Officials stepped up security after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, and at a press conference yesterday, law enforcement said they’ll follow many of the same plans that made 2014’s marathon successful. But they also faced new questions about their preparedness for the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Those questions come after a state report released earlier this month showed many ways law enforcement needed to improve after the 2013 bombings.
The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency originally planned to wait until after this year’s marathon to release the report, but after pressure from WGBH News and other outlets, MEMA released it earlier this month. The document contained a lot of praise for law enforcement’s response to the bombings, but it also found there was a lack of coordination with local authorities, a lack of clearly identified in-field command, and a lack of weapons discipline.
State Homeland Security Undersecretary Kurt Schwartz says those findings weren’t a surprise.
"There is nothing in this report that we have not already worked to address or have been addressing,” he said.
High among the list of concerns in the report was the issue of self-deployment — officers sent themselves to the Watertown scene, in particular, without direction from superiors. Col. Timothy Alben of the Massachusetts State police says officials have worked with Middlesex Community College and the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association to solve that problem with training.
"And we think that we’ve addressed those issues that were certainly raised in the report but certainly well known before that.”
But Newton Police Chief Howard Mintz says there’s more work to do to address all the issues raised in the report.
"I wouldn’t say that all the changes have been accomplished,” Mintz said. "So we’re going to have to talk about how we deploy our troops, how we prevent self-deployment — and that’s a matter of discussion and training.”
That may take time, because the 26-mile Boston Marathon cuts a line through Newton and seven other municipalities, not just one, like many marathons. Wellesley Deputy Police Chief Jack Pilecki says that makes a tough security situation tougher.
"I could go on and on about all the people involved in it," he said. "And trying to get all those people in the same room and to have the same plan, it’s difficult.”
Each municipality works with other agencies on overall security, but for the small stretch of the marathon route in their jurisdiction, local law enforcement’s in charge. For many of those towns the marathon is the biggest event they see all year. And each already has their own issues to deal with.
Last year in Ashland, Lt. Richard Briggs says several hundred college students got rowdy. So this year they’ll have specially trained teams in place to disperse unruly crowds.
"We have also brought in officers and transportation vehicles from the Middlesex sheriff’s office in order to transport and process any detainees,” Briggs said.
That’s why there not only needs to be training for problems like self-deployment, but also a clear understanding between the agencies involved, says Tom Nolan, a long-time Boston Police officer who also worked for federal Homeland Security, and who's now an associate professor of criminology at Merrimack College.
"In future incidents like this, there will be, hopefully, this protocol established that will articulate if they’re not asked to respond, that they not send officers to that particular incident in that location,” Nolan said.
Despite the release of the report, there are few changes to marathon security this year. For the first time, the route is a designated drone-free zone. There’ll be surveillance cameras, security checkpoints, and higher-security areas, like last year, but perhaps in different areas, or perhaps only for certain periods of the event. Also new this year: Uniformed police will be “interactive” — in other words, they might come up to people and ask to look in bags. Similar searches were criticized last year by people like Nolan.
"I don’t think it’s necessarily fair or appropriate or even legal to expect that people are going to surrender their protections that are guaranteed under the constitution in order to attend a public event on a public street,” he said.
Nolan is also skeptical of law enforcement’s motto to the public this year: “See something, say something.”
“What is suspicious to one person obviously is completely innocuous and innocent to another person," he said. "So I don’t know how effective that is. It’s very much a public relations ploy."
Like last year, runners and spectators will be encouraged to put stuff in clear plastic bags. Backpacks, coolers, glass containers, large blankets, face-covering costumes, or props — like sports equipment — are banned. And Schwartz says there’ll be an undisclosed number of plainclothes police.
"Anywhere someone is standing, they can probably assume there’s a plainclothes officer somewhere near them," he said.
Still, Schwartz and other officials say repeatedly that they don’t want security to be oppressive. The marathon will have its traditional welcoming and festive feel, they say.
Just one group isn’t welcome: so-called bandits, or unregistered runners. They were banned for the first time last year. Tom Grilk, executive director of the Boston Athletic Association, says as far as marathon organizers know, there was 100 percent compliance. He says that change hasn’t affected the tradition of America’s oldest marathon.
"I don’t think bandits were part of the culture at all," he said. "The culture of this race is one of athletic excellence."
Grilk says that culture will continue and thrive.