Pressley defends Rollins in dispute with police union

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley spoke at a press conference in front of the State House last Tuesday where Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins (background) was also in attendance. Sam Doran/SHNS photo

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley threw her support behind Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins amid a heated public dispute with a Boston police union, condemning the association as “tearing down a black woman in leadership and putting her life at further risk.”

Rollins, who in 2018 became the first woman of color elected as a district attorney in Massachusetts, drew backlash from the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association (BPPA) for her comments in the past week on systemic racism and police violence.

The DA’s comments, the union said, were “dangerous, divisive, and wholly unwarranted” amid widespread protests.

Stepping in to defend Rollins, Pressley praised her “tireless and disciplined work to lead us toward a more just and humane legal system” and slammed the union’s criticism as exposing Rollins to risks.

“In a time of national crisis, when black men and women are disproportionately dying in police custody, the BPPA should be at the table humbly working to chart a path forward, not tearing down a black woman in leadership and putting her life at further risk,” Pressley, who is the first black woman to serve in the state’s congressional delegation, said in a Wednesday night statement.

Sparked by a recent string of police violence directed at black Americans, including the alleged murder of George Floyd by white officer Derek Chauvin, massive crowds have demanded reforms to bring justice and correct racial inequities in law enforcement.

Largely peaceful protests in Boston on May 31 descended into violence between police and a smaller group of individuals, prompting authorities to arrest 53 people. Nine officers and 18 civilians were hospitalized.

At a press conference alongside Boston Mayor Martin Walsh and Boston Police Commissioner William Gross on June 1, Rollins praised officers who “showed up to do their job” and said she would “never wish them harm.” Individuals that looted, burned police cars and attacked officers “disgraced George Floyd’s memory,” she said, and will be prosecuted.

Rollins also described at length the exhaustion, frustration, and “burning rage” that communities of color feel after experiencing decades of structural racism and disproportionate police violence.

“People are disgusted and outraged, and they should be,” she said. “And it is completely ironic to have to say to you, ‘Please don’t be violent. Please keep your voice down. Please be silent and comply with all of the police’s requirements,’ when in fact, it’s those very people that murder us with impunity. But that’s where we are right now.”

Gross, himself a black man, also expressed empathy with the underlying message of the protests, describing “decades and decades of people dying at the hands of the executive branch of the United States” while criticizing what he described as individuals who “came hellbent on destroying our city.”

While neither Gross nor Walsh stepped in Monday to criticize her remarks, Rollins drew the ire of the BPPA.

On Tuesday, BPPA President Lawrence Calderone and Vice President Richard Withington published an open letter to Rollins criticizing her tweets ahead of protests urging action rather than words and her comments about murder at the hands of police as inciting violence.

“As the chief law enforcement officer in Suffolk County, it was utterly inappropriate for you to make a statement mocking violence,” they wrote. “You put our lives and the safety of our great City at risk when you implicitly call for and condone violence. The people of Suffolk County most assuredly deserve better.”

Rollins responded on Twitter, describing her remarks as “Anti-Police BRUTALITY” rather than antagonistic toward police themselves. She observed that the BPPA’s letter did not mention Floyd or call for termination and prosecution of the four officers on scene during the arrest that led to his death.

The public debate between Rollins and the police union drew in other political leaders beyond Pressley. Massachusetts legislators, including Boston Rep. Nika Elugardo and Cambridge Rep. Mike Connolly, voiced their support for Rollins.

Asked about the conflict on Thursday, Walsh replied, “There’s nobody right in that. There’s no right side,” Walsh said at a press conference. “It’s about — we need to listen more. I’m asking all people, heads of police unions, heads of any union, we need to listen. We need to understand the hurt that people are having. That’s what’s right here, is we have to do that. We can’t turn the page.”

“Whatever conflicts and discussions — I addressed it in my remarks, it’s not time to give your opinion, it’s time to listen,” Walsh continued. “It’s time for all of us to listen, and in particular, it’s time for the white community to listen.”