The Alarming Mistakes Police Made After the Boston Bombing

As an unarmed Dzhokhar Tsarnaev lay confined in a backyard boat officers sprayed bullets into neighboring houses.

Remember the scene of Boston area police surrounding the backyard boat where a bloodied Dzhokhar Tsarnaev lay in hiding? The Boston Globe has published an interview with the people who own the boat, the backyard, and the house. And it doesn't inspire confidence in law enforcement's response to terrorism. 

Let's return to the scene. Tamerlan Tsarnaev is dead. Metro Boston is shut down and a whole neighborhood of people confined to their homes to catch one young man. Unbeknownst to police, Dzhokar is hiding inside the perimeter they set up -- they somehow failed to look in the boat during their yard-to-yard search, and finally lifted the order on residents to stay indoors. Enter David Henneberry:

As he and more than a million others in the area waited inside their homes while police scoured Watertown for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Henneberry noticed from his back window that some padding he used to protect the hull of his 24-foot boat had fallen to the ground from beneath the shrink-wrap. It was a windy day, so it didn’t strike him as suspicious. “But it was driving him nuts,” said Beth Henneberry, his wife, who spent the day at home with him. “He wanted to fix it.” So when authorities lifted the lockdown on the evening of April 19, the 66-year-old ambled out his back door and went to repair the buffer. As he did that, he noticed a strap that secured the shrink-wrap to the hull had become loose. “I said, ‘Hmmm. I’m going to check the boat,’” he said.

He grabbed a stepladder and put it beside the boat, which he called Slip Away II. Then he lifted a piece of shrink-wrap that covered a Plexiglas door, allowing him to look inside. He immediately noticed blood splattered on the deck. When he looked near the console, he spotted a body curled in a fetal position, wearing a hoodie and dark shoes. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, he’s in there,’” Henneberry said. He dropped the flap, scrambled down the ladder, and ran into the house. He looked at his wife and said, “He’s in the boat! He’s in our boat!” “He was shaken,” his wife said. “We were both shaken.’’

He immediately called 911.

So police get word that their suspect is curled up bleeding in the back of a boat. They surround the yard. As previously reported, a sort of shootout occurs -- that is to say, police initially talk of "exchanging gunfire" with Dzhokhar, but later it turns out he doesn't have a gun. They shoot many rounds at an unarmed person. Of course, they had good reason to be on edge, and couldn't know that the kid was unarmed, so let's give them the benefit of the doubt for firing their weapons.

Even if we do, consider this:

On that April evening, the only time he became nervous, he said, was when an officer came to their neighbor’s — where the couple had taken refuge — to ask whether he had any gas inside the boat. He told them the tank had about 40 gallons... Some neighbors, whose homes were also taken over by police and strafed by automatic weapons, are also coping with the lingering impact of what happened here six months ago. Olga Ciuc, who lives two doors down on Franklin Street, refuses to sleep in her old bedroom, which overlooks their backyard, and remains too afraid to walk her dog at night. “What happened here was crazy,” she said. Her husband, Dumitru, said he and other neighbors are now more vigilant. “There’s a greater sense of insecurity,” he said, showing the bullet holes in the back of their house, in their fence, and in their grill. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen; you don’t know who’s a friend and who’s an enemy.”

The Boston Globe article reports these details matter-of-factly and without comment. Does anyone else find it disturbing that Boston area police, confronted with an unarmed suspect in a backyard boat, fired so many bullets so wildly that multiple adjacent houses were strafed and neighbors two doors down found bullets in multiple locations? Recall that police had time to surround the yard and the boat, and to position themselves in surrounding yards. Determined to fire on the boat, couldn't they put themselves at an angle where a spray of bullets wouldn't threaten people and property in surrounding homes?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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