What Happened at 705 Comm Ave
BU police chief explains decisions and procedures during CAS incident
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.