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Boston firepower lacking, FBI says

Calls city vulnerable to a terrorist attack; Urges arming police with assault rifles

By Jonathan Saltzman and Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / August 19, 2009

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Boston is making itself vulnerable to a terrorist attack like the rampage in Mumbai last year by not adequately arming its police with the semiautomatic assault rifles widely available to officers in many of the nation’s other major cities, the top FBI agent in Boston said yesterday.

Not only could the police force not easily defend against an attack by well-armed terrorists, but the absence of weapons could actually make the city a target, said Warren T. Bamford, the special agent in charge of the local FBI field office.

He said a recently shelved plan to arm as many as 200 neighborhood officers with the weapons “should be revisited sooner rather than later.’’

“There’s no imminent threat,’’ Bamford told the Globe.

But, “all things being equal, if a terrorist decides, ‘OK, we’re going to do something like what took place in Mumbai,’ well, where would you go?’’ Bamford said. “If you have a choice of a metropolitan city, would I go to New York, with 40,000 police officers, would I go to Los Angeles, with 8,000, or would I go to Boston, with 3,500? . . . And I know there’s no assault rifles in the Boston Police Department?’’

Bamford said he had discussed the issue of assault rifles with Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis, whose original plan met resistance from Mayor Thomas M. Menino and community leaders. But Bamford said he had not been pressured to publicly defend the program.

The Globe first reported in May on the initiative to arm 200 officers with M16 rifles provided free by the US military, based on accounts from law enforcement officials who had been briefed about it and spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not have permission to discuss it publicly.

Davis said yesterday that his original plan was considerably less ambitious than was reported and only entailed arming 12 to 24 specially trained officers at any one time.

He has since scaled back even that plan, he said, and about two weeks ago deployed a limited number of “gun cars,’’ specially equipped sport utility vehicles supplied with high-power assault rifles, to patrol the city 24 hours a day. He declined to say how many such vehicles were deployed, but said that previously such cars were on the streets only 16 hours a day.

“The mayor has made it clear, and I agree, that this is not a weapon that an average patrol officer should have in his car or slung over his shoulder,’’ Davis said.

Menino could not be reached for comment. His spokeswoman, Dot Joyce, said Menino feels that the weapons should be made available to only a limited number of officers within specialized units, not patrol officers.

Community leaders seemed even cooler to the idea yesterday despite Bamford’s warning, saying such weapons could unnecessarily frighten residents.

“I haven’t heard a good argument yet why we need them,’’ said the Rev. William E. Dickerson II, pastor of Greater Love Tabernacle in Dorchester. “If I saw an officer with that gun, I would think, ‘Man, there must be something going down that we don’t know about for them to be taking it to that level.’ ’’

The plan initially reported called for equipping specialized units, such as the bomb squad and harbor patrol, with high-powered, long-range M16 rifles first and then distributing them to patrol officers in neighborhood precincts over the next several months.

But community leaders decried the idea, and Menino, who said he was not briefed on the proposal until shortly before it was reported, announced his opposition.

Bamford said he understood the concerns of critics and brought up the matter during a wide-ranging discussion at the Globe because he considered it so important.

“I think this is more of a political decision than it is a law enforcement decision,’’ he said.

He said the attacks in Mumbai last November and a terrorist plot to attack well-known landmarks in New York City, which was foiled in 1993, had underscored the necessity for police departments to have overwhelming firepower.

In the Mumbai attack, 10 people armed with automatic rifles and grenades attacked a Jewish center, two five-star hotels, a railway station, and a hospital, killing 166 people, wounding 234 others, and paralyzing the city for three days.

Bamford said the tiny group of terrorists was able to wreak havoc because Indian authorities had little firepower.

“These 10 terrorists are walking around with Chinese-made assault rifles, and the Indian Army’s that’s responding several hours later is coming in with World War II vintage, bolt-action rifles,’’ he said.

Bamford said he had no intelligence that terrorists are plotting an attack in Boston and emphasized that he was speaking from a position of pure “preparedness.’’

But he said the city has attributes similar to Mumbai that might make it an attractive target, including the fact that it is a financial center and tourism mecca located on a busy port.

“We give our police officers training, and we tell them how to do their job,’’ Bamford said. “For them not to have access to these assault rifles when they need them - I don’t see how we could justify that in the event that something like a Mumbai ever happens.’’

Bamford also said that such weapons would bolster the firepower of police officers who occasionally encounter street criminals with assault rifles.

Still, Darnell Williams, president and chief executive of the Urban League of Massachusetts, said any move to put more assault rifles in the hands of police officers would have to win community support.

Police, he said, would have to reassure residents that officers would be carefully trained to use the weapons to prevent tragedies like the 2004 death of Victoria Snelgrove, the Emerson College student who was killed when an officer fired a pepper-pellet gun during a pennant celebration outside Fenway Park.

“I don’t want to use Miss Snelgrove’s death as an argument, but it does lend credence that when you don’t have properly trained officers using far more severely deadly weaponry,’’ there could be tragic consequences, Williams said.

In Milwaukee, Police Chief Edward A. Flynn said yesterday that he launched an assault rifle plan to combat highly organized criminals and to defend against Mumbai-like attacks.

“When I say that we need to be prepared for anything, sadly in this day and age that means for anything,’’ said Flynn, a former Massachusetts public safety secretary. “In recent years, with things like Columbine, Virginia Tech, not to mention Mumbai, we have seen highly motivated, armed criminals able to inflict heavy damage before police can respond.’’

In other remarks to the Globe yesterday, Bamford said the FBI was still working intently to find the notorious fugitive James “Whitey’’ Bulger, a South Boston gangster who fled just before his January 1995 federal racketeering indictment. Bulger had benefited from a corrupt alliance with the disgraced former FBI agent John J. Connolly, who is now in prison.

“I always laugh when people say to me: ‘The FBI doesn’t want to capture him. They’re afraid of what he might say,’ ’’ said Bamford. “I mean, what else is he going to say, there’s another FBI agent that was on the take?’’