Massachusetts, Boston and Cambridge police play pass-the-buck with potential terrorists

By | August 7, 2006

I just mailed off this letter:

August 7, 2006

Governor Mitt Romney
Office of the Governor, Room 360
State House
Boston, MA 02133

Secretary Robert Haas
Executive Office of Public Safety
One Ashburton Place, Suite 2133
Boston, MA 02108

Superintendent Mark F. Delaney
Massachusetts State Police
470 Worcester Road
Framingham, MA 01702

Acting Commissioner Albert Goslin
Boston Police Department
One Schroeder Plaza
Boston, MA 02120-2014

Police Commissioner Ronnie Watson
5 Western Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139

Dear Sirs,

If the experience I had yesterday is any indication, then we might as well invite the terrorists to attack us, because our local and state law enforcement agencies don’t seem to have a clue about how, working either alone or together, to respond quickly to potential threats.

My family had a picnic dinner last night on the Charles River Reservation in Brighton, a few hundred feet to the west of Charles River Canoe and Kayak. At around 6:30pm, several men in the woods on the other side of the river began repeatedly shouting some very worrisome things, including “Jihad!”, “9/11 Power!”, and “God is great!” While shouting these things, one or more of them repeatedly moved into a small clearing along the bank and then back out of sight in the trees, as if adjusting something I couldn’t make out in the clearing.

The behavior of these men was sufficiently alarming to my wife and me that I called 911 on my cellular telephone at around 6:40pm to report it and ask that someone be sent to investigate.

I reached a State Police dispatcher, to whom I briefly described the situation. He asked where I was, and based on my answer he transferred me to the Boston Police. Note that although I was in Brighton, the people about whom I was calling were in Cambridge, on the other side of the river. I did tell the dispatcher this before he transferred me to the Boston Police.

I explained the situation again to the Boston Police dispatcher, and she transferred me to the Cambridge Police.

I explained the situation a third time to the Cambridge Police dispatcher. She informed me that there was nothing she could do about it since the people in question were simply exercising their First Amendment rights. In response, I explained to her that while I had a great deal of respect for the First Amendment, I was calling because their manner seemed dangerous and threatening and didn’t she think it might be a good idea for a cruiser to swing by and check it out? She put me on hold, then came back and informed me that the riverbank was the juridsiction of the State Police and she was going to transfer me to them.

She attempted to transfer me back to the State Police but was unable to do so. She informed me of this and asked for my name and telephone number, which she said she would pass on to the State Police along with the other information I’d given her. I have no idea if she actually did so.

Independent of whether the people we were worried about were terrorists, and indeed it seems rather more likely that they weren’t, what they were doing was certainly disturbing the peace and perhaps even verbal assault (since it may have been directed at specific individuals). The Cambridge dispatcher’s assertion that it was protected free speech was simply absurd; it was a crime, and someone should have done something about it. The pass-the-buck game the dispatchers played was equally absurd.

In an ideal world, the treatment received by a private citizen calling 911 would inspire confidence in the ability of the police to protect people from crime and terrorism. In reality, it seems designed to inspire confidence only in the criminals and terrorists.


Jonathan I. Kamens

cc: The Boston Herald
     The Boston Globe
     The Cambridge Chronicle
     The Allston-Brighton Tab

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21 thoughts on “Massachusetts, Boston and Cambridge police play pass-the-buck with potential terrorists

  1. Anthony M. Davis

    I certainly can see your concerns. I think it is unfortunate that many law enforcement agencies are busy just trying to keep up. I remember years ago as a Federal Investigator I typically had 50+ cases at any one time. How do you prioritize? Generally you place your investigative efforts on the big cases and trying to quickly take care of the low-hanging fruit – those cases that can be quickly dealt with. That still leaves many issues in the middle often fails to get the best attention. I’m not saying that’s the best thing, it’s just the environment.

    Also training is a big issue. Rather than write a big narrative on that, I’ve copied my latest press release below regarding a four-year survey I’ve done on preparedness and training.

    First Responder Survey shows Inadequacies in Training and Readiness.

    The Homeland Security Group conducted a four-year survey addressing training, readiness and a variety of challenges faced by First Responders. Respondents of the survey included law enforcement, security, intelligence, emergency management personnel and other members engaged in homeland security and first response duties. The results of this survey show that after the attacks in September 2001, inadequacies remain regarding first responder preparation.

    PRLog (Press Release) – April 30, 2008 – The survey focused on three main areas of concentration: Training, Hindrances and whether first responders feel they are adequately protected from a secondary attack. The questions posed during the survey address levels of readiness contrasting criminal vs. terror investigations.


    Respondents were asked if they believe their agency has received proper training to determine differences between a criminal vs. terror incident. Of those responding to the survey, 58 percent stated they lack sufficient training. Many respondents indicated they lack sufficient training in WMD-related preparedness. Others described information sharing issues. While this initially appears to fit within the category of hindrances, many indicated that they lack proper training regarding who to share with, how to initiate and maintain communication and what issues specifically require external coordination.


    Respondents were asked three questions regarding whether the media, public or their own self-expectations hindered a criminal vs. a terror investigation. Responses indicate that 91 percent consider that the media poses a hindrance; 87 percent believe public expectations hinder an investigation, and 94 percent blame their own personal expectations as an encumbrance.

    Preparation for Secondary Attack

    Respondents were asked if they believe they are adequately protected from secondary attacks
    during a possible criminal or terrorist incident. The survey shows that 91 percent of those responding feel they are not protected. Numerous comments by respondents indicated they actually expect a secondary attack during a terrorist incident but they lack training, resources and personnel for such an event.

    Homeland Security Group founder, Anthony M. Davis began this survey four years ago intending to measure the readiness level of first responders. “I hoped to find some successes throughout the survey that could be translated to agencies nationwide”, he said. “Yet, throughout the measurement period, the numbers remained constant. While we’ve been very busy as a nation, we may not have been overly successful in preparing and protecting our personnel. There’s plenty of work to be done still.”

    Mr. Anthony M. Davis began publishing the Homeland Security Report as a free service to law enforcement, intelligence, security and emergency management personnel in October 2001. Each report is an open source view of homeland security issues and provides select officer safety information. Based on the ongoing results of the survey and discussions with first responders worldwide, Anthony M. Davis began authoring “Terrorism and the Maritime Transportation System.” According to Mr. Davis, “This book is not so much about terrorism. It is intended as a guide to provide first responders a view of the perspective need for readiness in the face of a potential attack.”

    The expected availability of the new text, “Terrorism and the Maritime Transportation System” is in May 2008. More information on the Homeland Security Group is available at

    Contact Information


  2. jik Post author

    Dude, we got your point. Now please stop using my blog as a platform for lecturing the world about how underappreciated dispatchers are. Thanks!

  3. EJ

    jik – no comment?

    Well I have one. Here is a list of every subject that a dispatcher has in the academy and has to pass a test for:






  4. EJ

    You are correct. The BPD has a Sgt on duty in the dispatch center. What they didn’t tell you that it is usually someone that is on administrative duty – that is someone that has had their gun taken away while they are under some kind of investigation by the Internal Affairs Dept. And prior to civilians almost every PD dispatcher was there for the same reason. They hated being in there and tried everything they could think of to get out. Is that what you want when you call 911?

    Your are right again, some other PD’s also have PO’s in charge. The way a cop is trained he is out there in his cruiser doing his thing and that is what his responsibility is. The dispatcher on the other hand is responsible for EVERY cop or firefighter out there and has to spread his priorities around as best he can and no cop in a dispatch center seems to be able to grasp that.

    You haven’t been there. I have.

    Maybe that is why the BIG departments like LA, NYC, Miami and Chicago and almost every State Police Dept in the US just to name a few use only trained and experienced civilian dispatchers.

    And no, the police officers do not go through the same training as dispatchers. In fact in some departments dispatchers teach officers in certain areas just to give them a little overview of the operation.

    Again I was there and did that.
    You made a phone call…

    Also I forgot to mention in a posting about the lack of respect shown to dispatchers by some callers that haven’t a clue what these people go through. People that are on duty while you are asleep, that are on duty when you are enjoying a holiday, people that are on duty, and had to get to work, in a major blizzard, people that have their plans ruined because they can’t go home at the end of their shift because of short staffing or a major emergency.

  5. jik Post author

    You can talk all you want about the theoreticals and about whether civilian dispatchers should be supervised by policy officers. The reality, however, is that I was informed explicitly by people working for the Boston Police Department that there is always a police officer on duty supervising the civilian dispatchers and that if I’m not happy with the way a dispatcher is handling my call I should ask to speak with the supervisor. I got the impression that the BPD is hardly the only police department in the country to do things this way.

    Perhaps the police officers supervising the dispatchers have gone through the same training that the dispatchers have, in addition to their police training.

  6. EJ

    Let me add this. The State runs a dispatch academy that lasts for 8 weeks. Any public safety agency in the state can send their dispatchers there if they are willing to pay for it.
    I had been working for 19 years as a Fire Dept dispatcher when we were combined as a Fire/Police/911 unit. Along with the veteran dispatchers and the new hires we all went to this academy.
    We spent 8 hours a day for 8 weeks learning police dispatching, CPR/First Responder Training, 911 answering policies, intensive 911 and medical emergency dispatching, fire dispatching (although I could have taught that course), and, a solid week of criminal law taught by a Boston Police Academy Sgt., along with other courses and had role playing and took exams that had to be passed to be certified in the various areas. Although retired now I still have the diploma and all the certificates. Trained dispatchers do know a few things about the law as related to 911 calls.
    If police officers, without this specialized training, can supervise dispatchers then why bother training the dispatchers? And I know they can’t do it. I worked with them.

  7. EJ

    The Cambridge dispatcher was wrong – period.
    However, as a retired police and fire dispatcher with a file of commendations I have to get into this discussion.

    1) Dispatchers do not sit in “comfy chairs at HQ”. I spent many a day and/or night sitting in an uncomfortable secretaries chair that was on its’ last legs for as much as 16 hours at a time. Dispatchers are glued to their chairs. You don’t just get up and walk to a filing cabinet or water cooler. Calls come in on 911 from people whose houses are on fire and they are trapped, they are being beaten by their spouses, someone is breaking into their house, a person is having a heart attack or their baby is turning blue and the dispatcher has to deal with these things. Maybe and Officer is calling for help or a firefighter is trapped. Maybe there are nine things happening at the same time and the dispatcher has to prioritize. Maybe the dispatcher is human and makes a mistake.
    Try sometime to give CPR instructions to someone one the phone that is screaming. Try to keep a person calm that is trapped in a fire waiting to be rescued. Try going home knowing that you were the last person that someone talked to before they died and there was nothing that you could do about it.
    I could go on and on. What about they fact that dispatchers work 24/7. Including Christmas, Thanksgiving, their kids graduation, their friends weddings and so forth.

    2) As for the State Police dispatchers you must have been calling on a cell phone. All calls from cell phones are routed to the State Police. These dispatchers must make instantaneous decisions as to where to transfer your call. How well do you know every street, park, alley, mall and so forth in the entire state???

    3) As for the Cambridge dispatcher – there was no excuse.
    But I will add this. Not all calls are emergencies or even legitimate. Wackos delight in calling the police just to cause trouble. Other ignorant individuals call for non public safety reasons. Is it going to snow tonight? What is the fastest way to get to the airport? Does Joe Something still work for the School Dept?

    4) Now about a police officer in charge of dispatch. Why? That is like putting a nurse in charge of a doctor. These are two completely different jobs. If you haven’t been there and done it how can you supervise? Dispatchers should be supervised by qualified experienced dispatchers that have earned the position.

  8. jik Post author

    It’s normal for 911 dispatchers to be civilians rather than police officers. Usually, there is a police officer supervising the dispatchers; I find it hard to believe that this isn’t the case in Cambridge.

    As my comments above indicate, I got a rather satisfactory response to my complaint from the State Police, and I got absolutely no response whatsoever from either Boston or Cambridge, so on the basis of this experience, I’d have to disagree with your assessment of the State Police.

  9. mr. B

    Just some information on the Cambridge Police Dispatch. NONE of the dispatchers are Police Officers. Actually, they are not Cambridge Police Department Dispatchers. The City of Cambridge has their own 911 department. No one there works for the Police Department. That is the main problem. They are not Police Officers and have no authority to inform citizens on what the laws of the Commonwealth are. They have no Police Training. That should be the main complaint to the City Council. There is NO Police officer assigned to that unit either. Now for the state police, god help us! They are no use off of a highway and out of their cars.

  10. Robin

    I live in Allston, and the same group of college students yell Jihad, White Power, 9/11 Rules.

    It might be an underground video they watch and try to immitate.

    Last year, the students yelled “Yeah!” “Who–What!” from the Chapelle show. I think it is just bad upbringing and poor taste for college students to behave like that. They also throw empty beer bottles on the streets here.


    I have got many some positive experiences with the Boston Police before, and there are some extraodinary officers that go beyond the call of duty to get the job done.

    However, the level of service I got from the police recently was disappointing as the reponse time was significantly slower than before. (I called about college students jumping on the roofs of cars, and they took 20+ minutes to arrive)

    I was driving on River St (just past Memorial Dr.) and was hit by a car driven by an old lady. She was going the wrong way against traffic and did not stop. As this occurred on River St. and Memorial Dr., I was given the run around too, and I ended up making the report at Cambridge police station, and the officer told me that the license plate number I gave him for the car that hit me was wrong and does not exist.

    Getting transferred around on a 911 call can get to your nerves as it would be some form of emergency before you will call 911, and being put on hold and transferred is just wrong.

  11. jik Post author

    I spoke to the captain this morning. He said he listened to the tape of my conversation with the State Police dispatcher and contacted the Cambridge police department as well.

    He acknowledged that my call should have been handled by the State Police and said that he would personally take steps to ensure that all the dispatchers are retrained about the fact that the roads and parks along the river are within their jurisdiction. He said, and I quote, “They did drop the ball.”

    He said the Cambridge police dispatcher never actually forwarded the information I gave her back to the State Police after she got off the phone with me, after telling me that she would do so. He said that he had already spoken to the Cambridge police department officer who supervises the dispatchers, and that said officer would be taking steps to address the issue.

    I asked if they would have considered this worthy of sending a cruiser if the dispatcher had handled the jurisdiction issue properly, and he said they “definitely” would have. “They were at least disturbing the peace, and we should have sent a cruiser down to give them their one warning.”

    He apologized for what happened and said that “the colonel himself took an interest in the letter” I sent.

    All in all, a very satisfactory phone call. My confidence in the state police is certainly a lot higher after all these conversations with them, but I can’t say I’m terribly happy with the Boston or Cambridge police right about now.

  12. jik Post author

    The lieutenant I spoke to August 15 called back August 16. He said I’d be hearing again from the sargeant who’d called me before (with whom I hadn’t spoken yet) as well as from a captain who reports to the colonel (i.e., the head of the State Police).

    The lieutenant reiterated that he understood exactly what I meant when I sent my message, and he said that I did the right thing by bringing the incident to everybody’s attention.

    He said that my letter had shaken some things up and something was actually going to be done about it.

    The sargeant called me again the same day,and I returned his call. He’s the CO of the division that would have been responsible for responding to the incident I called in if the dispatcher had actually handled it properly. He asked me for whatever details I could provide about the people my wife and I saw and said that his staff would investigate further, including sending some undercover officers to the park to see if the people we saw showed up again, asking around to see if anyone else had seen anything strange on the other side of the river, checking if there were nearby businesses with surveillance cameras that they might be able to get video from, etc. It seems to me that none of this is likely to resolve in any useful results after the fact, but to quote the sargeant, “We’ll run down everything until there’s nothing left to run down.” He also said, “This incident is definitely somebody’s fault, and it was wrong.”

    The aforementioned captain called me on August 18, but I was extremely busy at work so I had to ask him to call me back on Monday.

    I’m glad to see the State Police taking my letter seriously. I think it’s rather a shame that nobody from the Boston or Cambridge please has bothered to contact me, but I’m not terribly surprised. Perhaps I should have sent my letter to the mayors of Boston and Cambridge; perhaps I will later, if I don’t hear anything from their police departments.

  13. jik Post author

    The commanding officer of the State Police intelligence / anti-terrorism unit left a message for me at around 10:00am on Saturday, August 12. He also sent me an email message, which is interesting since I didn’t put my email address in my letter. He left me his cell phone number in his voicemail message and gave his cell, pager and office numbers in the email.

    I hadn’t yet had a chance to call him back when I got another message, at around 10:30am on Tuesday, August 15, from a different State Police officer. Since he was a lieutenant and the first caller was only a sargeant, I decided to call back the second guy first.

    I called him back Tuesday afternoon and spoke with him. He was sympathetic to my complaint, although he said he wasn’t really sure what he could do about it.

    He told me a story from when he visited New York City in November 2001. He watched six different Amtrak and New York City police officers blew off a man who was trying to get someone to investigate an Arab-looking man who was kneeling down praying in a nearly empty corridor with a big backpack next to him which he seemed to be looking at frequently.  In short, Mr Lieutenant seemed to completely agree with me that this was handled poorly, both in terms of nobody having a clue about whose jurisdiction should handle my call and in terms of nobody taking it seriously.

    I suggested that if he wanted to do something about it, perhaps the first thing he should do is to see to it that the State Police dispatchers are educated about the fact that the banks of the Charles River are within their jurisdiction.

    I told him that I appreciated the fact that he was sympathetic to my complaint, but if indeed he wasn’t going to be able to do anything about it, then was he really the right person to be calling me? He responded, “Oh, I’m definitely the right person, but after you’ve spent enough time banging your head against a wall, eventually it occurs to you that it’s going to hurt.” I like this guy :-).

    I gave him the name of the other guy who had called me and asked him to talk to the other guy and find out if it would really be useful for me to speak to him as well. He said he’d see what more he could do about my complaint and get back to me in a few days.

  14. jik Post author

    I didn’t mention it to the police because my wife didn’t mention it to me until after I’d already called them. That’s also why I didn’t mention it in the letter I sent them — it didn’t seem fair to criticize them for not paying attention to something that I didn’t actually tell them.

  15. Mister Goat

    Muslim family? didn’t mention them in your initial message. If you’d told the police that people were (even possibly) harassing that family, it would be a rather different story than telling them that people were shouting something.

    I agree with you that it sucks to be passed around, but the Cambridge PD’s response, if you simply told them that people were shouting such things, sounds pretty straightforward. They could have swung a car by, perhaps, but not told the people to stop.

  16. jik Post author

    Perhaps they weren’t disturbing the peace. But if they were, as my wife suggested that might have been, directing their screaming at the large Muslim family sitting behind us in the park, then their actions certainly constituted assault.

    It usually takes an officer on the scene to make an evaluation of whether a crime has in fact occurred. A dispatcher sitting in a comfy chair at police HQ can’t do that.

  17. jik Post author

    Everyone seems so sure that terrorists don’t make themselves obvious. I wonder when the terrorists will figure that out and start employing “making themselves obvious” as an effective cover. After all, the folks that I called the police about were most pointedly *not* confronted in any way by the police, and most of the other folks at the park seemed content to pointedly ignore them, to the extent of consciously avoiding looking over at them.

  18. Aaron

    Terrorists do not run around down by the river shouting “jihad,” and my guess is those were some annoying college kids running around shouting things to make grownups afraid. Ten years ago it was “All Praise Satan!”

  19. Bruce

    Yeah, I feel so much safer now.

    I wonder if you had called to report the same behavior by a group of armed individuals, would the Cambridge police dispatcher brush it off as a group of individuals merely exercising their first AND second amendment rights?

    Perhaps, I should start carrying my pistol in plain sight when I find myself on the other side of the river. I’m sure the police would be most understanding and respectful of my constitutional rights.

    Yeah…uh huh.

    One thing I’ve learned in my 15-plus years as a Boston resident – don’t get mugged in a city park.

    I had a roommate who was mugged at knifepoint, and had his mountain bike stolen from him on the grass at Jamaica Pond. When he got home, he tried to report the incident to the Boston police, who rferred him to the State Police. So, we drove down the State Police outpost at Leverett Circle to report the crime.

    As soon as we told them where it happened, the first thing they told us was that it’s the Boston Police we needed to talk to. So, on over the the West Roxbury police station we went.

    They tried to pawn us off to the Staties, but after we told them they had sent us here, the BPD reluctantly took the report. Needless to say, my roommate never saw his bike again.

  20. Ron Newman

    While you definitely shouldn’t have been given the runaround, and I too might have called the police under similar circumstances, it’s not at all obvious that any crime was committed. At 10:30 pm this undirected yelling would have disturbed the peace, but I’m not sure it does at 6:30 pm.


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