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Rahsaan Hall running for Plymouth County D.A. seat

Tori Bedford
Rahsaan Hall running for Plymouth County D.A. seat

After spearheading an ACLU campaign emphasizing the importance of local prosecutor elections, Rahsaan Hall is hoping to see firsthand what a difference a DA makes by running for Plymouth County district attorney, a campaign he launched officially at a Brockton restaurant Tuesday.

Hall, 49, is challenging the county’s longtime district attorney, Timothy Cruz, who has held his position since 2001. It will be his first race for elected office.

Hall helped lobby for a 2020 police reform bill to change standards and resources in policing, calling for limits on qualified immunity and police use of force, with an emphasis on addressing racial disparities in policing. In 2017, he directed the What a Difference a DA Makes campaign for the ACLU of Massachusetts, an initiative to educate residents about elections for district attorney and the office’s powers.

“DA is one of the most powerful people in the criminal legal system that nobody knows about, and to the extent that I was engaged in advocacy to change this system, district attorneys were the stumbling block, consistently,” Hall told GBH News in an interview Sunday. “That’s why I’ve decided to run. We need to change this system.”

Hall, who left his job as director of the ACLU of Massachusetts’ racial justice program at the end of last year, says his campaign will focus on increasing transparency about racial and demographic trends in the work of the DA’s office and in the county’s jails and prisons.

“Transparency is a huge issue,” he said. “The public should know what this office’s policies and practices are, and there should be information about what this office is doing and how many cases are prosecuted. What are the racial demographics of the people who are prosecuted? Are there racial disparities in who’s getting prosecuted? Are some municipalities within the county seeing higher incidence of a certain type of offense? That information is available, but nobody is looking at it.”

Another of his priorities is reducing recidivism through alternatives to incarceration. “We continue to invest millions of dollars every year into this system that doesn’t work,” Hall said. “When we look at the amount of money that’s being spent to house people for the length of sentences that they have, some of that really needs to be reevaluated.”

Hall has praised former Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins for her 2018 decision to not prosecute 15 nonviolent misdemeanors, including trespassing, shoplifting, resisting arrest and possession of drugs.

“The lower-level nonviolent offenses are the low-hanging fruit. It’s easier to deal with and grapple with those notions,” Hall said. “But I think there’s a bigger question around people who are serving these lengthier sentences, life without the possibility of parole. … The DA’s office has a role in recommending the types of sentences that people get, and so I think it’s important for there to be some analysis and evaluation of what that impact is.”

Before joining the ACLU in 2015, Hall served as deputy director for Lawyers for Civil Rights in Boston and worked as an assistant district attorney for eight years under two Suffolk County district attorneys, Ralph Martin and Dan Conley.

Following Rollins’ confirmation last month as U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, Hall was rumored as a candidate to step into her role, which “would have clearly made sense,” Hall said. But he lives in Brockton, the city with the largest population in Plymouth County, and he says he can make a bigger difference in his own neighborhood.

The role of the district attorney, Hall says, is to find a way to get “better outcomes” besides the status quo, a law enforcement system that he describes not as broken, but “operating exactly in the way that it was intended to operate.”

“Our society relies on this system that is outdated and ineffective,” Hall said. “It doesn’t hold up to what we now understand the impacts are of isolation and overcrowding and shaming and trauma. We’ve got generations of evidence to show that a majority of the people who go into prison don’t come out better.”

Plymouth County has one of the highest incarceration rates in the state and one of the highest rates of recidivism for incarcerated people, according to the state Department of Correction.

“The voter base in Suffolk County is very different than in Plymouth County, but what I think is consistent is people’s values around the things that matter,” Hall said, adding that he hopes to immediately address racial disparities in the county’s jails and prisons, taking after Rollins’ progressive legacy.

“That’s one of the things that I appreciated about DA Rollins, was how she used the platform to bring attention to issues that impacted communities of color through the criminal legal system,” Hall said. “Traditionally, the prosecutor’s office is charged with prosecuting crimes — but there is a way that that can be done that helps benefit communities.”

Hall was primarily raised by his mother in Denver and spent summers with his father, David Hall, the second Black professor at Northeastern University Law School who went on to become the university’s provost.

“My father was very, very involved in civil rights issues,” Hall said. “He was engaged with groups of people who were involved in liberatory politics on behalf of my community. Seeing him in those conversations, in those spaces, hearing the speeches that he gave, talking about these concepts of freedom and justice certainly had an impact on me. It kind of shaped my worldview and perspective and how I engage the world.”

From a young age, Hall was steeped in the works of poet Nikki Giovanni, Malcolm X and W.E.B. DuBois, spending his formative years at the feet of speakers, critical scholars, musicians and poets like Na’im Akbar and Ivan Van Sertima.

“I’m also a child of golden-era hip hop, so I grew up listening to KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy and X Clan,” Hall said. “These were groups that were talking about Afrocentric ideas and race and racism in America, liberation and revolution was a part of the culture.”

Now an associate minister at the St. Paul AME Church in Cambridge, Hall says his mother, Cherie Emmons, “instilled in me a sense of God’s grace, and it’s God’s grace that has protected me.”

Hall says his mother did a fair amount of protecting as well, keeping “a pretty tight rein on me so that I wouldn’t go out and get in trouble,” Hall said, “so that I would survive as a Black boy growing up in America.”

As a young man, his interactions with law enforcement “weren’t pleasant,” he recalled. As a teenager, Hall says he witnessed his friend being assaulted by a police officer after she questioned why she had been pulled over. “I ran towards my friend and the cop turned around and pointed mace at me,” Hall said. “It’s like, what am I going to do? I just felt so helpless, this sense of helplessness, just watching.”

As a student at Ohio State University in 1993, Hall recalled police officers arriving “in full riot gear” to break up a fraternity party.

Watching his fraternity brothers get sprayed in the face with mace and tied up with cable ties, that sense of helplessness emerged once again.

“Helplessness in the face of disproportionate enforcement for what we were doing, trying to register our discontent with the way we were being treated, which we perceived was based on our race,” Hall said. “A riot squad could show up, and I just felt helpless to do anything about it.”

These experiences “informed my opinion of police,” Hall said. “I don’t have a recollection of, you know, police officers coming to help me or save me and do good things for me. That had not been my experience.”

As an assistant district attorney in Suffolk County, Hall says he had friendly relationships with the police officers he worked with, “telling jokes and hanging out and spending hours together investigating cases, and they were good and kind to me,” Hall said. “But then going on, riding ride-alongs, I would see how some of those same officers talked to people and disrespected them and treated them as if they were less than human.”

While driving through Dudley Square in 2006, Hall says he was pulled over after turning right on a yellow light. “The officer came over with his hand on his gun, and approached me with this terse and aggressive tone,” he recalled. “But when I went to get my license, he saw that I had a badge in there from the DA’s office, and his whole demeanor shifted. If I didn’t have that badge, if he didn’t know I was part of the team, I’d just be another Black guy who caught the tail end of a yellow light.”

As district attorney, Hall would work closely with law enforcement officers and organizations across the state, a collaboration he describes as a “top priority” for his campaign.

“I have a different view of how policing should happen in certain respects, and I do think the culture of policing in many instances can be highly problematic, but I also understand the role that law enforcement serves,” Hall said. “My hope is that the advocacy that I have been engaged with around police reform doesn’t create a barrier to conversations with law enforcement leaders in the county, because we’ve got to work together.”

Tori Bedford covers Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan for GBH, 89.7.