Four days before the Super Bowl, Boston Police Department leaders sought yesterday to quell some officers' concerns over a plan requiring on-scene commanders trying to control postgame crowds to receive permission from headquarters before using the most serious weapons.
A draft operational plan for game day Sunday includes nearly two pages detailing "rules of engagement" on using force against crowds. It requires commanding officers in the field to obtain permission from superiors before dispersing crowds; to give crowds a warning and sufficient time to disperse; and to get written authorization from one of two top officials before using tear gas and longer-range weapons such as guns that fire rubber bullets. The top field commander, on his own authority, could use those weapons to protect officers and people from serious attack.
Still, in a meeting yesterday, some field officers expressed worries that their hands might be tied in what could be a fast-changing situation, said a police official briefed on the meeting. The official and two other high-ranking police officers said it is unusual for the rules of engagement to be distributed in writing.
But Police Commissioner Kathleen M. O'Toole said that the rules are not new, that they reflect department policy, and that they were in place for the Democratic National Convention and other events. She said some officers might have been confused because the rules were written down and distributed in advance of the game. The rules were not included in the written operational plans for the game when the Red Sox clinched the pennant or for the World Series.
"Last year's plan was basically a batting order, a list of officers available and their call signs," O'Toole said in an interview yesterday. "We have an extremely comprehensive plan under development at this point. . . . We learn from every single experience every time we police a special event."
Last year, only 43 crowd-control officers worked in Boston after the Patriots victory. Rampaging crowds in Kenmore Square lit bonfires and overturned cars. The chaos spread, and James Grabowski, 21, was hit and killed by an alleged drunk driver near Northeastern University.
O'Toole said she decided yesterday to make one significant change to the 20-page draft operational plan for the Super Bowl, dated Wednesday, a copy of which was obtained by the Globe. She banned any projectile weapons similar to the pepper pellet gun that officers fired into crowds celebrating the Red Sox American League pennant victory in October. Emerson College student Victoria Snelgrove was struck and killed by one of the pellets.
The department drew intense criticism after Snelgrove's death because a commander who ordered officers to fire was not officially trained in using the pepper pellet gun, which is not designed to be fired in dense crowds or aimed above a target's waist.
That particular type of weapon was shelved immediately. O'Toole said her new order also covers a lower-velocity pepper pellet gun and beanbag rounds, although officers had them during the World Series within days of Snelgrove's death. She said it would be better to put away all projectile-type weapons until former US attorney Donald Stern finishes an investigation into Snelgrove's death.
That leaves the 600 to 700 Boston officers who will be on the streets Sunday with only smoke and pepper spray as options before turning to potentially more dangerous weapons, such as tear gas and rubber bullets.
The rules of engagement also apply to several hundred officers from the State Police and other agencies, O'Toole said. That is another reason officials included the rules in the plan, she said. "Everyone needs to be on the same page."
The three high-ranking officers expressed concern over the rules of engagement, specifically this one: "Only the Police Commissioner or designee (Incident Commander) can authorize the deployment of extended range impact weapons and/or [tear] gas. Said authorization must be in writing."
One officer said, "What are you going to do, fax up a written request to escalate?" But the officer added that top department officials tried to allay commanders' fears at the meeting yesterday, saying they would retain discretion in the field. "They're telling field commanders not to feel hamstrung," the officer said. "This all comes from the Snelgrove incident. . . . Everybody's nervous."
O'Toole said in the interview that receiving written permission would not be that complicated. A field commander would get verbal authorization from her or Superintendent James Claiborne, and they would make a written notation of their approval. She said the weapon that killed Snelgrove is not one of the extended-range impact weapons that would require the written permission. She also said the extended-range impact weapons have rarely, if ever, been used by the department.
A fourth officer expressed concern about personal liability, saying of the decision to distribute the rules in writing: "The next thing you know, they're pulling some guy up on charges."
Several big-city police departments do not require tactical commanders in the field to get permission from the police commissioner or deputy commissioner before firing crowd-control weapons, said John Gnagey, of the National Tactical Officers Association.