Was Boston a "War Zone" During Bomber Manhunt?

When alleged Boston Marathon bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev came face-to-face with law enforcement officers in an early morning shootout on April 19, they encountered “at least a dozen police ­officers from four departments [and] exchanged up to 300 rounds of gunfire with” Tamerlan, the older of the two men, reports the Boston Globe

“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.” 

Among the casualties, according to the Globe, may have been MBTA Transit Police Officer Richard H. Donohue Jr., who “eyewitness accounts strongly suggest…was shot and nearly killed by a fellow officer.” 

Friendly fire incidents are rare in US law enforcement, in large part because most cops don’t engage in the kind of blazing gunfight that occurred in Watertown last month. The officers encountered two undoubtedly dangerous men. But did the extraordinary display of force, which included a lockdown of the Boston metropolitan area, put civilians at risk and unjustly impinge on their civil liberties?  

The kinds of tactics we saw in Boston are what we’re used to seeing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Security cordons. House to house searches at gunpoint. That comparison isn’t lost on some experts. 

“It’s arguably a wartime situation,” Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police ­Executive Research Forum in Washington told the Globe. “Police agencies are not generally prepared for the kind of wartime situation that these officers encountered.”

I spoke with Wexler this morning and asked him why the manhunt for Tamerlan and his 19-year-old brother didn’t qualify as a normal law enforcement matter. The brothers were clearly a public threat; they’d killed an MIT police officer shortly before the shootout. But police manhunts for dangerous killers are hardly novel. Why did Boston become a “war zone” because of the presence of these fugitives? 

“Based upon who I’ve talked to, and I’ve talked to people in Boston about this [including the police commissioner], they encountered individuals who had bombs. That’s just not your usual policing incident, domestic incident,” Wexler says. “That took those normal kinds of encounters, if you will, to a higher level. Police don’t usually deal with improvised devices in the United States.” The Tsarnaev brothers are alleged to have set off pressure cooker bombs, similar to the ones they detonated at the marathon, during their fight with police. 

The public bombing of civilians is rare in the US, but not unheard of. And police have responded with less severe measures during similar incidents. Police did not lock down the city of Atlanta after the 1996 bombing at the summer Olympics. The city of Washington endured the terror of snipers in 2002, but roads wren’t closed, and people were allowed to leave their homes. 

Tom Ricks, a veteran observer of many battlefields, thinks law enforcement may have gone too far. Quoting a military special operator, he notes that Dzhokhar didn’t have a nuclear device or a biological weapon. He was one man on the run. 

But Wexler said that police couldn’t have been sure about the brothers’ intentions or their capabilities. They didn’t know whether they planned to mount more attacks or would try to flee Boston for another city. That uncertainty, given the brothers’ demonstrated capacity for violence, justified the forceful response. 

“It’s very unusual, but it worked,” Wexler said.