Home Nonviolent defense In race for Suffolk DA, Ricardo Arroyo doubles down on gradual reform as path to victory

In race for Suffolk DA, Ricardo Arroyo doubles down on gradual reform as path to victory


“I played that one,” he said. His thought was simple: the officer’s blunder called his whole testimony into question. If he confused the defendant’s defense attorney, how could he be considered reliable?

“The jury knew I was a defense attorney,” he said over a Udon noodle lunch at a Chinatown restaurant recently.

He won that case, but the officer resumed patrolling the streets of Lawrence, he said. For Arroyo, the story vividly illustrates the racism woven into the fabric of the American legal system. A system Arroyo, as the Democratic candidate for Suffolk prosecutor, is looking to reform from within.

It’s not a role Arroyo ever envisioned for himself. Early in his legal career, when deciding what kind of lawyer to be, he vowed not to “stand with the people who oppressed” and chose to be a public defender.

He often spoke with colleagues about how they were participating in a broken system. He rarely encountered prosecutors who viewed his clients as human beings; most only saw the charges they faced, he said.

“I think it’s one thing to see this on paper, and it’s an entirely different thing to know these individuals and see it play out in such a nefarious way,” he said.

But his four years as a public defender also showed him how crucial a district attorney can be, how their policies can directly affect people’s lives, their ability to get jobs, housing, even student loans, did he declare.

“It has a lot of impact,” he said of the role, which oversees around 20,000 cases a year in Boston, Revere, Chelsea and Winthrop. So when Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins was named U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, Arroyo saw an opportunity to have a bigger impact and help more people.

A Hyde Park councilor first elected in 2019, Arroyo has a habit of prefacing his statements to council with the qualifier “frankly”, as if he was simply laying out clear, albeit difficult, truths. He is known for his sharp elbows and his no-prisoners approach to political disputes, a tact that has at times drawn the ire of his progressive and centrist colleagues.

Arroyo acknowledges that he can be intense, but adds that there is “real urgency” to his plea.

“I’ve never done anything that crosses the line,” he said.

He is also seen as very ambitious, even on a board that had four of its then-members ran for mayor last year. At just 34, he might be the youngest district attorney in modern state history. He could also become the first Latino to hold the Suffolk DA job.

To do that, he must defeat Kevin Hayden, 54, who was named district attorney in January to succeed Rollins. As a technical starter, Hayden seems to have an inherent advantage. But among local politicians, including some Arroyo opponents, there is consensus that Arroyo is the frontrunner given his connections and past electoral success. Arroyo won a second term on the board last fall, while Hayden, the former head of the state’s Sex Offender Registry Board (SORB), never ran for office.

He also received the endorsement of Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, whose candidacy he supported, and other notable progressives, including U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley.

With less than two months until the primary, the campaign has begun to heat up. Arroyo recently criticized Hayden for his management at SORB, citing a 2017 audit that revealed problems monitoring hundreds of sex offenders. Hayden’s campaign, meanwhile, portrayed Arroyo as inexperienced in leadership and dismissed him as a “rookie prosecutor with no public safety experience”.

Arroyo fends off criticism.

“I was in court more recently than him,” he said. “I actually think I’m more aware of where we are in our justice systems than he is.”

Arroyo comes from a large and well-known political family. He is the fourth of five siblings, and his father, Felix D. Arroyo, was a Boston alderman and school board member and currently serves as Suffolk’s probate registry. His brother, Felix G. Arroyo, was a city councilman and mayoral candidate who served as chief of staff in Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration. Her brother was fired from the job in 2017 amid sexual harassment allegations which he denies.

Both of his parents grew up in Puerto Rico, moving to Boston in the early 1970s. From an early age, Arroyo said his family emphasized education and community. He said he came to understand “the way the system works against people like me.”

But, thanks to his father’s political experience, he said growing up, “I never felt like there was a room I didn’t belong in.”

Still, Arroyo said he was reluctant to run for public office. There are aspects of life as the chosen one, he wasn’t “super excited to take on it”, noting that his mother’s house had recently been targeted by anti-vaccination protesters.

He is a forward thinker, especially on law enforcement issues and public safety. In his first speech as an adviser, he declared racism a public health emergency in Boston; racial and socio-economic inequity is a constant theme of his advisory mandate. He led an order that limited how police use crowd control tactics such as tear gas and championed a new police oversight agency. In a controversial vote in 2020, he joined others in opposing Walsh’s budget because he felt it was not doing enough to address systemic inequality and structural racism. .

As district attorney, he would support “moving to” a system where there is no bail for non-violent offenses and would support an end to mandatory minimum sentences. He pushed for answers about the Boston Police Department’s use of overtime, which is chronically over budget. As a public defender, he helped draft Rollins’ list of 15 crimes not to prosecute, including trespassing, shoplifting and drug possession, and he wants to build on his policies , believing that they have helped Boston avoid the sharp increase in street violence seen in other American cities during the pandemic.

On Mass. and Cass, the heart of the city’s opioid and homelessness crises, Arroyo said while violent crime and sex trafficking must be prosecuted, putting addicts behind bars will only exacerbate the problem, citing a number of his clients who overdosed during short incarcerations.

Arroyo supports ending qualified immunity for police. Undeniably, he is not the candidate of the cops in this contest. He said that while it is important for the district attorney’s office to have a productive relationship with police officials, it does not mean “you should turn a blind eye to criminal behavior”. He said he’s not afraid “that people will be mad at me” and that change often comes with tension.

“It shouldn’t be groundbreaking to say we’re going to say we’re going to hold police officers accountable when they break the law,” he said.

A “do not call” list of local prosecutors, an inventory of officers who have committed or been accused of serious misconduct, such as lying or falsifying police reports, must be expanded, he said.

“If an officer was caught not telling the truth under oath, that is relevant in any criminal case where he testifies,” he said. These officers should not stay on the force, he said.

Arroyo wants to adopt policies that are “data-driven and backed by evidence.” He rattles off various recidivism rates, but he also doesn’t hesitate to back up the statistics with human anecdotes.

When he moved his law practice from Essex County to Suffolk County in early 2017, he was shocked to see prosecutors drop minor charges before an arraignment, meaning they wouldn’t appear. not in the person’s criminal record. For him, it underscored the difference that various approaches to prosecution can make in someone’s life.

When Arroyo’s parents first moved to Boston, they lived in public housing in the South End, where his three older siblings were born. By the time Arroyo was born, they had moved to Hyde Park, where he grew up.

He attended the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science for high school, but left before graduating to care for his mother, who had mental health issues and alcohol problems. He earned his GED, graduated from Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, then earned his law degree from Loyola University Chicago.

He and his mother remain close, and his struggles have impacted “every other issue in my life.” Having seen the effects of his drinking, he abstains from drinking alcohol.

And his care for her, a longtime public school teacher who sat and read with him as a child, informs his advocacy for the less fortunate.

“I recognize the humanity of these people the same way I recognize the humanity of my mother, even though at times she wasn’t a perfect person, she was human,” he said. “It was my mother.”

Danny McDonald can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.