Almost every page in Friday’s much-anticipated state report on the response to the 2013 Marathon bombing tells Bostonians what they already knew: Police acted heroically in tracking down the bombers, and the region’s emergency medical professionals showed astonishing skill in caring for the wounded. Still, the report does identify some weaknesses, and it does no dishonor to the work that first responders did that chaotic week to take heed of the ways they could improve. Specifically, the report identified a breakdown in “weapons discipline” by officers battling the Tsarnaev brothers in Watertown, and found that the thousands of officers who “self-reported” to Watertown hoping to assist in the chase were poorly managed. It would be the ultimate rebuke to the Tsarnaevs if law enforcement agencies can learn from the experience of pursuing them how to become safer and more effective in the future.
Officers opened fire on at least three questionable occasions, according to the report. When Dzkokhar Tsarnaev fled the scene of the initial shootout in Watertown, officers on both sides of the street opened fire, creating a dangerous crossfire. Though the report does not specifically say so, from other accounts it appears likely that this is when MBTA police officer Richard Donohue was shot by another officer (a separate investigation into Donohue’s shooting remains incomplete). A few minutes later, after an erroneous report of a stolen police vehicle, an officer found the vehicle and opened fire; inside were two law enforcement officials, who were unharmed. Finally, when officers cornered Tsarnaev in a boat in Watertown, an officer began shooting without authorization, causing other officers to join, and creating what the report called “contagious fire.”
Although, thankfully, Donohue was the only officer hurt, all three incidents created an unacceptable risk of officers shooting one another. Hindsight, of course, is perfect, and everyone in Boston remembers how tense those hours were. But undisciplined shooting, in the middle of residential neighborhoods and with other officers in the crossfire, must be avoided. Two of the report’s recommendations stand out. Police need more weapons training. And, crucially, “it must be part of police training throughout the state that in complex, large incidents or multiple incidents, an officer does not respond unless requested by an official with the authority to make such a request.”
Nobody can fault the officers who voluntarily reported to a dangerous situation in order to help catch a terrorist. But without a way to integrate them into the response, the presence of those officers risked compounding the miscommunications that may have led to Donohue’s shooting. Hopefully, there will be no next time — but just in case there is, police training should reflect the cautions urged in Friday’s report.