Harvard White Paper: Why Was Boston Strong? Lessons from the Boston Marathon Bombing. The italicized title of the just-released report assumes that the Boston was strong – without defining “strength.” Was Boston “strong” because the populace didn’t revolt when the government flooded the streets with militarized police, federal agents and National Guardsmen and put the entire City under undeclared martial law? That’s my working definition. Anyway, check out the Globe’s glorification and clock the reports less-publicized vilification . . .
A fast, effective emergency response to the Boston Marathon bombings last April was the product of years of security planning for large public events, forging close cooperation between public safety agencies, a Harvard University report has found.
Based on interviews with numerous leading law enforcement and public safety officials, the report by four Harvard researchers concluded that Boston and the surrounding area was unusually well prepared for the attacks, which killed three people and injured more than 260.
“Boston Strong was not a chance result,” the report states. “It was, instead, the product of years of investment of time and hard work by people across multiple jurisdictions, levels of government, agencies, and organizations to allow command-level coordination and effective cooperation.”
That’s the Boston Globe’s take, under the headline Harvard report praises response to Marathon bombings. And you stopped there you’d think the police got it right, or maybe even mostly right. Uh no, they didn’t. The report keeps referring to these f’ups – specifically relating to the search and shootout in Watertown – as “events that went not-so-well.” See, now that’s funny. Or not.
In the darkness and confusion, several vehicles as well as pedestrians in the immediate area were treated as potential suspects. A pedestrian passing through the area not long after the gun battle was stopped by police. This scene was joined by a number of arriving police officers, and the pedestrian was surrounded by officers from multiple agencies, most with weapons drawn – which meant that officers were in effect also pointing their weapons at one another. This was resolved by the arrival on scene of a very senior police officer. He took tactical command of the situation, organized the police response to move officers out of each other’s line of fire, and gave instructions to the pedestrian to demonstrate that he was not wearing a suicide vest.
An arriving senior officer from another agency came upon this scene, coordinated with his senior colleague already in charge at that location (whom he knew personally from earlier joint training and jointly-managed fixed events), and moved on to the next incident – a similar set of circumstances in which a driver had been detained in his vehicle. Here, again, there were many officers from many different agencies surrounding the vehicle with weapons drawn, creating a potential crossfire hazard. It took the arrival of a very senior officer to take tactical command and organize the effort by ordering the second and third rows of officers to holster their weapons and then telling the driver to get out of his car and take his clothes off so that they could see that he was not wearing explosives.
I know what you’re thinking: you weren’t there. A bunch of cops lasering each other in the dark during a high-stress operation isn’t the worst thing that can happen. Besides, no one got shot. Yes well, the report doesn’t offer a conclusion on the matter, but it seems that a policeman was caught in the crossfire during the first shoot-out with the perpetrator’s SUV. Anyway, here’s the play-by-play on the final operation as the cops closed in on Tamerlan Tsaernev . . .
Almost immediately, a senior police officer was on the scene, establishing incident command and requesting “a tactical team” for support. He got much more than he asked for. Calls about this new circumstance went out over a broadly-monitored radio channel, and a very large number of police officers moved toward the dispatched address, resulting in a confused scene in which some officers appear to have been in the line of fire of others. Since many of the officers present were not familiar with the layout of streets in that area of Watertown, many were unaware of the dangers that were being created. The arriving tactical team was deployed by the incident commander, and a perimeter around the area was formed from other responding officers, but tactical command over the situation was incomplete, with many different organizations represented and less than universal recognition of the authority of the incident commander.
Implicitly, some officers seemed ready to accept orders only from someone else in their own hierarchy. This might have worked if the commanders in their group had recognized and subordinated themselves to the incident commander, but those commanders were not always immediately available or present. While there was a good deal of cooperation and coordination among some officers, there was also at least one incident in which direct orders from a senior officer in one agency who was part of the incident command structure were ignored by a group of officers from another agency.
With multiple agencies – and multiple tactical teams – at the scene, some collisions over which group or agency was supposed to be holding which positions were perhaps inevitable. As an example, one regional SWAT team member, arriving on a rooftop to which he had been deployed, found a member of another SWAT team already in position there, and was told that “this is a [agency name] operation,” and that he was not needed. “I’m a Watertown police officer,” said the more recent arrival, “and I’m not leaving.” (Both stayed.)
When the suspect tried to lift the boat cover, apparently using a fishing gaff he found in the boat which, from outside the boat, resembled a rifle, a tactical team member who had been stationed on a rooftop overlooking the boat fired upon him. This resulted in the outbreak of a substantial volume of contagious fire from other police officers on the scene. In tapes of this incident, the voice of the incident commander shouting orders to cease fire is prominent, but the firing went on for over 10 seconds, and involved what appears to have been hundreds of rounds fired. There is at the time of this writing no indication that the suspect in the boat had a weapon or fired upon police.
The report goes on to discuss ways in which the police “could do better.”
The authors point out that emergency personnel got sucked into tactical considerations and away from strategic decisions. In other words, they were suffering from headless chicken syndrome. Additionally, there was a lot of confusion about who was doing what where when and how – not that surprising considering that thousands of local, state and federal law enforcement agents (not to mention the military) were out and about doing stuff.
That created another problem highlighted in the report: fatigue. The agencies deployed all their assets all at once, leaving no backup for weary terrorist hunters. Some of the cops at the Watertown shootout had been awake for 36 hours. Which exacerbated the tendency to “self-deployment.” According to witness, “every law enforcement official in North America started heading toward that boat.”
While we assume the intentions of all responders were first and foremost to be helpful, it appears that in the heat of the moment of responding, the desire to be more involved in an important event may have affected the behavior of some responders, particularly during the most dramatic moments in Watertown. It is essential that those engaged in responding to highly emotional and visible events primarily demonstrate fealty to getting the mission accomplished, even if that involves only an indirect, supporting role – whatever their desire to be personally involved in the event.
And the antis deny us the weapons police use and call us “vigilantes.” Go figure.
My general reading of the report: police militarization bit Boston in the butt. The surfeit of overlapping local, state and federal law enforcement agencies chomping at the bit to take down a terrorist triggered a bureaucratic bunfight that created chaos, public hazards (hundreds of stray rounds), investigative inefficiency, police over-reaction and, worst of all, a police state mindset.
About the only good thing I can say about the police reaction to the Boston Marathon bombing: they caught one of the bastards who did it and the populace got to see The Man behind the curtain. I find the fact that cops get kudos for their clusterf*ck ridiculous. Worse, the natives have adopted a self-congratulatory slogan that gives them warm fuzzies for “surviving” martial law. I love Boston. But Boston Strong my ass.