Privacy SOS

Post-marathon after action report sends troubling messages about so-called “shelter in place” orders

I was on Radio Boston yesterday discussing the Massachusetts after-action report on the law enforcement response to the Boston Marathon bombings and the strange events that occurred later that week.

The report was completed in December 2014 but held until the end of arguments in US v. Tsarnaev in early April 2015, reportedly at the request of the Massachusetts US Attorney's office. Overall, the report shows that the state and local agencies that investigated their own actions that week appear to think they did a very good job handling the bombings and the hunt for the Tsarnaev brothers. Despite the general tone of approval, the report cited serious problems including trigger-happy police officers firing their weapons without taking aim, and sometimes even at other police.

Asking police officers to be more careful about firing their weapons is important. But some of the state's recommendations totally missed the mark, and set forth dangerous precedents for future crises.

Primary among the troubling findings is the state's assertion that "[t]here must be a concentrated effort on the part of political officials, in collaboration with public health entities and hospitals, to develop formal definitions and protocols for shelter-in-place requests." Instead of finding that the so-called "shelter in place" order was an ineffective, costly, and over-reactive mistake that should never be repeated, the state's report says officials should come up with better strategies for communicating quasi-martial law declarations in the future. That's chilling, because it suggests that these orders to stay indoors might become a regular occurrence, and bizarre, because the emergency rule declaration didn't actually advance public safety.

The government should not declare what amounts to martial law over an entire metropolitan area simply because officials are looking for one person, no matter how dangerous he may be. Instead of advising that officials communicate the specifics of "shelter in place" orders better with medial officials and the media, the state should have advised that the lockdown was unnecessary and rights-violative, and recommended that it never happen again. As everyone in the Boston region knows, the lockdown did not produce its stated effect, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was in fact only found after the order to stay indoors was lifted.

In glossing over these facts, the state missed a crucial opportunity to acknowledge that ordering one million people to stay home from work and hole up in their living rooms was a costly overreaction that should never be repeated.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.