Obviously the voters in your City Council district already know who you are, but you’re running for a county-wide seat. Is there anything you want voters to know about you before Sept. 6?

I care very strongly about systems working for everyone. I’m honest about how our systems don’t.

I think one of the things that really separates me from my opponent is I don’t really believe that this system just needs some small tweaks here and there on the margins. It really needs to be re-focused and re-centered on doing right by communities.

One of the things I have dedicated my life to is the work of changing systems — that’s why as city councilor, the very first thing I did was (declared) racism as a public health crisis. That’s why I led on the Office of Police Accountability and Transparency, why I led on a facial recognition (technology) ban.

These were things I got done in the first two years of my time on the council, and so directing my attentions to real, true system change, being productive — actually having results — is really important to me. And making decisions based on data and evidence and best practices is incredibly important to me. That is how I make decisions on a day-to-day basis.

So, I want people to know that I care about our communities. I care about all of the cities that are in Suffolk County, and I care very much about making sure that our systems work better after I leave them than they do now.

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