Congressional Committee Looks Back at Police Response to Boston Marathon Bombings

"In this particular case, some things fell through the cracks," officials said.

Just one week before the anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings, officials that headed the investigation and subsequent capture of the alleged suspects responsible for the horrific crimes sat before Congress to talk about the response to, and lessons learned from, the April 15, 2013, attack on Boylston Street.

Former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, Watertown Chief of Police Ed Deveau, Watertown Police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese, and Harvard Kennedy School of Government Professor Herman Leonard met with members of the House Committee on Homeland Security in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, and divulged information tied to the investigation of the bombings and the four days that followed as law enforcement agencies worked together to locate and identify alleged suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

But during the committee hearing on Capitol Hill, called “The Boston Marathon Bombings, One Year On: A Look Back to Look Forward,” first responders—while hailed as heroes by elected officials for their tactical planning to apprehend the alleged terrorists—said communications between local agencies and federal agencies leading up to the crisis could have been stronger. That criticism was echoed in a report released by the House Committee on Homeland Security in late March, which indicated that breaches between agencies may not have stopped the attack, but could have put the older Tsarnaev brother on the radar.

“Boston Police should have been given more information…they must know about the terror threats in their own backyards,” said Representative Michael McCaul, the committee’s chairman. “In this particular case, some things fell through the cracks.”

McCaul applauded the officers that were present at the hearing for their heroic deeds the night that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed. “Tamerlan threw everything he had at these officers, including pipe bombs, ammunition, and [an IED]. What is not so well known is that had it not been for the efforts of Commissioner Ed Davis, and those of the Watertown Police, our nation could have been further terrorized,” McCaul said. “These suspects had six more bombs in the car and were on their way to New York City. If not for the police, New York City could have been hit again.”

Committee members used the meeting as an opportunity to reflect on actions taken after the Marathon bombings and what could have been done differently, while also recognizing the resilience the city showed in the aftermath of the attack. “Even though Boston is standing strong it would be a disservice to the community not to look back,” said U.S. Representative Loretta Sanchez. “We owe it to the Boston community, and the rest of America, to make sure the appropriate officials do a thorough review of that situation.”

During the hearing, Davis, who was head of the Boston Police Department last year when 260 people were injured and three people were killed near the finish line, chalked officers’ ability to react to the large crowds in attendance at the Marathon to their prior experience with championship title celebrations. Deveau chimed in and cited the strong personal ties between leaders at the State Police level and Davis and himself as a reason for a somewhat smooth response. “Just as in Boston, my officers were at their very best when confronted with the biggest challenge of their careers. Their split-second decisions and actions went far beyond their police academy training, but I can ensure you it will now be taught in police academies across the country,” Deveau said.

Beyond face-to-face communications, Davis touted the agency’s ability to break through the noise of social media and misguided news reports, using the department’s personal Twitter account, to better inform residents about the investigation following the bombings. “We don’t even do press releases anymore. We just post it on social media,” he said.

Like McCaul, Massachusetts Congressman William Keating, who traveled to the Tsarnaevs’ homeland of Chechnya twice to obtain new information about Tamerlan’s time there, said he had questions about some gaps in the investigation days after the Boylston Street attack, specifically in regards to a press conference the FBI was supposed to hold two days after the bombings that was later cancelled. Keating said he learned through a 60 Minutes report that officials had photos of who they believed to be the suspects at that juncture, but didn’t release them until the following Thursday. “I want to shed light on the nature of the press conference that was called, why it was cancelled,” he said.

Davis said the police did have the photos of the suspects sooner than they were revealed to the public, but the FBI had taken jurisdiction over the case at that point and “they were calling the shots.” Davis said he didn’t know why the press conference was cancelled that day, just two days after the bombings.

“To me, it just goes to show one more time that there should have been more information sharing at all times during this,” said Keating in response to Davis’ comments. “Frankly, the Boston Police should have known what was going on.”

While the scrutiny of the breakdown of the communications was largely the focus of the committee hearing Wednesday, the event ended on a positive note, with praise continuing to go to the Watertown and Boston Police Departments for helping thwart any additional acts of terror at the hands of the Tsarnaev brothers. “This is a time to remember, a time to heal, and a time for pride. Boston is strong,” said McCaul.