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

By Jonathan Ben-Menachem, The Appeal

Dinah Applewhite/Twitter

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 dataobtained 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.

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Olivia McDowellComment