Amid the turmoil of a shoot-out followed by a massive dragnet, Edward Davis, commissioner of the Boston Police Department, cut through the confusion with spare, declarative words, at once a warning and a clear expression of resolve.
“We believe this to be a terrorist,’’ Davis told reporters about 4:30 a.m. Friday. “We believe this to be a man here to kill people.”
With the world’s attention focused on the deadly Marathon bombings and the search for the perpetrators, Davis has had several high-
profile moments in the crisis. By many accounts, he has projected a measured, reassuring presence to a city, and nation, on edge, balancing the need to avoid public panic with the gravity of a fatal terrorist attack.
For those who know Davis well, his turn in the national spotlight reflects a law enforcement philosophy centered on keeping the public informed, as well as an even-keeled personality.
“He has a grace under pressure, and he brings that temperament to very stressful situations,” said Chuck Wexler, who directs the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement think tank in Washington, D.C. “Nothing really fazes him.”
Wexler, who has known Davis for 20 years, said Davis has the respect of federal agencies, a huge asset in investigations of this scope and complexity, and has a consistency that serves him well in the camera’s glare. “There’s very little difference between the private Ed Davis and the public Ed Davis,” said Wexler.
Colleagues and friends of Davis, who became commissioner in 2006, took note of his comments the day after the attacks, when he asked for the public’s assistance in the investigation and struck a balance between calm and caution.
“We want people to come and go; we want you to live your life,” he said. At the same time, he said, “we want you to be vigilant.”
He asked for the public’s patience as investigators processed the Copley Square area, which he called the “most complex crime scene in the history of the department,” and urged those with photos or video footage from the area to send them to authorities.
“Those are going to be critical,” he said.
That direct public appeal was in keeping with his thinking about police work, colleagues said.
“He really believes that public safety is a partnership,” said Brenda Bond, a Suffolk University professor who worked with Davis when he led the police force in Lowell, a city of more than 100,000.
Davis’s comments Friday, at a time of extreme uncertainty, also held to his belief that sharing information helps keep the public safe and that revealing even unsettling news can help avoid panic.
“As difficult as it might be to hear those things, people want to know, ‘What is the risk?’ ” Bond said. “He’s direct, and that’s very reassuring.”
Davis is a career police officer, who worked as a beat cop and detective in the sex crimes unit before becoming superintendent in Lowell. During his 12-year tenure there, violent crime dropped more than 60 percent, according to a published report.
Soon after arriving in Boston, he put teams of police officers on walking beats in high-crime neighborhoods, leading to reductions in shootings and drug arrests.
He later sparked controversy when he replaced the head of the homicide unit, drawing a rare public rebuke from the district attorney’s office.
Among rank-and-file officers, Davis is perceived as more concerned with public perception than defending their actions. But colleagues said Davis is keenly aware of the burdens police and other first responders face, particularly in crisis situations.
“He is very conscious of the toll that this is taking on people,” Bond said.
Councilor Michael Ross said Davis’s handling of the bombing investigation demonstrates his ability to manage high-
pressure situations with the same composure as day-to-day challenges.
“He has a great capacity to go from a community meeting with at-risk teenagers to what we’re seeing now, an international incident, with great dexterity,” he said.
The FBI has led the investigation, with the Boston police playing a major role.
David Kennedy, who directs the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said Davis has struck a measured tone of resolve that instills trust and confidence.
“There’s an overwhelming and very dangerous tendency after what is now clearly a terrorist attack for the country to overreact,” said Kennedy, a longtime colleague of Davis. “But he has projected what I think is exactly the right attitude here: that this is enormously serious, but we’ll get to the bottom of it, and there’s no reason for people for panic or live in terror.”
As investigators continued a massive manhunt for the second suspect Friday, colleagues of Davis checked in to see how he was holding up.
“Finding the bad guy is in his bones,” said Bond, who sent him an e-mail this week. “I imagine if he’s sleeping, it’s not much.”
Wexler, who had been in contact with the commissioner over the week, said he had just received a message from Davis Friday morning, at the end of one of the longest nights in Boston history.
“We’re going to get this guy,” it read. But in much stronger language.Peter Schworm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.