Atlantic Cities
The Big Fix

Are 'Lockdowns' the New Standard?

Are 'Lockdowns' the New Standard?
Reuters

There's no shortage of good reasons why the FBI, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, the governments of Boston, Cambridge, Watertown, and every other law enforcement agency involved in Friday's daylong manhunt didn't telegraph their strategies or decision-making processes to the public. Among the most obvious: At one point the Boston Police Department's Twitter feed put out a specific plea to the media not to broadcast the locations of tactical units, lest alleged marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev be tipped off how best to evade them, or worse yet, to attack.

But now that the immediate threats to public safety posed by these two brothers have subsided, there's a lot more we still need to know about the strategic discussions that contributed to the decision to ask residents to "shelter in place" throughout most of the Boston metro area for 13 hours, as well as the decision to lift it before the suspect was caught. If for no other reason, each and every U.S. mayor and governor is now asking themselves the same question: If and when this happens in my city or state, is the "lock down" approach now the only politically palatable option?

As Emily Badger points out, apart from the streets within the immediate search zone in Watertown and the blocks surrounding the suspects' apartment on Norfolk Street in Cambridge, the "shelter in place" order was not actually enforced as such. Anyone in Newton or Waltham who decided to go out for a walk was not met with tanks or troops ordering them back inside. No one was ticketed for disobeying the order.

Even so, the governor's decision to shut down an entire city will undeniably influence how the next mayor or governor will respond to a major threat. To lock down or not to lock down is now the yardstick against which the public will measure their leaders in a crisis. Boston's unprecedented lockdown went remarkably well. Even though the suspect was only caught after the order was lifted, at a minimum there's a case to be made that it was relatively brief, and that it was effective in its two most important goals: to protect any more members of the public from further violence at the hands of the suspect, and to protect them from any actions the police took to capture him.

Think about just how many law enforcement officials more than 1,000 men and women from federal, state and local agencies — were roaming the streets with weapons drawn. And not a single bystander was caught in the crossfire. Now imagine what might happen the next time a major U.S. city faces anything similar, and leaders there make a different call.

Think too about just how quickly the younger Tsarnaev brother was located after the governor's order was lifted. Did Patrick and the FBI actually have Jane Jacobs' "eyes on the street" concept of public safety in mind when he changed his mind at the end of the day of the Friday? Or was he feeling mounting pressure to allow his constituents to return to their lives?

These are just some of the questions that now need answers as cities and states craft and revise their emergency response plans post-Boston. Whether it was contemplated or not, authorities there may have set a new standard for how major U.S. cities react to crises.

Top image: SWAT teams enter a neighborhood before conducting a house to house search for Dzhokar Tsarnaev, the one remaining suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, in Watertown, Massachusetts April 19, 2013. (Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)

Sommer Mathis is editor of The Atlantic Cities. Previously she spent five years editing and reporting on the D.C. metro area at DCist.com and TBD.com. All posts »

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