Did Tsarnaev manhunt unnecessarily endanger the public’s safety?

Twelve seconds of gunfire

Bullet holes cover the side of the boat where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev hid.
Bullet holes cover the side of the boat where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev hid.(David L Ryan/Globe Staff)

More than six months after the Marathon bombings, questions linger about the conduct of the police operations that resulted in the death of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the arrest of his brother. But the state and local governments still aren’t showing much interest, apparently preferring to take bows for the successful capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev rather than address the issues of coordination among dozens of police departments — a logistical problem that’s sure to hamper any future emergency responses.

The US Justice Department is launching its own review of the public safety response. But Governor Deval Patrick's administration also needs to examine the role of state and local public safety agencies, especially during the firefight in Watertown and daylong search for the brother who escaped.

Watertown officers initially exchanged gunfire with the Tsarnaev brothers on Laurel Street just after midnight on April 19. Officers from other departments rushed in to help. Some were off-duty and came on their own. In the firefight that resulted, the police fired as many as 300 rounds. MBTA officer Richard H. Donohue Jr. was hit by a bullet from another officer's gun. Surely the Watertown police needed help, but did the presence of so many officers encourage more gunfire than was necessary?


Tamerlan Tsarnaev was fatally wounded, but Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sped off in a stolen SUV, and abandoned the vehicle a short distance away. While he was fleeing, some officers were distracted by the necessity of saving Donohue's life. Did the shooting of Donohue cost the police an opportunity to apprehend Dzhokhar Tsarnaev quickly?

The Watertown neighborhood where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found unarmed in a backyard boat is densely populated.
The Watertown neighborhood where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found unarmed in a backyard boat is densely populated.(Getty Images)

Senior public safety administrators established a 20-block cordon where a search would be conducted. By first light, more reinforcements arrived from the State Police, local departments, and federal agencies. At full strength the police contingent probably numbered 1,000. They didn't find Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Why not?

Tsarnaev was apparently moving around the neighborhood. Did the great number of officers on the scene make coordination difficult? Was anyone unambiguously in charge? Was it clear who was responsible for each sector of the search area?

The State Police called off the search at 6:10. p.m. Shortly thereafter, Watertown resident David Henneberry went out to his backyard and noticed a figure huddled in his boat. Why wasn't the Henneberry yard searched during the massive police operation?


Law enforcement officials give different accounts of whether the property was in the search area. If it wasn't, why not? And if it was, did the police in that sector merely make a simple human error by neglecting to search Henneberry's property?

Once Henneberry raised the alarm, police responded quickly and let loose a 12-second barrage even though Tsarnaev did not make any threatening moves. Boston Police Superintendent William Evans yelled, "Cease fire!" — evidence that here a superior officer was in control. Yet why were the police shooting in the first place, in a densely populated neighborhood, when it was daylight and they knew they faced a single suspect in an enclosed space?

The Justice Department report will be written by the Police Executive Research Forum, a private organization in Washington. A team from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard is also looking into issues of command and control in Watertown. The State Police, at the request of the Middlesex district attorney, are investigating as well.

The Justice Department study will probably take a year to complete, and will examine law enforcement activities from the moment the bombings occurred, which might take the focus off the Watertown events. The Kennedy School project, coming from a private organization, possesses only the power of recommendation. And because the State Police were involved with the Watertown search, they are investigating, among others, themselves. A spokeswoman for the district attorney said in an e-mail that "I do not have a specific timeline" for completion, a remark that does not suggest urgency.


State and local public safety officials were dealing with an unprecedented situation in Watertown, and officers reacted with great courage. They did, in the process, spread gunfire around a populous neighborhood, severely wound a fellow officer, and fail to find Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for much of a day. And when he was located, the police unloaded a barrage next to houses whose residents were put at risk.

What's needed here is an authoritative study, commissioned by the Patrick administration, but independent of state government. The investigation should determine whether the police need better training to minimize excessive gunfire; how the police can best provide reinforcements when officers are under threat; and whether command arrangements could be improved when officers from disparate agencies are rushed into a complex operation. Public safety organizations will be stronger if they accept the need to study what happened in Watertown and learn from the heavy gunfire and unsuccessful search.

Thomas Gagen wrote editorials for the Globe from 1987 to 2008.