Boston's former Top Cop: “We must be prepared for the Worst Now”


Most Americans were introduced to Ed Davis for the first time on April 15, 2013 when a shocked country learned that bombs had exploded at the legendary Boston Marathon. But the calm, determined leadership that reassured Americans nationwide during the crisis was already familiar to Bostonians who knew him as their city's big-voiced police chief over the previous seven years.

In voting him criminal justice Person of the Year 2013, readers of The Crime Report took note of the crisis management skills he deployed—in a story that virtually played itself out in real time in social media—as well as his record of achievements as one of America's most effective top cops.

In a candid telephone conversation with The Crime Report's Deputy Managing Editor Graham Kates, Davis revealed that Boston cops had received over 200 reports of suspicious packages in the weeks following the bombing—and warned that U.S. law enforcement executives, post-bombing, must be “prepared for the worst.”

One example: police departments need to have in place a social media strategy in order to handle future mass catastrophes or threats.

He also waded into the fierce debate over policing strategies like stop and frisk, noting that its main purpose was not “crime reduction” but to protect the safety of police officers—in contrast to the arguments advanced for it by New York's outgoing mayor Mike Bloomberg and outgoing NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly. And he called on policymakers to step up efforts to “keep guns out of the hands of people with mental health issues.”

The Crime Report: One of your first posts since retiring from the Boston Police Department is consulting with a non-profit on prisoner re-entry strategies. Why is re-entry so important, in the eyes of a police commissioner, to the overall fight against crime?

Ed Davis: I think it’s a pragmatic solution to the cycle of crime that we’re all so accustomed to in our business. I learned a long time ago that if you give somebody a job, they’re much less likely to commit further crimes after they get out of jail. That’s a hot proposition right now; there are a lot of people who think we should be totally focused on punishment. But after the punishment is over I think you have to think practically about this problem, and you want to try to prevent as much crime as possible. So the re-entry mission is really important in these neighborhoods that we care about.

TCR: Former inmates are often barred from a lot of jobs, so how do you get businesses to adopt the idea that it’s OK to hire someone who has been in prison?

DAVIS: Well you encourage programs to finance it, but you also work with prospective employers so that they understand what the real risk is, and understand the importance to the longer strategy of keeping our neighborhoods crime-free.

TCR: The relationship between police and residents in certain high-crime areas can sometimes seem adversarial. What can police do to improve that?

DAVIS: The most important thing police departments can do to improve the relationship with the community is to get officers out of cars and on foot, talking to people. I think that if there’s one thing that I would encourage, it’s the use of officers on bike or on foot, talking to people in the community. That’s where we increase our positive profile.

TCR: That kind of policing — walking the beat — has kind of been lost in urban areas in the last couple of decades, what do you think is bringing police departments back to that?

DAVIS: I think people are coming back to it because it works. The research around hot-spot policing shows what practical things police can do to improve their relationship with the community, (and) makes it very clear that cops who are focused on prevention — talking to people in the neighborhoods — make a dramatic difference in these relatively small geographic areas that are hotbeds of crime.

TCR: One of the other big stories in criminal justice this year was the “stop-and-frisk” case in New York. Is there an inherent divide between the kind of community policing you’re referring to and “stop-and-frisk” as policy, or can they work together?

DAVIS: I think they can work together if “stop-and-frisk” is utilized the way it was first designed by the courts. “Stop-and-frisk” was never a crime reduction policy; it was always a way to keep police officers safe.

We need to keep our officers safe on the street; they need to have tools that allow them, when they’re rightfully questioning someone, to make sure that they don’t have a weapon.

On the other hand, if you just measure the number of stops as a performance measure, you run the risk of having too many of them done, stepping outside that small area that courts provided to us to keep our officers safe.

TCR: New York City’s incoming police commissioner, Bill Bratton, was one of the earliest adopters of widespread “stop-and-frisk” use, and now he’s given the task of complying with a court order to ensure it doesn't violate Constitutional protections. How do you see that balance working for him?

DAVIS: I think Mayor-elect (Bill) de Blasio has selected the right person for the job. I’ve talked to a lot of NYPD officers who have the utmost respect for Commissioner Bratton. I think he’s one of the few people in the country who could have possibly been able to bridge this issue that’s so divisive. I think Bill understands this community and understands this issue and will do the right thing there, for the community and for the officers on the street.

TCR: Policing is changing in a lot of other ways, especially in terms of technology — from pilotless drones to body-mounted cameras and license plate readers. How are these new technologies becoming part of the M.O. of American policing?

DAVIS: This is a very important time for us. There’s a conversation about privacy that transcends policing, that goes into all government operations. I think that we’re starting to have a conversation about this that we’ve desperately needed over the last couple of decades, so that we can get the American public’s perception of this issue and try to balance people’s desire for policy against the rightful process of an investigation that could save lives.

The debate is sorely needed here and it needs to run all the way down from the (National Security Agency) to what local police officers can and can’t do on the street.

TCR: This debate was really brought to the fore this year by Edward Snowden, but was it a conversation you were having internally in your police department?

DAVIS: Absolutely, we’ve been going back and forth with experts, and having conversations with people from the (American Civil Liberties Union) over issues like retention of license plate data, and other things like that. All of those conversations come down to the issue of privacy. Cameras are ubiquitous, so we’ve all given up a little bit of privacy, like it or not. The question is, “How does government access those files properly?”

TCR: The debate over where to draw the line between civil liberties and security surfaced during the Marathon attack manhunt. Can you tell me a bit about the decision to ask residents to “shelter in place?”

DAVIS: Being part of the debate over whether or not to recommend a “shelter in place” order, I know that this is not something that public officials do lightly. But in the middle of an event where we already lost life and we’re trying to contain the damage as much as possible, we made a decision to make that recommendation.

It’s not like we were sweeping large numbers of people off the street. It was the same type of recommendation we would make if there was a bad snowstorm. That was the context in which we looked at this. There’s been a lot of debate over it since then, but I couldn’t foresee a time when public officials would do something like that for something less serious. It takes very special circumstances.

TCR: The Boston Police Department’s use of social media during the manhunt was unprecedented, in terms of getting official information out really quickly during an active crisis. Is that something your department had planned for, using Twitter during an emergency to get the word out?

DAVIS: There was no specific planning on using social media during a disaster of this magnitude. The important thing was that we had established a presence on social media long before this incident happened, so it was becoming a method for us to have a conversation with people in our community. When the bombing occurred, it became vitally important for us to continue that conversation, so it was only natural for us to use that as a tool.

But it’s not something you can just roll out during a disaster. If you already have a presence and you understand how Facebook and Twitter work, it can be very powerful. So I’m encouraging my colleagues to establish a presence and to think about it in terms of the best possible way to get information to the public.

TCR: Have other departments changed their social media strategies since the Boston Marathon attack?

DAVIS: Yes, the director of my social media office … has been in great demand. She’s been all over the world talking about the importance of social media, so it has resonated. I was encouraged to see the police during the mall attack in Africa using social media as well, so this is not just a phenomenon in the United States.

TCR: You may have read The Boston Globe‘s report about the Tsarnaev family, which came out this weekend. It drew attention to this issue of recognizing mental health issues in those who are arrested, before it gets too far. Are there ways police can improve in recognizing mental health issues?

DAVIS: That’s really important for all components of our society. I think that the schools certainly have a role to play there as well. In Boston, we actually have social workers that are at some of our booking areas, especially dealing with young people. So we’ve had the ability to intervene in cases that are particularly problematic.

But the issue of mental health has to be looked at carefully, and keeping guns out of the hands of people with mental health problems is a huge issue.

TCR: In the last year or so, New England has gone through the Newtown shooting, the Boston Marathon attack, and even this morning there were false bomb and gunmen threats reported at Harvard and UMASS Boston. Is this kind of constant threat of mass violence something police and the public just need to get used to and be prepared for?

DAVIS: I think we have to be prepared for the worst right now. The experts say that once one of these incidents happens, you get a follow-up of similar events and that’s frightening and tragic, but we can’t give up hope. I think we just need to keep leaning on the good things that come out of these tragedies, and stressing that kind of stuff. That’s really the only thing that’s going to stop all this in the long run.

There’s some troubling stuff. Our bomb squad responded to over 200 reports of suspicious packages in the week or two after April 15 (when the Boston Marathon attack occurred). I think that kind of an immediate fear is going to be prevalent.

TCR: Is it difficult to balance the need for typical beat policing, and the need to be ready for these moments of mass violence?

DAVIS: If you have a properly trained and properly educated department, police understand that the day-to-day work they do is more communicating with people and problem-solving; but they also have to be ready — because they have specialized training and specialized equipment — to go into a more military mode in the case of a major public emergency. Those two are not exclusive. You can train people to operate in that manner.

Focusing on either side is dangerous, so you really have to balance the training and supervision of officers to be able to do both of those things.

TCR: You’ve been working in the Boston area for decades — you’ve lined up a fellowship at Harvard and you’re consulting on the re-entry issue with Community Resources for Justice — do you see yourself staying with roles in Massachusetts’ criminal justice system, or would you consider jobs in the national sphere?

DAVIS: I’m open to different challenges. It’s not so much where the challenge is; it’s what the challenge is. I’m very happy with where I’m going now, but we’ll see what the future brings. I kind of like the Bill Bratton process of leaving and coming back, between the public and private sector. I think that might be a model that’s good to follow.

Graham Kates is deputy managing editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers. He can be found on Twitter @GrahamKates.

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