Mayor Michelle Wu’s proposed plan to crack down on homeless encampments at the area known as Mass. and Cass faced heated resistance Thursday during a marathon Boston City Council hearing — an eight-hour debate that centered around the efficacy of police enforcement in the troubled area.

Wu filed the ordinance in late August, responding to increasing public safety concerns over the summer in the area at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. The plan would bring in additional police officers to help disperse crowds and enforce a ban on tents and encampments. People living in tents would be given two weeks’ notice to clear makeshift shelters and place their belongings in storage.

At the lengthy hearing, the proposal was criticized by normally opposing factions of the council — including conservative councilor Frank Baker and progressive councilors Ricardo Arroyo and Kendra Lara — who questioned if the ordinance would be necessary in an already heavily policed area with existing laws on the books.

“There are ways to go in there and go through the population without removal and extreme displacement,” Baker said. “For us to say that we need an ordinance to clear these things is just wasting our time.”

Arroyo said making the wrong decision could be fatal. “Unlike other things that we can afford to get wrong, if you get this wrong, more people die. More people are harmed,” he said. “That's a very different consequence. You don't get to unroll that.”

A man in a suit and tie stands outside in a park next to a woman, who is gesturing to have him look at someone or something in front of them.
Michael Cox, center, was named as the next Boston police commissioner last year. In this file photo, he speaks with Boston Mayor Michelle Wu on July 13, 2022, in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood.
Steven Senne AP

Boston Police Commissioner Michael Cox defended the mayor's proposal, stating that removing tents and increasing police presence “will discourage bad actors” who are “looking to victimize the vulnerable while utilizing tents and other temporary structures to conceal their criminal activities.”

Cox said that, without a warrant, police entering or searching through someone’s tent could pose a violation of a person's constitutional right against unreasonable searches and seizures. Without the privacy of a tent, he said, “it becomes a lot easier for us to pursue charges.”

The ordinance also would help define the role of police officers at Mass. and Cass, Cox said, who have been “reluctant to engage” with people in the area.

“Public-police relations during the protest period was, you know, not the best in the world,” Cox said, referencing a series of police brutality protests that began in 2020. “Maybe some officers didn't think that it was appropriate, and rightly so, to engage with people who are suffering from both mental illness and substance use disorders. They thought that maybe it's not our role, because the public was actually saying that.”

But many others argued that current laws are enough to address the situation. The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts submitted a statement to the council urging against giving police additional power.

“There are already laws on the books in Massachusetts prohibiting drug trafficking, sexual assault, property crimes, and violence,” the ACLU wrote. “The Boston Police Department (BPD) already has the power to enforce those laws at Mass. and Cass to protect both people living on the street and those living and working in surrounding neighborhoods.”

Councilor Lara asked Cox why police would need an ordinance to enforce laws at Mass. and Cass.

“Nothing that you have said today has shown me that in order to increase public safety, you need this ordinance,” Lara said. “These are sworn, trained, armed officers. It is their job. And to hear that there is sex trafficking happening, but the police department has their hands tied behind their back and can’t do anything because there’s a tent? It’s unconscionable, especially with the amount of money that we're spending on policing in the city.”

Wu filed the proposed ordinance in late August in response to increased public safety concerns, including reports of violence, drug and sex trafficking.

Calls to police have increased by 10% as compared to this time last year, and arrests are up 21%, including 10 firearm-related arrests, Cox said. Violent crime is down, and despite a peak of 188 incidents reported to Boston Police in July, this year’s crime rate never reached levels seen during the same time last year, according to the city’s data dashboard.

“Even though the data slightly shows a decrease in violent crime during the same period, we believe this is a result of significant under-reporting of crime in the area,” Cox said. “[It’s] not reflective of the true criminality that's actually occurring.”

Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, the executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, said the tents conceal illegal activity and public safety issues including deadly drug overdoses.

Between 2019 and 2021, the rate of fatal overdoses in Boston rose by 36%, Ojikutu said. Last year, 352 people died from an overdose. “Those data are basically telling us that we have a huge problem,” she said.

Newmarket Business Association president Sue Sullivan argued that tents make criminal activity less visible to police and conceal danger.

“I have found people dead in these tents. I have talked to a woman who wasn't allowed out of a tent for three days because a guy was pimping her out in there, and that's just the tip of the iceberg,” Sullivan said. “Drug dealers are down there and they're in the tents, officers can't see them in there. They come and go and do their business, everybody knows it, but [police] can’t arrest them. We need those tents down.”

In addition to an increased police presence, Wu’s proposed strategy includes dispatching four teams of outreach workers into neighboring areas and temporarily shutting down the Engagement Center, a city run site opened in 2017 for clinical and social services on nearby Atkinson Street.

Wu’s plan would refer people from Mass. and Cass to shelters, if available, and provide transportation to the shelters if requested. A converted office space on Massachusetts Avenue would serve as a temporary overnight shelter for up to 30 people. The Boston Public Health Commission announced Thursday that it no longer plans to set up a clinic at that location.

“I'm concerned that we’re kind of running into a vicious cycle of, you know, sweep, and then we have a couple of years, and then you're kind of back in this vicious cycle again.”
Dr. Lara Jirmanus, the founder of the Massachusetts Coalition for Health Equity

Tania Del Rio, the head of the city's Community Response Team, says outreach teams are working on a list of people and their individual needs — including whether they are amenable to shelter, if they’re seeking treatment or whether they have family members to return to.

“This is going to be an ongoing conversation with them as people change their mind every day,” Del Rio said.

Since 2019, mayoral administrations have conducted multiple large-scale sweeps of Mass. and Cass.

Dr. Lara Jirmanus, the founder of the Massachusetts Coalition for Health Equity, told councilors at the hearing that research shows that police sweeps, tent clearings and dispersing crowds have been ineffective in the past.

“I'm concerned that we’re kind of running into a vicious cycle of, you know, sweep, and then we have a couple of years, and then you're kind of back in this vicious cycle again,” Jirmanus said.

If approved by a majority of the 13-member city council, the ordinance can go into effect immediately. On Thursday, the council did not vote on the measure.

Arroyo, who chairs the council's government operations committee, told GBH News he's locking in a date for a working session ahead of the council's Oct. 30 deadline. If no action is taken by then, the ordinance will automatically go into effect.