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A Complex Legacy For Marathon Manhunt

A SWAT team unloaded from their armored vehicles on April 19. 2013. (Charles Krupa/AP)

A SWAT team unloaded from armored vehicles on April 19. 2013. (Charles Krupa/AP)

BOSTON — Emergency officials who rushed to help the victims of last year’s Boston Marathon bombing have been widely credited with saving lives.

But the subsequent manhunt in Watertown for the bombing suspects leaves a legacy that’s far more complex.

The Manhunt

Three days after the bombings, an MIT police officer was found murdered near the Cambridge campus. Within a couple of hours, a handful of local police had two suspects corralled on a back street in nearby Watertown.

A little before 1 a.m., a firefight broke out. A transit officer was hit, possibly by friendly fire.

Suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev was dead, while his younger brother Dzhokhar escaped into the darkness.

Officers and SWAT teams from a startling array of jurisdictions streamed into the maze of Watertown’s streets: FBI, state police, transit police, Cambridge and Boston and Newton police. And more.

But as dawn came, the second suspect was still at large. Gov. Deval Patrick announced that to aid the search and protect the public, he wanted Watertown, Cambridge, Waltham, Newton, Belmont and Boston residents to stay inside and lock their doors, a request to “shelter in place.”

At dusk, Patrick lifted the request. A Watertown resident checked on a boat in his backyard, and discovered the surviving Tsarnaev brother. Soon, the boat was surrounded by local, state and federal law enforcement.

Officers opened fire, even though, it appears, no one gave that command. Then-Boston Police Supt. William Evans stepped in.

“Multiple shots fired here, OK,” he said. “Everyone hold their fire, hold their fire.”

“All units hold your fire,” the dispatcher said.

Studying The Response

“That didn’t sound like a completely organized setting,” said Herman “Dutch” Leonard, who has been studying these events with colleagues at the Harvard Kennedy School.

In the initial firefight, Leonard said, Watertown police responded in a brave, well-organized, tactical style. And he says the mix of “self-deploying” officers would eventually organize into a more orderly series of search parties. But he adds that the challenge of establishing street-level command led to dangerous potential crossfire situations, although actual gunfire erupted only at the boat.

“At what point does the next arriving police officer, instead of thinking, ‘What this situation needs is one more police officer with his weapon drawn’, instead thinks, ‘What this situation needs is someone to step back and bring some order to it?’ ” Leonard asked.

Watertown residents, meanwhile, are on the whole grateful.

“I think we should give them credit for being in a very confusing, scary situation,” said Kathleen Spivack, standing near the spot where the younger Tsarnaev dumped a stolen Mercedes. “And now maybe is the time to rethink the training procedures, but not to look back and blame them because they didn’t have them then.”

Many Watertown residents say they are OK with Patrick’s shelter-in-place request too. But some saw it as a de facto lockdown order. Gabriel Camacho said six of his neighbors were told, at gunpoint, to leave their homes, cuffed with plastic restraints, and questioned for as long as two hours. His entire neighborhood, he said, was effectively under house arrest.

“I didn’t hear the governor say he’d declared martial law, or the president say that,” Camacho said. “So I think it’s very problematic that something like that can happen under our Constitution.”

Legal experts say it’s a legitimate question — and that the length and breadth of the shelter-in-place request are unprecedented. But no one’s filed a lawsuit. Watertown police have reached out to residents about any concerns. And as for lessons learned about street-level command, state authorities are already incorporating new guidance into their crisis management plans.

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