Five Interesting Things from Ed Davis’s Interview on the Marathon Manhunt

In a WGBH interview, the former Boston police commissioner revisits the search for Tsarnaev, criticizes the FBI, and talks police militarization.

Photograph by Scott Lacey

Photograph by Scott M. Lacey

Few people had a better view of the action during the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing and search for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev than former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis.

He spoke at length about it with homeland security expert Juliette Kayyem for her WGBH podcast “Security Mom.” The whole thing is worth a listen, as Kayyem’s expertise makes her a great interviewer, but there were a few particularly interesting parts, some of them previously reported in bits and pieces, that we thought were worth calling out.

1. In the past, Davis has pointed to the FBI’s release of surveillance photos showing Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as the opening move that set off a chain of events leading to Tamerlan’s death and Dzhokhar’s capture. Here, he and Kayyem get into a bit more detail about how rare it is to see the FBI releasing photos of suspects during an investigation. There was, Davis says, a big debate about it. Davis argued with federal prosecutors that he couldn’t allow his cops to be out on the streets without an image of the suspects. Kayyem reiterates how unusual it was that Davis won this fight. “Ed would have had to make a very persuasive argument,” she says. “This just isn’t done.”

2. Davis gets into detail on another major debate: whether to issue a “shelter in place” order while law enforcement tracked down Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Davis points to Richard Davey, then the state’s secretary of transportation (and now the CEO of the Boston 2024 Partnership) as having particular influence. Authorities were focused on an MBTA bus that passed through the area where they believed Dzhokhar was hiding. They didn’t want Tsarnaev to have access to the entire transit system, but Davey argued that it’s difficult to shut down just that bus route—just one piece of the system. It strands those who expect it to be up and running. Because of that perspective, the debate became more “all or nothing.” Shut nothing down or shut the city down. In the end, Governor Deval Patrick made the call, in part because the city had shut down for a snow storm the week before and, as Davis puts it, “This is at least as dangerous as a snow storm.”

3. After the shelter in place had been in effect for some time, Davis notes that Governor Patrick started facing pressure from President Obama to lift the order, regardless of whether they found the suspect. (Patrick has talked about that before.) Davis gives Patrick credit with holding off until police had sufficiently searched the area they’d cordoned off. Davis calls that search a success because it apparently “flushed out” Dzhokhar from wherever he was hiding to a new location … the famous boat in the backyard. If that’s true, it suggests that Dzhokhar wasn’t in the boat all night and day but started out hiding elsewhere and then snuck in later.

4. Davis’s notes of criticism came after Kayyem asked him when he learned that he was dealing not with international terrorists but two guys from Cambridge. Davis says he learned from the FBI’s Richard DesLauriers that “we know these guys” because they’d visited radical areas of Dagestan. While he admitted he has no idea if things would have played out differently had the FBI told Boston or Cambridge police about the Tsarnaevs, he told Kayyem he thinks the FBI ought to be required to give local cops information if they have it.

5. Finally, Kayyem asks Davis about the after-incident report that came out recently, which criticized law enforcement’s lack of weapons discipline when confronting the Tsarnaevs in Watertown. Davis readily admits that there was too much weapons fire at the scene as the brothers threw explosives toward the police. He agrees with Kayyem that officers across the country have been given military equipment but not necessarily the military training needed to handle it. “We don’t train police to deal with bombs being thrown at them.” That’s another angle on the national narrative around police militarization. On the one hand, Davis agrees that the police have dangerous weapons they haven’t been trained to handle. On the other hand, his answer is not to remove the weapons, but to increase training with them.