U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, of the District of Massachusetts, announced Tuesday a new Civil Rights Unit aimed toward enforcing civil rights laws and changing the manner in which Massachusetts handles the equal protection of each individual.
The new unit, which will function within the Civil Division, plans to work with many local communities, advocacy groups and other federal and state agencies to help make a change in issues of civil rights, according to the release.
“We are committed to ensuring a level playing field for all residents in the Commonwealth, advancing equal opportunity, and educating the public about their rights and responsibilities,” Ortiz said in the release. “I can think of no better way to further this mission than by creating a unit comprised of attorneys and staff who are dedicated solely to enforcing and promoting federal civil rights.”
The release stated that the unit is designed to ensure that the rights of everyone are protected, including those of “the most vulnerable and underserved” citizens of the commonwealth.
“The unit will focus on enforcing those laws that prohibit discrimination and harassment on the basis of race, national origin, gender, religion and disability; prohibit police misconduct; protect the constitutional rights of institutionalized persons; protect the employment rights of servicemembers; and prohibit discrimination in housing and mortgage lending,” the release stated.
The new unit will be led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Serafyn, a graduate of and current adjunct professor at Boston University’s School of Law.
Sarah Wunsch, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said she was skeptical about the effectiveness of the unit.
“ACLU of Massachusetts has been pushing for some time for some changes in policing [such as] supporting police-worn body cameras, making sure all departments keep good data on stops and frisks and make that data available to the public so that we can determine if there is racial profiling going on, requiring receipts for those stopped and frisked,” Wunsch said. “The U.S. attorney’s office here hasn’t been heard from on these kinds of systemic issues.”
Wunsch also noted that discrimination against the Muslim community is an area that needs drastic improvement.
“On issues about treatment of Muslims, this U.S. attorney has been a problem herself,” Wunsch said. “She has been a great backer of the federal government’s Countering Violent Extremism program, which singles out and targets Muslims. Some of her so-called terrorism prosecutions, which she counts as great successes, really had nothing to do with terrorism and raised questions about civil rights.”
Diane McLeod, director of the Massachusetts Association of Human Rights and Relations Commissions, applauded Ortiz for her involvement with local communities on a variety of issues and discussed Ortiz’s effort to advocate for the Muslim community.
“She’s on the forefront of all of these issues for multiple communities,” McLeod said. “I’ve been part of a task force that she put together a while ago to combat anti-Muslim sentiment and how people equate that with terrorism, and looking to see if there are predicting factors so we can try to stop kids from getting involved with these situations.”
Wendy Kaplan, a professor in LAW, said the creation of this unit is a positive step toward combating civil rights issues, but the press release failed to mention issues of education involved with civil rights.
“There are many collateral consequences for children being suspended and excluded from school, including potential school failure, dropouts and having their educational options cut off by that kind of action,” Kaplan said.
Several Boston residents said they were pleased to hear of the new unit.
Meredith Guiod, 28, of Allston, said she expects great things in the future from the new unit, especially regarding hate crimes and issues of police misconduct.
“I think that this absolutely shows that [Boston] cares more about these issues than in other places,” she said.
Adam Hassman, 35, of Mission Hill, said he hopes the new unit will focus on police misconduct.
“Police officers use their badge to be above the law,” he said. “I’ve been arrested before and I’ve seen how police work, and a lot of times they do take advantage of their rights as cops.”
Andrew Larson, 28, of Allston, said he hopes the unit will address police brutality and discrimination that reaches unexpected places.
“A couple of weeks ago, there was a story about Brookline, a neighborhood over there that’s a pretty wealthy neighborhood but is having some racial issues within their police department,” he said. “People in the community weren’t aware of that and thought [of] themselves as this really nice, liberal enclave that didn’t have those kinds of problems. But even there, there were issues in their police department. Something like this unit could be a great addition.”