The creation of an independent commission to analyze police procedures in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings might strike some as premature. After all, communities around Greater Boston are still celebrating the heroic actions of its public safety workers and mourning the victims. But another way to pay respect is to recognize that Massachusetts’ public-safety efforts will provide valuable lifesaving lessons for other places that may face similar attacks.
Boston has a proud history of independent commissions that examined police operations. The 1992 St. Clair Commission uncovered the Boston Police Department’s failure to monitor the performance of rogue officers. The 2005 Stern Commission provided a dispassionate assessment of the breakdowns that led to the death of an innocent 21-year-old Red Sox fan who was shot by police with a so-called less-lethal weapon during a postgame celebration.
Unlike with these earlier commissions, there is no need to focus on a specific incident, pattern, or mistake. What’s needed instead is a wide-ranging analysis of everything from prerace security precautions to the decision to lock down Boston and surrounding areas during the manhunt for surviving suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. With numerous police departments and public safety agencies working together on the bombing investigation, a commission should have a broad purview: Governor Patrick should appoint a panel that includes retired law enforcement officers, academics, policy makers, and civic leaders.
With or without an independent commission, local, state, and federal officials will all produce so-called after-action reports. But each may be reluctant to criticize its own agency or its partners in law enforcement. An independent commission would be a good way to check their work.
Meanwhile, members of Congress and others at the federal level are looking into a possible intelligence lapse that allowed dead bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev to act on his extremist beliefs even after Russian officials expressed suspicions about him to the FBI in 2011. The work of a local commission would not duplicate or conflict with such a probe. And unlike a federal investigation, a local commission wouldn’t require access to large amounts of classified information.
Seeking to understand what went right or wrong in no way diminishes the many heroic deeds of the authorities involved.
Still, there are numerous questions that the commission could investigate about the blasts that killed three people and injured more than 282 others. Among them:
Did uniformed officers along the Marathon route consistently scan the crowd for suspicious behavior or focus primarily on the runners?
Did the decision to allow spectators into the crowded finish line area without security checks negate the painstaking prerace screening, which included the use of bomb-sniffing dogs?
Are there enough security cameras in use? Is the surveillance technology designed to prevent such attacks, or are the cameras primarily used as an investigative tool after the fact?
Did the decision to release the images of the suspects, which took place on April 18, come at the right time to maximize identification and minimize further attacks?
Could the various police departments engaged in the manhunt have coordinated better, thereby avoiding what may have been a friendly-fire shooting of MBTA police officer Richard Donohue Jr.?
Why did police officers shoot at an unarmed Dzhokhar Tsarnaev after a stand-down order?
And how did the first sweep of the neighborhood in Watertown miss the boat where Dzhokhar was hiding?
In any large manhunt, there will be lapses in procedure and lingering questions about decisions that were made, and others that should have been made. Seeking to understand what went right or wrong in no way diminishes the many heroic deeds of the authorities involved. Indeed, the various police departments and public safety agencies should encourage such a probe: It would provide them with the expert analysis necessary to do their jobs even better in the future. Governor Patrick should appoint such a commission soon, before memories fade and authorities return to their regular duties.