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Tsarnaev capture was risky, Watertown chief says

Leader of force details dangers of too many officers

The boat where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev hid in Watertown.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

More than two years after Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured in a boat behind a Watertown house, that city's police chief said law enforcement officers who responded without supervision effectively got in the way during the dramatic operation and put themselves and other officers at risk.

Speaking publicly for the first time on the matter, Watertown Police Chief Edward P. Deveau said Tuesday in an interview with the Globe that it was lucky that no police officer was injured in the operation.

He did not single out a specific police force, but said law enforcement overall "could have done better" when surrounding the boat behind the Franklin Street home on April 19, 2013.


"We had a plan on how to approach the boat with SWAT teams and with command staff, but what we ran into were self-deploying police officers who responded outside, and that's what caused a problem," said Deveau, who is retiring July 7 after 32 years on the force.

The chief's comments echoed concerns laid out in a state-commissioned report released in April. Although the report called the overall response to the bombings a "great success,'' it described officers as being deployed chaotically in the ensuing manhunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his older brother and accomplice, Tamerlan.

Some of the self-deployed officers lacked tactical training and equipment, such as vests and armored vehicles, and were not briefed on the plan before the mission started. That means they put themselves, and others, at risk, Deveau said.

"When you have something surrounded, everybody in the background is in harm's way from the officer on the other side of the boat," Deveau said by phone. "Everyone responded for the right reason — they wanted to help — but they didn't see the big picture of someone getting hurt down there."


According to the state report, more than 100 officers had gathered in front of and behind the Franklin Street home after the initial call was put out, and it was "unclear who was responsible for the inner and outer perimeters."

Then, an officer shot at the boat "without appropriate authority in response to perceived movement in the boat, in turn causing many officers to fire at the boat in the belief that they were being shot at by the suspect," which created a dangerous crossfire situation, the report said.

The shooting continued even after on-scene supervisors ordered a cease-fire, according to the report.

SWAT officers ran toward a house on Franklin Street in Watertown during the search for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on April 19, 2013.Jim Bourg/Reuters

Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans, who was in command at the scene, defended management of the operation, noting that "everything was under control" until the shots rang out.

"Within 15 seconds, it was halted," he said. "It was not out of control like people thought it was."

Evans said immediately after the first shot was fired, he started "yelling and screaming [at them] to stop."

Evans said the officer who started the gunfire has not been identified, though he knows it was not a Boston police officer.

Deveau assumed some of the blame Tuesday, noting that he made a mistake by putting out the emergency call to all responding officers in Watertown at the time.

"If I had to do it over again, I would have had those involved come to the command post, and decide who needed to be deployed," he said. "At the time, we thought as soon as we knew, everyone should know, because people's lives were in danger."


Out of the nearly 3,000 officers who were in Watertown over the course of that day, "hundreds responded without proper tactical teams" and were "operating on their own," Deveau said.

The chief said he could not speak about the operation earlier, citing an order from the US attorney's office to keep the discussion under wraps until Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's trial ended. The 21-year-old was formally sentenced to death a week ago.

The comments come several weeks after the Middlesex district attorney's office, confirming witness accounts, found that MBTA Police Officer Richard Donohue was probably shot and critically wounded by a fellow officer during the initial shootout with the Tsarnaev brothers in Watertown. The report also found that officers were "warranted and justified" in using deadly force during the seven-minute gunfight.

Deveau did not comment on the district attorney's report, but he did say the April 19 shootout between law enforcement and the two Tsarnaev brothers on Laurel Street was handled in an "A+" manner.

"Law enforcement did a damn good job in Watertown that day," he said. "But I compare it to the Patriots winning the Super Bowl. [Patriots coach] Bill Belichick doesn't stand at the podium and say it was perfect; he says it just worked out and we won."

Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @JaclynReiss