Lead Boston Marathon bombings investigator talks urban security

William Evans explains how training, public-private partnerships, helped mitigate damage, ID suspects
 - 
Wednesday, August 7, 2013

BOSTON—When the two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon finish line in April, there was chaos. Hundreds were seriously injured. Participants and spectators were panicked, not knowing where to turn for safety. Were there more explosive devices set to go off in a few seconds?

Within 22 minutes, chaos was quelled, and the area was secured.

How?

“Through planning and training,” said Boston Police Department Superintendent William Evans.

Three people died at the Boylston Street scene and 264 more were injured. And while the deaths were horrible, Evans said, he takes solace in the fact that none of the hundreds of injured taken to area hospitals, many with traumatic injuries, died. “Our officers were putting out people on fire, they were putting tourniquets on people’s legs. The teamwork by everyone was amazing. That’s why we didn’t have more deaths,” he said.

Evans spoke at the recent 2013 National Sports Security and Safety Conference & Exhibition held in Orlando, Fla. A 32-year BPD veteran who heads the department’s Bureau of Field Services, Evans led the response to the bombings.

What’s more, Evans, 54, had just completed the marathon that Patriot’s Day Monday—his 18th—with a time of 3:34. After reuniting with his wife and son at the finish line, he drove them home, and then headed to the Boston Athletic Club to connect with other marathoners from the BPD, a tradition. He was in a hot tub, he said, when he got the news about the bombings, which occurred about 2:45 p.m.

He rushed back to the finish line. And while it was a tragic sight, he was proud of the response.

“A lot of what we had already done paid off that day,” he said.

“We conduct a lot of of tabletop exercises every year leading up to the marathon, especially since 9/11,” he said.

Over the past two years, the department also has conducted large-scale Urban Shield exercises, funded by the Department of Homeland Security. “We simulate [scenarios like] a Mumbai attack and other scenarios. Partners from all over the community participate.

“All these agencies come together and conduct scenarios of ‘what if?’ What if there’s a water main leak, how will we divert the traffic? What if there’s an explosion? All our partners [the fire department, hospitals, EMTs, the Boston Athletic Association, which sponsors the marathon, and others] participate and we get familiar with each others’ capabilities, familiar with what each party can bring to the table,” he said.

Still, the training didn’t anticipate an attack four hours and 10 minutes into the race. In trying to think like a terrorist, he said, “we were thinking, ‘where can I make the most impact?’ We were geared up for [an attack] at the 2:05 finish, when most of the elite runners finish, but not at 4:10.”

He has looked at video of the bombing “quite a bit,” he said. “When everyone else was running away, the responders were running toward it, even without knowing if there was another device,” he said. “We trained for days for this, and it showed the benefit of being prepared. It shows the benefits of that training, because a day like this can happen to anyone.”

As most know by now, the private sector’s video surveillance footage was vital in identifying the two bombing suspects.  That’s another relationship that paid off, Evans said. “We work very closely with commercial businesses on Boylston Street, and the video from them was tremendous. It was a very orderly process.”

Many businesses in that area are part of the Back Bay Neighborhood Association and the Back Bay Security Network. BPD representatives meet monthly with the BBSN. “We know all the cameras in that area,” Evans said.

In fact, in another high-profile case, private surveillance cameras helped BPD catch the so-called “Craig’s List Killer” in 2009, Evans said. Private-public partnerships are important.

Boston has a number of municipally owned surveillance cameras throughout the city, mostly in “violent hotspots” and at busy intersections, he said. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority cameras were used in the bombing investigation as well, and those cameras are in the process of being integrated with the city’s cameras, Evans said.

Four days after the bombings, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the first suspect, was killed in a police shootout, an MIT security officer had been killed, allegedly by the suspects, and an MBTA security officer was seriously injured with a gunshot wound.

Evans, having been up for hours on end, was the incident commander in Watertown, where a resident reported seeing someone hiding in a boat in his yard. That someone turned out to be Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the second suspect. Evans and two other officers, the first on the scene, alerted the FBI and other authorities. A helicopter armed with FLIR Systems infrared cameras showed there was a person hiding in the boat, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was eventually taken into custody.

(Nova did an episode on the Boston Marathon Manhunt, going into great detail about the technology used.)

Things might have turned out differently without the proper training in place, Evans emphasized. “When it actually happened, to see it work was great,” he said. “Do your training, do tabletops, simulate worst-case scenarios with all of your partners. You can’t do enough role-playing.”

And, he added,  “Get as much video out there as you possibly can.”