ACLU of Massachusetts Threatened Boston with Legal Action Over Plans to Clean Up Methadone Mile

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts threatened the City of Boston and the Boston Police Department with legal action over reported plans to clean up Methadone Mile, according to emails obtained by Live Boston 617. Sources tell us Acting Mayor Kim Janey planned to announce the city’s enforcement action on August 31 as part of International Overdose Awareness Day. We’re told the plan was developed in collaboration with multiple city departments and finalized the week prior. Overtime was approved and the operation to address the crime and lawlessness was ready for execution.

But on August 30, Ruth Bourquin, senior and managing attorney for the ACLU of Massachusetts, sent an email to Janey’s chief of staff, the city’s law department and Boston Police with the subject, “Urgent Communication from ACLU of Mass Concerning Planned ‘Sweep’ of Melnea Cass/Mass Ave/Southampton Street area.”

“We have heard that preparations are underway for another “sweep” of the Melnea Cass/Southampton Street area, and we are writing to ask that the City not proceed with anything like the sweep that occurred in August 2019, which involved gross violations of constitutional rights,” Bourquin wrote. “Our understanding from multiple sources is that plans are to undertake similar or even more invasive actions in the next 24 to 48 hours.”

Boston Police launched “Operation Clean Sweep” on August 1, 2019. The multi-day sweep came hours after a Suffolk County corrections officer was brutally attacked on Atkinson Street while on his way to work. The high-profile raid led to the arrests of 34 people for drug possession and outstanding warrants. Boston Police said the sweep was “an effort to address ongoing community concerns in the general area of Massachusetts Avenue and Southampton Street in Roxbury.” Methadone Mile is the epicenter of the region’s opioid crisis. People who live and work in the area say the drug use, homelessness and street violence has only gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In her email to city leaders last month, Bourquin included a five-page letter the ACLU of Massachusetts sent Boston Mayor Marty Walsh following the prior sweep detailing the violations the organization alleges occurred, including: Stopping people and not letting them leave, Demanding identification and then conducting warrant searches, all without individualized, reasonable suspicion, Confiscating property without notice in violation of basic due process rights, Telling people they were “trespassing” on public sidewalks where they had a lawful right to be and using that as an excuse to restrict their movements and do warrant checks and Unreasonable failures to accommodate the needs of persons with disabilities and forcing people from one area of the City to another.

She also referenced police body cam footage the ACLU of Massachusetts obtained through a lawsuit with the city. “We are writing now to put the City on notice that if it undertakes any actions comparable to the August 2019 sweep, then those ordering or participating in those actions will likely be in violation of civil rights laws, individually and in their official capacities,” Bourquin wrote. “Of course, not only do such actions violate numerous rights, they also risk the safety of those affected, including by interfering with their ability to have daily access to lifesaving treatment – including methadone, HIV medications, and PrEP – and harm reduction supplies, as well as a safe place to sleep.”

“For the good of all and to avoid litigation, we ask that the City confirm immediately that no such actions will be taken, provide written orders to the Boston Police to that effect, and provide clear confirmation of such to the providers and individuals working and present in the area and to the public,” she added. Less than 15 minutes after the email was sent, Adam Cederbaum, head of the City of Boston’s Chief Governmental Services Division, replied, “Thank you for reaching out concerning this important and complicated matter. There is no imminent plan to engage in this type of action you describe in your email below. That being said, I’d be happy to set a call with you to connect in the next couple of days on the topic.”

Bourquin followed up by asking Cederbaum, “Can you clarify if there is some type of action planned, as several people working in the area were allegedly information by City representatives? I understand that doing this by email might be difficult, so if a phone call yet this morning could happen, that might be best.” The email chain ended there. Live Boston 617 learned Cederbaum and Bourquin spoke on the phone before Labor Day. Cederbaum told Bourquin, despite what she had heard, the city didn’t plan to conduct a “sweep” of Atkinson Street on or before Labor Day. Bourquin relayed legal concerns to Cederbaum about how the last sweep was conducted and general legal principles for encampment removal. She also offered questions and advocacy regarding alternative approaches. One of her policy suggestions was to offer services in other neighborhoods within Boston. 

We had reached out to Janey’s office on September 1 to ask about the plan and communications the ACLU of Massachusetts had with the city. Janey provided us with this statement that didn’t answer our questions about the planned enforcement action :

We are taking actions to improve both public health and public safety in the neighborhood hardest hit by the opioid crisis. 

On July 29, a temporary comfort station was closed, due to security concerns. The Engagement Center on Atkinson Street remains open and continues to provide access to shelter, substance use treatment and medical care 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., 7 days a week. The Engagement Center and the life-saving work of City outreach teams helped 55 people get off the street and into treatment last week. 

We are also targeting exploitative and criminal behavior in this area, making more than 30 drug-related arrests last month. 

As we begin National Recovery Month, there is more work to be done for those who are hurting.
We are committed to acting with urgency and keeping public health at the center of our coordinated efforts today and in the future.

On Wednesday, Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo revealed the Boston Public Health Commission’s plan to try and address the homelessness at Mass and Cass. “I am disappointed in the Boston Public Health Commission’s operations, communications, and accountability measures – or lack thereof – as they concern its “regional” plan to address the disaster on Melnea Cass Boulevard by converting the Quality Inn Hotel at 100 Morris Street, Revere, to a homeless transitional center. I am deeply concerned about the chaotic nature of dis-information and have lost all confidence in the Boston Public Health Commission to thoughtfully execute on an issue of such regional public importance,” Arrigo wrote in a scathing letter to BPHC’s executive director.

“With no prior notice whatsoever, we were taken aback by the message’s announcement that the Quality Inn would begin operating imminently as a homeless transitional center with over 150 beds. At this point, I do even know how many beds BPHC is contemplating using at the Quality Inn. Over the last three weeks we have been told different numbers by different members of this collaboration. I have heard 156, 30, 60 and 160 but I still have not received anything in writing. Simply put, the level of disorganization from BPHC regarding this effort is appalling,” his letter continued.

In a statement, Janey confirmed BPHC has created a plan with Eliot Community Health Services “to provide needed housing for 30 individuals who have been homeless.” She said staff from BPHC and Eliot Community Health Services met with Arrigo and his team over the last three weeks reviewing plans and following up on requests.

According to Janey, “well over 60%” of people seeking services in Boston are from outside the city. She said other cities and towns, like Revere, need to step up and help provide services closer to the places people call home. “Standing against this proposal means standing against 30 people having a place to call home,” she said. “It means denying 30 people the health care they deserve at a time they need it most.”

“Municipal leaders who say that we need to do this work as a region but who fail to take responsibility in their own city or town may be making a good sound bite,” she added. “But, it does not solve the problem.”

Boston Police Spokesperson Sgt. Detective John Boyle didn’t respond to a request for comment. The ACLU of Massachusetts never responded to Live Boston 617’s multiple requests for comment.