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Op-Ed: Did Boston Law Enforcement Drop The Ball?


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

And now the Opinion Page. Police in Boston received almost universal praise for their quick response after the bombs went off at the marathon finish line two weeks ago. But today, Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi wondered if police let their guard down in the months, weeks and even hours before the explosions. In the days to come, there will be much second guessing, Vennochi wrote, and she adds, there should be. Joan Vennochi joins us now from the offices of the Globe. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

JOAN VENNOCHI: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And in your piece, you set a scene, the winners had finished, crowds had begun to dissipate, bomb-sniffing dogs had already swept the area. Is it fair to guess at this point that police had let their guard down a little?

VENNOCHI: Well, I pose that question to Police Commissioner Ed Davis, who's, you know, shown a credible amount of leadership in the aftermath of the bombing and I think answered the question with a great of candor. He said, when I asked him the question, you know, yes, that it is possible that they let their guard down and part of it had to do with, as I said out in that - beginning of the column, the timing of the attack. The winners had already been crowned. The VIPs had already filtered off. It was the average people, the average citizens who were in that open access part on Boylston Street, and it's 3 o'clock. The race has been going on for hours. You could kind of imagine that even the most vigilant might relax, and that's what he kind of acknowledged, that there could have been just a we're over the hump, we've gotten through this. And all of a sudden, you know, disaster strikes.

CONAN: Disaster strikes. As you mentioned, the VIP area, well, everything in there is screened. There are sweeps through the other area, but it's nothing like the same kind of level of security.

VENNOCHI: Right. And that's really what I started thinking about. I was not at the marathon finish line this year. I've been there in the past. And I was thinking of that cordoned-off area and how if you are in that section, your bags are checked. You have to have your I.D. checked. It's the same street, just 45 feet away, the other side of the street, where the public goes. And, of course, that's the charm of the Boston Marathon. It's what makes it democratic with a small D. The runners coming in. Everybody, the family members, you know, wanting to see their loved ones cross the line. The businesses being open and bustling with everybody just in this great, you know, state of celebration. And that side, the democratic with the small D side, is where they put down their backpacks.

CONAN: And this is also part of the culture of running, from every 5K in the neighborhood to the Boston Marathon to the New York City Marathon. People put bags at the finish line; warm clothes and energy bars, that sort of thing.

VENNOCHI: Absolutely. I do think - I also spoke to Chuck Wexler, who heads the Police Executive - I think, it's Research Forum in Washington, D.C., one of these think tanks who actually started his police career in Boston. And he said that this will put terrorism back on the radar screen of every police department in the country, and people may not want to think about this or acknowledge it. But a dozen or so years after 9/11, terrorism isn't necessarily the priority of - or the first thing that every police force thinks about. That priority shift, he said.

And with budget cuts, people - police redirected to local crime, thinking more about the idea of somebody crashing an elementary school and mowing down kids than necessarily thinking of terrorists putting off a bomb at the finish line of the marathon. And it does, you know, obviously, make people rethink what - I think security will change there.

CONAN: And so you're raising an even bigger picture, not just, you know, a couple of hours after the first runners had crossed the finish line, police maybe understandably relaxed a little bit. You're saying there's a greater air of complacency in all those years after 9/11.

VENNOCHI: Right. I mean, I'm not a terrorism expert, and I understand this whole concept of a marathon being a soft target, and there is absolutely no way that you could guard the 26.2 miles against people doing this. But, again, just that image of VIP cordoned-off section where obviously who know about security and terrorism, it crossed their mind that somebody might go into that section. It crossed their mind enough so that they had a bag check and I.D. check. But, again, in that very same area, just on the other side of the street, people come and go freely. I don't pretend to know the answer to how you resolve that, and if we trade the idea that we can freely go down a street and watch the end of a marathon to think, you know, to stop something like this. But I think there are going to be a lot of questions that come out of this.

CONAN: And that could change the nature of the event itself. There was a suggestion by Dan Shaughnessy in the paper that - in your paper that next year we're going to be running this between yellow crime scene tapes.

VENNOCHI: Right. Absolutely. And one thing that Commissioner Davis mentioned when we were having our conversation, which wasn't that long but long enough for me to get some interesting answers from him, is that a lot of the push to have this whole open area comes from the businesses at that tail end of the finish line because, again, I mean, people are just such high spirits. They're at the bistros. They're at the bars. They have, you know, they are getting snacks with their children. So the businesses there have always wanted an open area and entrance.

But when you think about places, I realize that something like Fenway Park - it's a contained area, but you can't get into something like Fenway Park without bags being checked, water bottles being given out. It seems to me that it might be - that they might, down the line, think about expanding that cordoned area a little bit so that where average people go, you do have somebody look into your bag.

CONAN: Then there are even bigger questions you raise about the response of the FBI to request by Russian authorities to look into Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older brother who was later killed.

VENNOCHI: Well, again, I pose that to Commissioner Davis. Again, I'm not the expert on who knew what, when and where, but I said, are you satisfied that you had all the information that you needed to have? And his response was, I'm not satisfied. I think there are questions that need to be answered. There've certainly been a tremendous amount of cooperation between the agencies after the bombs went off. But before, did the Boston police have all the information they needed to have? If you don't give it to them, if it's not shared with them, it is like fighting a war with one hand tied behind your back, and I'm not sure if that's the situation here.

CONAN: What was there to share? The Russian government made a request. The FBI looked into it, including interviewing him and some of his associates. They found nothing.

VENNOCHI: Well, I guess it depends on the definition of nothing. I don't know the answer to that. I'm just saying I think more to come. I think we'll find out more of what they knew.

CONAN: At least...

VENNOCHI: Again, I'm not, you know, I'm not the expert on terrorism. All I'm saying is I asked Commissioner Davis the question. He said he's not satisfied. He said he thinks there were more questions that need answers.

CONAN: Well, perhaps then he will - if it's at that level, he will ask them and get them. But it is the question of, you know, how large a list do you keep? There are, you know, suspicions about any number of people. But if there's nothing to back them up, do you keep them on list forever?

VENNOCHI: That's a good question. And I also - you get to the end of the column, I also raise the question: Does that mean that if somebody downloads something or looks at something at their computer or goes to a country that's sort of known for, in parenthesis, having, you know, terrorists, a terrorist culture, whatever, then you come back here, does that mean you're under surveillance? I'm not saying I support that. All I'm saying is that after what happened in Boston, I don't think we know all the answers yet, and there's more to come.

CONAN: There is more to come. Two weeks after the event, the city's just gone through an incredible number of emotions. The shock of the attack itself, the week that followed the catharsis, I guess, that followed the shootout and the arrest of the suspect. What is Boston like now?

VENNOCHI: Well, I think there's a real sense of unity, and it's also interesting. A city that's out, you know, beyond New England hasn't especially been beloved, I don't think. It does seem to have, you know, the rest of the country has embraced Boston in a way that's really interesting to see, and nice to see. And I don't think it takes anything away from the response of the first responders, the city pulling together, I don't think it takes anything away from appreciating what people did in the aftermath to say, well, you know, we should look back at what happened. We should rethink security, and then we have to make the choice and the balance between this wonderful event, open to all, and the idea of safety.

CONAN: And as you look at the balance that you - it's going to - fortunately, we have a year before we have to make - well, obviously, decision is going to be made well before the next marathon. But we have some time before those decisions have to be made. How do you prioritize the various elements?

VENNOCHI: Well, fortunately, I get to ask the questions and not necessarily have to come up with the answers.


CONAN: Come up with the answers. Yeah, me too. I like that part.

VENNOCHI: I don't know. I mean, it is, to use an overused word, an iconic event in Boston. Next year, there are going to be so many people that will want to be showing support for it. People who haven't been to the finish line for years will want to be there and just sort of show solidarity and all that. But again, I mean, I think the police and I think the police commissioner, he's got questions that he wants answered.

CONAN: We're talking with Joan Vennochi, the columnist for the Boston Globe, about a piece she wrote on the opinion page there today. It's called "Did the police let their guard down?" You can find a link to it at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And as you said earlier, it is impossible to secure the 26.2 miles of the event, the huge crowds, like, 28,000 runners that gather to start the race, the crowds at the finished line, everything along the route. But Boston is not alone. Every city in town across the country has a big event. Do you think after Boston, police everywhere are going to have to look into their security?

VENNOCHI: Well, that seemed to be the feeling of people who know more about terrorism and security issues than I do, that again priority shift with time, there is a complacency that comes over certainly smaller towns and cities. I think New York City and L.A., you know, places like that probably think about more than we thought about it here. It just seemed like something that could never happen. And until it does, you just think of it as something fairly remote, even though Boston certainly had a very direct connection to 9/11 since the planes left from here.

But, yeah, I mean, I think it makes - it's going to make the experts, again, think about the tradeoffs. Again, you can' protect against everything. But is there a way you want to rejigger what happens at the finish line?

And rejigger - the way the city is looked at, or one of the conversations we've had on this program since Boston, is the conversation about how many police surveillance cameras do you want to have in your city? Hundreds in Boston, thousands in New York, hundreds of thousands in London. Has that issue been looked at?

It's just being, you know, bandied about on the opinion pages right now. And it's interesting that the first reaction seems to be that people want in the first flush of what happened, you know, let's, you know, do what's necessary to keep us safe. Maybe we need more cameras and the idea of civil liberties begins to take a little bit of a backseat. But I think that debate is going to shift and change too as things move forward. And people again start to think about what you give up for maybe the illusion of safety, because as you pointed out, there's no way that you could ever police everything that's going to happen along 26 miles.

CONAN: And the fact is that there were video surveillance cameras available that did film the actual scene. They were privately owned. They were in front of the stores there in Boston - the Forum restaurant, for one.

VENNOCHI: Right. Without those videos, I don't know, you know, how long it would've taken to identify the suspects. And again, I mean, I have not seen the videos beyond what's on television, beyond showing what those, you know, those suspects were doing. But it would be interesting. I think Commissioner Davis told me that there were four Boston police officers, 11, I think MBTA - which are the Transit cops - and a number of plainclothes detectives whose job is - was essentially to look for pickpockets and/or suspicious-type packages.

Again, you know, when you've been through this, I'm sure there'll be a higher state of alert and it won't just - at 3 o'clock, again, it's who's crossing the line? It's the - the elite runners have already finished. The governor and VIPs have already gone. It is just the average people, and I'm not sure that they certainly don't deserve a lesser standard of security than the VIPs.

CONAN: I understand that. There is also the responsibility of those lesser people - you and me - to look at something that might be suspicious. Now, I'm not sure there was a lot of time in the case of the marathon bombs between the slipping off of the backpack and the explosion. But people saying, wait a minute, there is something suspicious and people's discomfort with saying, I don't know. You ought to check into that guy.

VENNOCHI: Right. Exactly. As you said, at the end of a marathon, basically everybody's carrying something often for a runner who's coming in over the line. So what now seems suspicious might seem less so. Although when you look at the faces of the two suspects on the video, they didn't seem - they seemed like they did stand out a bit. I'm not saying that I would've noticed it, trained observer that I am. But...


CONAN: Mm-hmm. That's right.

VENNOCHI: ...as we all think that we are. But again, in hindsight, 20/20, as they always say.

CONAN: And 20/20 hindsight, again, the questions have to be asked. Is it fair to ask the Boston Police Department, did you drop the ball considering the sacrifices everybody made in the week that followed?

VENNOCHI: Well, all I can tell you is this. When I asked Commissioner Davis that question, he didn't hang up on me. He said the answer that I gave - that I reported - he said absolutely. It's possible that just the feeling that we're over the hump, that we're through this. I mean, it's human nature. You've watched events. They get there early. They're on high alert all the time. Plus, in this particular case, the bomb-sniffing dogs had gone through twice, once in the morning and an hour before the explosions have gone off.

So there was a feeling, there was a reason to feel basically secure that at time. It turned out not, you know, the security was - sense of security was misplaced. But again, I don't think it's an insult at all to what the response and, you know, the courage and all of that happened afterwards to rethink, and, you know, again, to use an overused term, connect the dots about how things were set up, were they followed out as they should've been.

CONAN: Joan Vennochi, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

VENNOCHI: Thank you.

CONAN: Joan Vennochi, a columnist for the Boston Globe. Her piece, "Did the police let their guard down," ran yesterday. She joined us today from the offices at the Globe. Tomorrow, we'll talk with The Washington Post Marc Fisher who has the story he and his colleagues have pieced together about the Tsarnaev family and how brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar changed over time. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.