For the 2014 Boston Marathon, police established checkpoints on various streets near the finish line where private security guards searched the bags of any spectators who attempted to pass through. The checkpoints were part of a new security plan, which was put in place in response to last year's Boston Marathon bombings, which killed three and injured more than 260 people.
Prior to the race, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) published a list of recommendations for spectators including no backpacks, no loose clothing, no costumes or masks, no liquids in excess of one liter, and no weapons of any kind. MEMA also said that spectators may have their bags and bulky items searched at the aforementioned checkpoints.
We saw a number of these checkpoints in action and observed that the searches were primarily carried out by private security guards under the watch of Boston police officers. Once a person's bag had been searched, the security guards would attach a tag to it and allow the person through.
The searches were not voluntary. Each checkpoint featured a banner reading “All bags and containers are subject to search.” We saw one man being forcibly removed from the area beyond a checkpoint by police officers who noticed that his mesh bag did not have a tag on it. Police took the bag away from the man and would not allow him back into the area until a security guard had searched it.
It was apparent that the police did not suspect the man had a bomb because they did not call a bomb squad to the scene. Instead, they asked the man for personal information such as his address, which they wrote down, and lectured him about the need to follow the rules the police had established.
“You got a bag, you put a tag on it. Okay? Simple,” one police officer told the man.
“You have bottles in there, I don't know what that liquid is. Y'know, it could be something,” another police officer said. “It doesn't matter what you're dressed like. You could be anybody.”
Tom Nolan, a 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department who is now chair of the SUNY-Plattsburgh criminal justice department, told The Republican that the bag searches were “illegal and unconstitutional.”
“This is a public place, these are public streets. People have the absolute right to travel them without being stopped and searched by police. Just because there was a tragic event doesn't give the police the authority to unilaterally suspend the US Constitution and the Fourth Amendment," he said.
Beyond the issue of whether the bag searches were legal, there is also the question of whether they are truly an effective security measure or just a form of “security theater.”
James Allan Fox, a Northeastern University criminal justice professor, told The Republican it was unlikely that terrorists would try to attack the Boston Marathon again. “Terrorists often capitalize on the element of surprise, which is why the odd thing is, whenever we have an incident we fortify the places that have already been attacked, thinking lightning might strike twice,” he said.
When MEMA unveiled their security plan at a March 10 press conference, FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Kiernan Ramsey said “At this time we have no specific intelligence indicating there is a threat to this year's marathon.” The day before the marathon, Governor Deval Patrick went on CBS's Face The Nation where he said that there was no “elevated chatter” about specific threats to the race. Finally, the morning of the marathon, Boston Police Commissioner William Evans told reporters that “There have been no threats on the race.”
Even if terrorists had decided to try to bomb the Boston Marathon again, the checkpoints would not necessarily have prevented them from carrying out an attack. A would-be terrorist could have attacked people at a part of the race that had fewer security measures in place than the finish line. Alternatively, a would-be terrorist could have detonated a bomb right at a checkpoint, where large numbers of people were sometimes gathered throughout the day.
The fact that the security guards were fixating on people with bags and allowing people without bags to pass through without being searched also meant that they would not be able to identify people who were carrying knives, guns, and other small weapons on their person.
Furthermore, the police did not even manage to completely secure the area around the finish line. At one point on Monday, while we were wandering around the city looking for checkpoints to document, we realized that we had somehow gotten into the area behind the checkpoints without even meaning to. Maya was even wearing a fanny pack with camera equipment that had wires protruding from it that almost certainly would have been searched had we passed through a checkpoint.
In addition to bag checks, the police presence was doubled from last year's marathon, with about 3,500 police officers from various agencies present along with FBI and National Guard. More than a hundred surveillance cameras with live feeds were installed along the marathon route and monitored by police.