Riot squads

By CHRIS FARAONE  |  June 28, 2010

When the Patriots won their first-ever Super Bowl in 2002 — the region's first championship of any kind in 16 years — cool heads (frozen, really) prevailed. At the victory parade afterward, only 10 out of an estimated 1.25 million attendees were arrested. Two years later, when the Pats brought home their second trophy, the temperature once again hovered around 20 degrees — but this time tragedy struck. As parties spilled into the street, a man motoring a Toyota LandCruiser down Symphony Road hit and killed 21-year-old James Grabowski, injuring four others. Suddenly, a foul trend set in.

Eight months after the 2004 Super Bowl, when the Red Sox came from three games down to beat the Yankees in that year's American League Championship, fans — including many from nearby Boston University, Northeastern University, and Emerson College — converged on Lansdowne Street. In the midst of the post-game pandemonium, police fired a supposedly non-lethal projectile that struck Emerson junior Victoria Snelgrove in the eye, killing her. Though Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley did not find that officers acted with criminal intent, Boston settled with the Snelgrove family for $5 million. It was followed in 2008 by a Celtics championship — and the death of David Woodman, who was tackled after (cops allege) he splashed beer at officers on Brookline Avenue.

So given those recent events, is Boston developing a script for fan violence? Are we the next ground zero for lethal fandemonium? Former US attorney Donald K. Stern, who headed commissions that investigated the Snelgrove and Woodman incidents, says no. "Neither of those situations were really riots," he says. "The Woodman situation happened in a relatively quiet part of the city. With Snelgrove, the police were caught a little bit flat-footed because they didn't understand that there would be so many people down by Fenway Park when it was an away game." It may seem like a callous distinction to make, but in both incidents, the loss of life was a result of police inexperience — as opposed to marauding fan craziness. "Both [the Celtics 2008 win and the 2004 Red Sox pennant race] ended in terrible tragedies," adds Stern, "but Boston PD has gotten much better in terms of training and preparation."

With those humiliations in mind, at an outdoor press conference before last week's NBA Finals Game 6, BPD Superintendent William Evans offered an insurance speech. Rhetorically, such blanket assurances as "our guys are well-trained" did not evidence that much had changed since 2008, when, the day before Woodman's arrest, BPD Spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll told the Boston Herald, "We'll have enough officers on to address any security concerns."

There are some indications, however, that police have upgraded their toolbox. They won't release the exact numbers, but there's an accounting in the department's annual budget for championship security details. And the Phoenix is told that Commissioner Ed Davis consulted with seasoned riot-prevention forces in a place that knows from experience: Northern Ireland.

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