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What Happened at 705 Comm Ave

BU police chief explains decisions and procedures during CAS incident

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police_tsai_v.jpg

Police entering the Tsai Performance Center building, 685 Commonwealth Ave., February 4. Photo by Kimberly Cornuelle

On Wednesday, February 4, police from Boston University and the city of Boston converged on the College of Arts and Sciences after a student reported that he had seen a person carrying an ammunition clip and a bullet in a stairwell of the building. While a police search of the building and surrounding area found no evidence of any weapons, the police response itself caused concern among some members of the the University community. The next day, a BU Today story about the incident drew nearly 50 comments from readers, many of them questioning the wisdom of police procedure.

Several wondered why the building hadn’t been evacuated. At least one person thought classes should have been canceled. Several mentioned that the information provided by the BU Alert system was more confusing than explanatory, and some complained that the system’s e-mail warnings took so long to reach people that they were useless. Some readers also defended police actions, including the decision not to evacuate the building, and one reader praised police efforts to keep people calm.

BU Today asked Boston University Police Chief Thomas Robbins to respond to the community’s concerns by explaining what the police did that day, and why they did it.

BU Today: Can you review what took place, and how the police responded?
Robbins: On Wednesday, February 4, a call came in to the BUPD emergency dispatch center at 12:02 p.m. The caller identified himself as a BU student and told the dispatcher that he saw someone in the stairwell at the College of Arts and Sciences, at 705 Comm Ave, holding what looked like an ammunition clip with bullets, in his right hand. The caller described the person as a white male, 22 years of age, with short brown hair, a heavy build, and wearing a three-quarter-length coat with a fur collar. The dispatcher immediately sent four BUPD officers to CAS to meet the caller.

How long did it take the officers to get to CAS?
The four officers arrived on the scene in less than a minute, where they interviewed the witness. Based on the interview with the witness, the senior officer, Sgt. Lawrence Manning, found the witness information credible and ordered a full search of the building to locate the individual. He also ordered all available BUPD officers to respond to the CAS building.

When were the Boston Police called in?
At the same time. The BUPD dispatcher notified Boston Police of the situation and requested assistance via the Boston Area Police Emergency Radio Network. The Boston Police Department sent several uniformed officers to the scene to assist us in accordance with our predetermined protocols. Boston officers provided security for the perimeter of the area and were given a description of the suspect. In addition, the District 14 captain, Frank Mancini, responded to direct the Boston officers.

All BUPD officers and Boston officers on the scene conducted a second full sweep of the building. This sweep was extensive and included adjacent buildings and sidewalks on Comm Ave and on the Storrow Drive side of the street. As we were conducting the sweep, we noticed a film person on the sidewalk recording the events and a small crowd began to gather in front of 685 Comm Ave.

Did any of the officers see or hear anything suspicious?
From the time of the initial call to the time we had officers in place conducting sweeps, we received no further information on the suspect, his location, or any incidents connected to this sighting.

Did you think about evacuating the building?
All options at this point were being considered, including building evacuation and advising students to stay in classrooms and barring the doors. Because only one report had come in, and no further information was forthcoming, it was decided that we did not want to evacuate or have students secrete themselves in classrooms. This decision was based on the desire to avoid the panic and injury that may arise from an evacuation and also because we had a large contingent of officers in the area to observe and protect the students, faculty, and staff. Lastly, a mass evacuation would cause confusion and a large crowd, making it possible that an individual could hide and escape undetected.

Why send out an emergency alert?
We made the decision to send out a campus-wide alert to provide notice that police activity was being conducted in the area.

How long did the incident last?
Both police departments remained in the area, with officers searching the buildings and grounds, until approximately 1:15 p.m., when we concluded our search operations. Boston police were released from their assignments and I assigned BUPD plainclothes and uniformed officers to remain on patrol in the area of 705 Comm Ave throughout the evening.

There was never a suspect located at the scene and no further information relative to a threat was received.

Was the BU Alert system used effectively? Some subscribers said they didn’t receive any information until the incident was over.
The sole purpose of the BU Alert system is to connect with as many students, faculty, and staff members as possible to provide them with timely information during an event that is likely to impact our community. The most efficient and effective way for this to happen is to make sure that an emergency contact number has been provided to us. The more points of contact in the system, the more likely that people will be notified by direct contact or word of mouth during an event. In addition, officers will be on scene in an emergency event within minutes to provide information and instruction.

Our BU Alert system sent notifications to the community via phone, text, and BU e-mail to over 40,000 contacts. These notifications were delivered within 10 minutes. Unfortunately, the external e-mail notification system provided by our vendor was extremely inefficient in delivery, and in some instances, messages were delayed for several hours after the initial message was sent. This external e-mail system has been disabled and will not be used in any future training event or emergency.

Were spectators justified in expecting the police to answer questions about the incident at the scene?
Officers responded to CAS within one minute of the phone call to dispatch. Initially, officers were tasked with locating the witness and interviewing him to get additional information, as well as searching the immediate location and expanding the search as more officers arrived on scene.

In a situation like this, officers on scene will provide basic information to community members affected in order to calm fears and provide reassurance. Should an event escalate, officers would provide specific instructions and information to students, faculty, and staff, to help them stay safe and secure. These types of instructions can include orders to evacuate, to stay away from a building, or to remain in a classroom until given further direction.

Were you satisfied with police response?
In terms of police response to an incident, the BUPD and the BPD executed a very good, timely response in accordance with standard procedures. If you recall, last summer the BUPD and the BPD conducted a joint “active shooter” exercise at the George Sherman Union. The lessons learned from that exercise bore fruit at this event as evidenced by the fact that both departments responded as trained and in a timely manner.

30 Comments

30 Comments on What Happened at 705 Comm Ave

  • Michael Balter on 02.18.2009 at 5:32 am

    police action on campus

    This all sounds pretty reasonable to me!

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2009 at 6:10 am

    Feedback

    You people (BU Today) are a joke, you are completely jaded by your direct connection to BU (and why not, they pay your salary)…Why not do some real journalism and ask hard hitting questions…How about a question like, “Why were the messages to students so vague? Many felt this system was not used appropriately to notify students of exactly what they should be doing to stay safe…

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2009 at 6:36 am

    Not bad overall

    You really can’t complain about a response time of less than a minute. I suppose since only an ammo clip was seen, and only by one person, the decision not to evacuate makes sense. However, if there’s a gun sighting, I really do expect an evacuation order.

    This of course begs the question: Who would walk around carrying a clip of ammunition, but no gun? I can’t help but feel the person who made the emergency call made a mistaken identification (maybe it was a weird cell phone instead of an ammo clip?)

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2009 at 7:23 am

    Praise

    The police officers did a great job that day. I would rather they took all the producures nesscesary to provide for our safety than to be willy nilly causing panic and uproar. They do not have an easy job, they go through training for stuff like this, and their acts are to be comended.

    Bravo officers. You have my support.

    Yours,
    the overworked grad student

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2009 at 7:53 am

    I think the BU police handled this incredibly well. They were rapid. They also effectively communicated necessary information while managing to keep people calm.

    Also, I appreciate the frequent emails we get from BU police about recent crimes and safety tips.

    Thanks, BU police!

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2009 at 8:55 am

    I think the emergency notification was an overreaction. The police’s actions would have been warranted if the witness had seen a gun (of any size). The bullets described are for guns that nobody can hide on their person. Without the presence of a huge assault rifle, how do bullets pose a threat? it was just one of those weird kids who think bullets are cool, and it cost so much time money and stress for the community

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2009 at 9:13 am

    police response

    As a person who works in the building, I have first hand knowledge of how the incident was treated. I commend the efforts of all persons involoved. Both the BUPD and BPD conducted themselves in a very professional manner. Not once did I feel as if I was “in the dark” about what was going on around me. The officers that I spoke with were both reassuring and calming. They described to me that situation accurately without causing undue alarm. I think that all of the people involed should be thanked for keeping us all safe and for not over-escaleting the situation. THANK YOU BUPD!

  • Feedback on 02.18.2009 at 9:17 am

    Where Were They?

    I was in the hallway of the second floor of CAS, in the east wing, from 12:10-1:50, and I never saw a single police officer. They did a sweep? They checked the building? The person they were looking for could have been sitting right next to me for all anyone knows. So much for having, “a large contingent of officers in the area to observe and protect the students, faculty, and staff.”

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2009 at 9:21 am

    A cursory syntactical analysis of the four pro-BUPD comments indicates that they were written by the same author. That no attribution adds further fuel to such suspicions.

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2009 at 9:31 am

    The BU Student Body

    Police response was impressive and their ability to work together and secure the area was well done. The problem I saw was the moment that the BU population was told to avoid the area. This ended up becoming some sort of invitation to visit it. Students at BU do not seem to understand that if the police is requesting something of them it is because they have a legitimate reason to do so. Luckily in this instance nothing else came of it and no one was hurt, but had this individual also been carrying a gun and had ill intentions, he really could have hurt the curious crowd.

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2009 at 9:44 am

    Given the limited information police had, I think they acted responsibly and efficiently. Police need to manage incidents like this being sensitive not to create panic, while doing everything in their power to maintain public safety. If they had evacuated the building, etc., I’m sure the critics would say they overacted. In policing, officers sometimes have only seconds to make decisions while the rest of us have hours to judge those decisions.

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2009 at 9:59 am

    What is the conclusion of the incident?

    So, did the witness make a mistake after all? Otherwise, where did the suspect and the ammunition go? Why were they not found by the sweep?

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2009 at 10:08 am

    The message sent out was vague on purpose. If it had been more descriptive it would’ve cause problems. It’s important to keep things calm and not blow it out of proportion until absolutely necesarry. I would almost say no alert was necesarry at all, it’s just that there were police around BU campus and if no alert was given you’d have tons of dramatic people complaining about how the police are at outside our classroom and “we don’t know why.”

    My point, the situation was handled very well. The complaints are invalid and not well thought through.

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2009 at 10:15 am

    The message I took from all this is that our emergency alert system is useless. I got a text message at 1:45, and the incident had ended by 1:15 – it’s not just the email system that was slow.
    I also would have assumed that a “full sweep” of the building would include searching all the classrooms where students actually were. I guess I’m not familiar enough with police jargon.

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2009 at 10:19 am

    I fail to understand why people complain about having to stay in their classrooms, even after the BUPD has enumerated what the effects of evacuating the building would have been. One, it would have been almost impossible to find the individual in question, and two, if the individual had been serious about this, an evacuation would have presented a target-rich environment for the individual, which would have been catastrophic.

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2009 at 10:34 am

    Why Keep Everyone in the Dark?

    Police should have provided a description of the “person carrying an ammunition clip and a bullet” in the BU alert messages so that many more eyes would have been looking for him. This would have increased the chances that the location of the person would be reported. More generally, people want a danger to be identified and described so that they can avoid it. Keeping the BU population in the dark does not seem to be the proper response.

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2009 at 11:16 am

    message alerts

    Although I commend BUPD on their fast response time, I still worry about the length of time it took for both the text mesages and emails to be sent. I did not get a text message until I was leaving class at CAS at one and happened to be in the area of police activity. In addition I did not receive and email until much later. I hope for future emergencies the alert system is fixed.

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2009 at 11:36 am

    The only thing I think could have been done better is to have had the automated message address the folks who were in the building at the time. If I recall correctly, the message said something along the lines of, “Please stay clear of 705 Comm Ave.” I wish it had also said, “If you are currently in the 705 Comm Ave building, please remain in your classroom or office.” I work in the building, and I was alarmed that people were being told to stay away from the area.

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2009 at 11:36 am

    Dissagree with your description of the ‘weapon.’ The description of the magazine was vague, and no size mentioned for the bullets… any handgun (which could easily be concealed) carries this variety of magazine. In fact a fully automatic glock hand gun would have a magazine of just that description…..
    Furthermore, of course the message sent out was vague, if the suspect was a BU student they would have gotten the message too… pretty silly to send out a text giving detailed descriptions of the situation and what to do if you are sending it to a potential shooter.
    Also, if telling people to avoid a place due to police activity makes them immediately flock there, then these people are not mature or smart enough to be in college in the first place.
    Lastly, at least BU a) bothered to have a response protocol that has been practiced, b) bothered to inform the student body of anything and c) actually considered the consequences of evacuation and didn’t jump to rash solutions based on unconfirmed reports.

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2009 at 11:57 am

    Search

    I have to agree with a number of the people who have posted comments here. I saw police enter the building initially around noon, but during my 12:30-2pm class on the second floor of CAS I didn’t see any officers doing any sort of search.

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2009 at 12:40 pm

    Pretty Good if You Ask Me

    Considering they responded to the scene within less than a minute’s time and sent out a mass of BUPD and BPD to secure the area, I would have to say that they are pretty good with their timing. Sure, the notifications went out a little slow, and they were somewhat vague (for good reason, think if they told that there was a man running around with ammunition clip and bullet!). Besides the slow timing on the alert message, which wasn’t all that bad, I’d say they are doing their job pretty well.

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2009 at 12:41 pm

    Police cannot be everywhere at all times. This experience once again demonstrates the lag times and failures of depending on police for one’s personal safety. It also demonstrates why students and faculty should be allowed to defend themselves while on campus. Why can’t people understand that the bad guys do not obey the rules? Anyone sitting and waiting for the police to come in a real emergency would have been a sitting duck! The laws of nature empower all life on earth to use a means of adequate self defense in such a situation. The draconian university policy infringing on the right of persons on campus to use a firearm in self defense do nothing but create potential victims and violates their constitutional rights. I fail to see why so many people cannot see this simple and obvious truth.

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2009 at 1:05 pm

    The most amusing part...

    …about this whole thing is the kid who made the initial phone call to the police. I mean… seriously… how many people who go to BU could even remotely identify an ammunition clip? How many people here have ever even SEEN one? Let alone touched one or made any direct contact. Even after seeing images of them in movies and pictures it can be hard to tell exactly what it is in person – up close & personal. People’s fear and paranoia seems just too out of control… They found nothing… even after extensive searching! It wasn’t a clip. Someone also already mentioned the fact that carrying an ammo clip randomly with no weapon in sight is typically not the case, and I agree.

    Next time someone makes a serious call like that they should probably think and be a little more confident in what they saw rather then making a wild guess and causing a panic.

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2009 at 2:03 pm

    I too felt the message was too vague. What about the people that had classes? How were they supposed to know what was going on? Personally I’d be afraid of being penalized for not showing up to a class. They should have said if classes were cancelled or not.

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2009 at 2:06 pm

    I agree with “feedback” on wed 2/18/09

    the police didn’t really do any police work. someone saw something, and the police found nothing
    GREAT JOB BU POLICE I FEEL SAFE NOW

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2009 at 8:10 pm

    “The caller described the person as a white male, 22 years of age”
    I’m just wondering how the caller could have known the precise age of the person…I mean, its one thing to say he was in is early twenties, but 22? Why not 21 or 23 or 20? Did he know this ammunition carrying person? I think they should have done a more thorough job questioning this caller.

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2009 at 10:21 pm

    I want to know why we were sent out an emergency alert for this, but when there was a bomb threat at Mugar in May (and they actually did evacuate the building) there was no emergency alert sent out.

  • Anonymous on 02.18.2009 at 11:32 pm

    Not my area of expertise, but...

    Perhaps the reason there was just a clip and and ammo was that a weapon had already been stashed in the building at a previous time, at a less noticeable time of day. I am glad that security took the caller at his word and started a sweep. I just hope they really looked in the building in case it was reinforcement ammo for a weapon already in place. I also think there should be a video made and sent to all students on how not to be a victim, by not lining up as directed, and getting shot-as the Amish school girls and were, and some at Virginia Tech. Get ready to get a little violent. Throw laptops, computers,desks, trash cans. Barricade the door with a large desk(stand off to the side) get a belt, phone cord, electrical cord ready at the sides of entry way to strangle the perpetrator. Prepare to go on the attack, as passengers on a plane would today if they felt threatened. If this is poor advice, let the campus police correct it, but in both circumstances mentioned, being passive in a classroom invasion cost student lives.

  • Anonymous on 02.19.2009 at 1:16 am

    5/5 feedback and response

    great job BU police…I got alerts sent to my phone, by text and voice mail , and on my e-mail… They handled it the way it should have been.

  • Anonymous on 02.19.2009 at 1:22 pm

    if this was a false alarm and it wasn’t a gun clip and bullet he was holding then i would guess that he was

    loading a tape recorder with a AAA battery…

    i hope so and that people aren’t carrying live ammo in campus buildings

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