Let me start this post by saying that I’m not anti-cop. I’m not afraid of cops with M4s and armored vehicles (although I wish more private citizens had them too!). I’m actually quite glad that the cops had a massive amount of firepower this week to deal with the Boston marathon bombers.
However, there were things that happened in Boston that are quite disturbing, and we need to have a national conversation about the proper, Constitutional response to a crisis of public safety.
First up, the lockdown itself.
Is it reasonable to shut down an entire major metropolitan area to search for one person?
Surely not. What happened in Boston on Friday is unprecedented as far as I can tell from my research. There have been “stay inside” orders to search for at-large fugitives in the past, but none so large as what we saw this week.
What happens in the future if more than one city is hit by an attack at the same time? Are we going to shut down the whole country? I would suggest terrorist groups would probably very much enjoy the idea that they can effectively shut down an entire city with just a single person.
The economic toll of the lockdown is another aspect that needs to be considered. The Fiscal Times estimates that the lockdown of Boston likely cost the city $1 billion dollars in lost economic activity. This figure is nothing to sneeze at, especially when terrorist groups might begin leveraging their efforts to cause as much economic impact as possible.
Now, technically the lockdown was not “martial law” as some people are calling it. The governor issued what’s called a “shelter-in-place” directive.
“The lockdown is really voluntary, to be honest with you,” says Scott Silliman, emeritus director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke Law School. “The governor said he wants to use sheltering in place. Sheltering in place is a practice normally used if you’re dealing with a pandemic, where you’re telling people, ‘You may have been exposed and we want you to stay exactly where you are so we can isolate everything and we’ll come to you.’”
The “shelter in place” request is legally different from a state of emergency, which Patrick declared earlier this year as winter storm Nemo descended on the Bay State. Patrick imposed a travel ban, threatening a penalty of up to a year in prison and a large fine if people were found on the roads. Massachusetts suffered very few fatalities during the storm.
When it came to keeping the public off the streets on Friday, an order, it seems, wasn’t needed. “When the governor suggested in light of last night’s events that we have an armed subject on the loose who is very dangerous, who has committed murder, I believe the citizens of the commonwealth, in the hopes of helping law enforcement, voluntarily stayed off the streets,” Massachusetts State Trooper Todd Nolan told TIME. “This is a request that the public stay inside and they are adhering to it. There has been no law mentioned or any idea that if you went outside you’d be arrested.”
There are quite a few reports to confirm the “voluntary” nature of the shelter in place directive. In fact, many business in Boston were open on Friday. Here’s a bit from one eyewitness account:
The perception that Bostonians are inside trembling in fear is all wrong. Many of us are inside because there is nowhere to go. This is Boston. Not in a million years would one suspect on the loose keep this entire city inside.
So far I count the S&S in Inman Square as open, another coffee shop, and of course the Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square, whose manager told me was doing a brisk, ordinary business all day. People are out with their kids and enjoying the day off. Of course the talk is all of the crime and the latest updates. But it is a lie to say we are all holed up inside.
Now, the voluntary/mandatory nature of the lockdown definitely seemed to depend on how close a person lived to the area of Watertown where all the action took place. The closer you were to the 20-street area of Watertown the police had blocked off, the more restrictive the order was.
Now, let’s talk about the house by house search.
Here’s video of a young guy who lived close enough to hear the firefight on Thursday night. His house was searched at gunpoint (apparently twice), and afterwards he seems pretty freaked out by the whole ordeal.
The gentleman here (if you can call him that) notes that both times his house was searched the law enforcement officers “asked” permission to do so, but he didn’t feel like he had much of a choice as the police team had guns pointed at his face. On the one hand, he expresses relief that the terrorist was caught and that he’s still alive, but he seems to struggle with questions about whether the police action was appropriate. I think his concerns are quite valid.
Now, watch this video of a family’s house being searched. It appears to be anything but voluntary. There are women and what appears to be at least one adolescent child in the house. They are ordered out at gun point, one at a time. They are ordered to keep their hands one their heads, and run down the street to be frisked. The video is pretty chilling:
Now, without talking to this family directly or the commanding officer involved, it’s difficult to know what prompted this kind of coercion. However, simply observing the video itself, I would suggest that this is a clear violation of the 4th Amendment. I have seen no reports that this family had any connection to the terrorist, yet they were treated like criminals. Scenes like these are extremely troubling, and they weren’t isolated to this one family.
Look at this photo from the Boston Herald:
Laurel Street resident Peter Reed moves away from his home as SWAT teams evacuated residents.
Is it really an “evacuation” if you’re ordered out of your house at gunpoint?
Here’s another photo of a citizen being “evacuated” at gun point, her hands up under police order:
Now look at this photo:
The officer in the armored vehicle is pointing his rifle directly at the photographer. This is unacceptable behavior. It is pure intimidation by the officer, and actions like this have no place on the streets of a residential neighborhood. Americans have the right to photograph and record officers of the law.
What about this fellow?
Was he a suspect? No. Since when do we have to allow the police to search through our bags just to travel down our own neighborhood streets? He seems to be cooperating, and that’s fine. But what makes it okay to search through innocent people’s belongings without a warrant? Is everybody with a backpack or handbag now a criminal suspect?
Did the neighborhood home searches all end up being pointless?
Yes indeed. In the end, the suspect was apprehended because a neighbor voluntarily called the police and reported suspicious activity in his back yard.
Obviously, it’s a good thing that the heavy police presence kept the suspect contained to a small area. But was all the intimidation of innocent people really reasonable and necessary? Almost certainly not. Were there some Constitutional rights that got trampled? Almost certainly.
We need to be careful…
Let me reiterate what I said at the top. I am not anti-police. I have no problem with a police show of force, a manhunt for a suspect, or a “shelter-in-place” directive when a fugitive is on the loose. The police in Boston were searching for some dangerous criminals who killed innocent people, killed a rookie police officer, hurled at least 3 bombs at police during the chase, and engaged the police in a massive gunfight. Obviously, extraordinary precautionary measures are reasonable and necessary.
However, when there is a manhunt for 1 person, it’s also important to remember that over 99% of the other people in the area are innocent. These innocent people shouldn’t be herded like cattle out out of their homes at gunpoint. They shouldn’t be treated as suspects. The number one priority of police officers should be to protect citizens, not protect themselves from citizens.
What can we learn from what happened in Boston?
- Whenever there is a crisis, there is always the risk that innocent people’s rights will be violated.
- State and municipal governments need to be better prepared to handle crisis in an effective, Constitutional manner. The 4th Amendment still applies, even during a crisis situation.
- The American people need to be proactive in petitioning their representatives to push for better legal guidelines during times of crisis. These guidelines should be in place to protect the rights of innocent people.
- Without proper legal guidelines for law enforcement, we run the risk of having an entire country full of TSA checkpoints. This is unacceptable. We need to have this discussion on the front end of a crisis so that the government doesn’t make up the rules as they go during a crisis.
- Police officers need to have better training about the Constitutional limitations of what actions they can take. Treating innocent people like criminals is unacceptable. Just because a person lives in the vicinity of a crime does not give law enforcement the authority to strip ignore that person’s rights.
- Lockdowns are incredibly costly. As mentioned before, Boston likely flushed $1 billion down the toilet on Friday. This doesn’t just mean that the municipal government lost $1 billion. It means that the business owners and workers in Boston lost $1 billion. They lost this money because of a government action, not because of a terrorist action.
- A heavily armed citizenry would have made Boston a safer place. Boston isn’t exactly a gun-friendly environment. The terrorists certainly had guns, but most of Boston’s citizens were helpless, locked in their own homes with little means of defense. Once again, the only people who were inhibited by Boston’s gun control laws were the innocent citizens.
I join the citizens of Boston and Watertown in celebrating the heroic actions of the lawn enforcement officers this week. Their job wasn’t easy, and in the end, one suspect is dead and the other is under arrest. The terrorists were not able to use their additional bombs to harm more innocent people, and this outcome is rightfully celebrated.
At the same time, I know we can do better. America, it’s time to have a national conversation about how we respond to danger and crisis. Think about how abusive and unconstitutional the TSA is at the airport, yet the entire organization is sloppy, corrupt, and ineffective. We cannot allow a police state to become the norm in our society. We must plan now to prevent such an outcome.