Nov 6 2013

Boston police hope to acquire more semiautomatic weapons

Dr. Q

Yesterday, The Boston Globe announced the parting gift of Ed Davis, who recently stepped down as Commissioner of the Boston Police Department: more police militarization. According to the Globe, the Boston police plan to acquire more military-style, semiautomatic weapons to be used by patrol officers.

Four years after Mayor Thomas M. Menino expressed concerns about arming more Boston police with military-style rifles, the department is quietly preparing to train 99 patrol officers to use such semiautomatic rifles, a dramatic boost in firepower that some officials say is excessive.

Under the plan, 22 uniformed officers on every shift — two for each of the city’s 11 districts — would have routine access to the weapons in their cruisers after they are trained. It represents a substantial increase from the current complement of four to eight specialized officers who patrol the city in “gun cars” equipped with an M4 semiautomatic rifle and a shotgun.

It is one of the final policy changes instituted by Commissioner Edward F. Davis, who left the department Friday after nearly seven years at the helm.

“It’s standard operating procedure across the nation, and the officers have to be able to protect themselves,” Davis said in an interview last week. “I think it’s a practical and appropriate plan.”

Davis said officials had been planning the change months before the April 15 Boston Marathon terrorist attacks, but the tragedy underscored the need for a greater number of more powerful weapons.

“An incident like that reinforces the need for equipment that’s necessary to defend the community,” he said.

It’s interesting that Davis would choose the Boston Marathon bombing to justify increasing the firepower of the Boston police because that incident actually shows precisely why the police shouldn’t be trusted with more powerful weapons.

During the manhunt for Marathon Bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, police became involved in a gun fight with the Tsarnaevs on Laurel Street. During the fight, police recklessly fired countless rounds in an attempt to hit the Tsarnaevs, perforating nearby homes with bullets and putting residents in mortal danger. According to WGBH:

Watertown resident Mike Doucette looked out from his house on Laurel Street just a few feet from where police were exchanging gunfire with the suspects on the night of April 19. He said officers that night saved lives.

“They’re heroes in my mind,” he said.

But now, six months later Doucette wonders if the gunfight could have played out differently.

“The whole shoot out was pretty wild,” he said. “Bullets were flying everywhere. Every one of these houses was hit by something. I mean, they could have had more control over what they were shooting at, maybe.”

Among the many unanswered questions: Why were so many bullets fired into homes — and should this have been avoided? At least a dozen homes were hit by bullets in Watertown that night, including that of Andy Fehlner and his wife, Michelle Smith, who woke up to the sound of explosions and gunfire.

“Something was dropping in the house and it was something I never heard before,” Fehlner said. “And then we picked these items up that were flying in our house and we realized pretty quickly that they’re bullets. And all of them were coming from that side of the house, so we ran and grabbed the kids because the bullets were coming very close to their bed.”

Fehlner said one bullet came within 12 inches of his toddler’s bed.

Many of the bullets that struck homes were fired by police — most from departments outside Watertown, according to confidential law enforcement sources. The intended target: the stolen SUV driven by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as he tried to escape.

Police argue the circumstances in Watertown necessitated extreme action, but we wondered whether proper police protocol was followed. Boston Police policy states: “Officers who find it necessary, under the provisions of this rule, to discharge firearms shall exercise due care for the safety of persons and property in the area and shall fire only when reasonably certain that there is no substantial risk to bystanders.” Similar policies apply to Watertown, Cambridge and the Massachusetts State Police

Kitzenberg said his roommate got up from his chair just moments before a bullet came through the wall of his apartment.

“It had penetrated the wall and the desk chair clean through,” he said.

Police didn’t just endanger members of the public with their wild, reckless shootout. The police were a danger to themselves as well. Two police officers were hit by “friendly fire” during the shootout, one of whom almost died. Police also mistakenly shot up one of their own vehicles, although no one was injured in this case. The Boston Globe reports:

Eyewitness accounts strongly suggest that MBTA Transit Police Officer Richard H. Donohue Jr. was shot and nearly killed by a fellow officer in Watertown April 19 during the hail of gunfire unleashed on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as the suspected terrorist made a getaway in a carjacked sport utility vehicle.

Donohue went down in the early-morning darkness during an extraordinary gunfight in which at least a dozen police ­officers from four departments exchanged up to 300 rounds of gunfire with Dzhokhar’s older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The Tsarnaevs also allegedly set off explosives, including a pressure cooker bomb similar to the ones used in the Boston Marathon bombings.

Jane Dyson, who lives 140 feet from where Donohue was shot on Dexter Avenue, said she saw the police officer collapse and fall to the ground near the end of the gunfight as 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sped away. She said the officer ­appeared to be a victim of “friendly fire.”

“A black SUV appeared, and rapid gun fire was focused on the vehicle,” Dyson wrote in a statement provided to the Globe, referring to the vehicle Tsarnaev allegedly drove in his escape. “It appeared to me that an individual at the corner [of the street] fell to the ground and had probably been hit in the gunfire.”

“I later learned that the individual who had been shot was Officer Richard Donohue,” she wrote.

It would later become ­apparent that the suspects were no longer armed when Dyson saw Donohue fall, suggesting that the shot that wounded him came from police. Two witnesses support Dyson’s account that Donohue appeared to be wounded in the final volley of shots fired at the fleeing younger suspect.

Donohue and his partner were among the first officers to arrive at the intersection of Dexter Avenue and Laurel Street, moments after the ­Tsarnaev brothers pulled over in the SUV they had allegedly carjacked in Allston.

In the ensuing 10 minutes, police officers fired what may be an unprecedented number of rounds in a single police incident in recent state history. They apparently wounded both suspects, but also sprayed the neighborhood. Shots fired in the battle left at least a dozen nearby houses pockmarked with dozens of bullet holes, includ­ing a second-floor bedroom where two children slept.

Donohue suffered a three-quarter inch bullet wound to the top of his right thigh and nearly bled to death at the scene; “he was deceased,” as one emergency medical provider described him. Besides that shooting, authorities are also investigating an incident in which another MBTA Transit Police officer was grazed in the buttocks by gunfire. The identity of that officer and the circumstances of his shooting have not been disclosed.

In a third potential friendly-fire incident, a state trooper fired at an unmarked Boston police SUV, en route to the scene, the Globe ­reported April 22. No one was hurt when the trooper, apparently thinking the SUV was the one stolen by the Tsarnaevs, fired multiple rounds at the ­vehicle, blowing out the back window.

After Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed in the shootout, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev escaped and managed to hide from police until a Watertown resident discovered him hiding out in the boat in his backyard and alerted the police. Tsarnaev was unarmed and injured from the shootout, but that didn’t stop police from continuing to recklessly shoot countless rounds at him. According to The Boston Globe:

Some neighbors, whose homes were also taken over by police and strafed by automatic weapons, are also coping with the lingering impact of what happened here six months ago.

Olga Ciuc, who lives two doors down on Franklin Street, refuses to sleep in her old bedroom, which overlooks their backyard, and remains too afraid to walk her dog at night.

“What happened here was crazy,” she said.

Her husband, Dumitru, said he and other neighbors are now more vigilant.

“There’s a greater sense of insecurity,” he said, showing the bullet holes in the back of their house, in their fence, and in their grill. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen; you don’t know who’s a friend and who’s an enemy.”

WBUR reports that “Ciuc’s house was hit by seven bullets that night. Their neighbor’s house was riddled with 27.”

Giving police greater access to weapons does not automatically translate into greater public safety. If police had access to even more powerful weaponry during the manhunt, they would have caused even more property damage and the chances of them injuring or even killing Watertown residents with their weapons would have increased.

BPD Superintendent in Chief Daniel Linskey told the Globe that “The department wants to add 33 semiautomatic rifles to supplement the more than 60 SWAT team officers who use M4 rifles.” The new guns “could cost about $2,500 each, plus $500 for ammunition.” That adds up to an initial cost of almost $100,000 worth of taxpayer money.

This isn’t a done deal yet. The funding request will first have to be approved by Marty Walsh, who was just elected mayor of Boston. Hopefully Walsh will reject this attempt to further militarize the Boston Police Department.

Instead of spending $100,000 on more powerful weapons for the police, perhaps the money could be spent on making the police more transparent and accountable. A recent and very promising idea is having police attach wearable cameras to their clothing so that they are always on camera. In Rialto, California, police recently began using wearable cameras. “In the first year after the cameras were introduced [in Rialto] in February 2012, the number of complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent compared with the previous 12 months. Use of force by officers fell by almost 60 percent over the same period,” according to The New York Times. According to the Times, these cameras can cost up to $900 which means the Boston police could afford at least 110 of them for the same price as the semiautomatic weapons and ammunition they are seeking.

Greater police accountability would do much more to keep the residents of Boston safe than greater police firepower.