The Washington Post

The 'Non-Lethal' Shot That Shattered a City's Victory

By James Alan Fox

Sunday, October 31, 2004; Page B05


Second-guessing is as much an American pastime as the grand old game of baseball. And in Boston these days, even in the glow of the city's first World Series championship since World War I, there has been plenty of second-guessing -- not about the pitching moves made by the Red Sox manager, but about how the Boston Police Department and its leadership have handled rampaging fans celebrating home team victories.

Boston fans will fondly remember 2004 as the year when the Patriots won the Super Bowl and the beleaguered Red Sox left behind the curse of Babe Ruth. But it will also be remembered with sobering sadness for two deaths that occurred during post-victory melees -- one that revealed a lack of police readiness and the other reflecting police overreaction.

The first calamity unfolded last February, just as the Pats' game-winning field goal sailed over the crossbar. A swath of destruction and injury -- and one fatality -- was caused by exuberant and inebriated young fans near local universities. The death occurred when a motorist, frightened by the swarming mob, backed his vehicle over a group of pedestrians.

The Boston police were caught unprepared and understaffed for the post-game ruckus. Many officers were home watching the big game, including the acting commissioner himself. Within days, the top cop was dismissed for his failure to act swiftly when trouble started, just as Red Sox skipper Grady Little was fired last year for failing to change pitchers quickly enough to halt a fateful Yankee rally.

Excitement and anticipation stirred throughout Beantown as this year's baseball playoffs approached. New Sox manager Terry Francona hoped to wipe away the Bambino's curse and newly appointed Police Commissioner Kathleen O'Toole was determined not to allow rowdy fans to overwhelm and embarrass the force. Both commanders would be tested.

The Sox dropped three games in a row to the rival Yanks, prompting speculation that Francona would be fired for incompetence. Yet with their backs against the storied left field wall, the Red Sox miraculously battled back to even the playoff series at 3-3.

Just as Francona had his bullpen ready to squelch any late-inning Yankee onslaught, O'Toole prepared for the Game 7 showdown, knowing from past experience that celebrations, especially those involving area college students, can turn ugly and violent.

Though the game was played hundreds of miles away in the Bronx, the last out sent thousands of delirious and drunken fans streaming out of the pubs and bars clustered behind Fenway's "Green Monster." With as many as 80,000 boosters flooding the streets, the feared episodes of vandalism and violence erupted.

Sensing that the situation was getting out of hand, members of the Special Operations Unit fired high-powered pepper-pellet guns, promoted as a "non-lethal" alternative, hoping to scare and disperse the crowd. Several innocent bystanders sustained direct hits. One projectile struck 21-year-old Emerson College junior Victoria Snelgrove in the eye, causing a fatal brain injury.

Contrasting the underresponse after the Super Bowl, the Boston police seemed to have overreacted this time around. They were smart to have stood ready in the Fenway area in case of mayhem. Their mistake was being too quick to resort to high-tech weaponry that wasn't necessarily designed for controlling large, unruly crowds.

Purchased with federal grant money in preparation for July's Democratic National Convention, the FN 303 pepper ball launcher used that night is the latest advance in "non-lethal" weaponry. Looking and functioning like a machine gun, the weapon discharges projectiles at a high velocity and rate. The FN 303 can be used to overpower a fleeing felon, but carries an explicit warning against shooting at a subject's face. It is also being used by military forces in Iraq to handle insurgent uprisings.

Of course, Snelgrove and the thousands of other fans were neither criminals in flight nor dangerous insurgents, but just plain kids. Ironically, the notion that weaponry is non-lethal can encourage users to be too quick on the trigger.

The deadly consequences raised all sorts of important issues. Were the cops thinking straight? Were they sufficiently trained? Reports have suggested that some officers may not have been schooled in using the weapon. Another probing question: Why does Boston seem so celebration-challenged? Is it something about the high concentration of college students far away from the watchful eyes of parents?

The potential for post-game trouble reflects a nationwide trend involving college towns. In November 2002, Ohio State students rioted after the Buckeyes beat rival Michigan for the Big 10 football title. Students at the University of Minnesota flipped cars and ignited bonfires after their hockey team won the 2003 NCAA championship. And at the University of Maryland, March Madness turned to March mayhem after Duke eliminated the Terps in the 2001 Final Four. According to a Penn State study of campus disturbances related to sports and other events, the number of such skirmishes has increased four-fold since the mid-1980s.

Most young and overzealous celebrants do not go out deliberately to wreck their campus or trash city streets. Fueled by mob spirit as much as by alcoholic spirits, dumpster-flipping and bottle-throwing occur without much thought to the potential for getting in trouble with the dean or the cops. Crowd behavior infects most people regardless of age, but especially those who by virtue of their youthfulness tend to be impulsive and imprudent.

Last Tuesday, Victoria Snelgrove was laid to rest during a funeral attended by hundreds of mourners, including a group of appropriately apologetic civic leaders. They worried too about the prospect of another episode of unrest if the Red Sox managed to defeat the Cardinals in the World Series. What if it came down to another Game 7 on Sunday night, after a long weekend of drinking by some fans? It would also be Halloween night, a thought far scarier than the ghost of Babe Ruth.

Mayor Thomas Menino criticized the few "knuckleheads" who spoil the fun for real fans. The police, taking a bold "bring it on" posture, warned potential celebrants that they would be ready with a "swift and sudden" response to any hooliganism. Notwithstanding the no-nonsense talk, the FN 303 launcher was no longer part of the game plan. Just as the Sox manager had learned through experience that certain pitchers are best left in the bullpen where they can do no harm, the cops wisely decided to leave their newest weapons back at the station house.

When the Red Sox successfully swept the Cardinals on Wednesday night in St. Louis, Boston fans predictably took to the streets near Fenway to celebrate 'til dawn. The revelers encountered large numbers of police dressed in riot gear and equipped with conventional forms of pepper spray and tear gas as they cordoned off streets around Fenway.

The police still seemed to struggle in controlling the throng, arresting dozens for disorderly conduct. Striving to take charge but not overreact, the cops deployed the pepper spray and tear gas after fans began throwing bottles Several celebrants sustained minor injuries, but no one died. There would be joy, not sadness, in Beantown.

Lessons will be learned from the events of Red Sox October. Manager Francona will, of course, review film of various games to prepare for the drive to repeat as champions. Commissioner O'Toole will review the police response, including an external investigation of the actions that contributed to Snelgrove's death, to ensure that there will be no repeat tragedy.

In the final post-game analysis, it appears that Francona and O'Toole are living parallel careers. Both got their jobs because of a major blunder by their predecessors; both were fiercely criticized for possible mistakes of judgment during the playoffs; both came out looking better by the end. Certainly, both are wiser for the experience.

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James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston, and a very happy fan of local teams.