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Expert to review handling of Blarney Blowout

UMass hires former Boston police commissioner

In this file photo, now former Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis speaks about the marathon  explosions during a press conference in Boston April 15, 2013. Davis has been hired to investigate the Blarney Blowout and the police response to it, as well as previous large, crowd-related disturbances over the years.
AP photo

In this file photo, now former Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis speaks about the marathon explosions during a press conference in Boston April 15, 2013. Davis has been hired to investigate the Blarney Blowout and the police response to it, as well as previous large, crowd-related disturbances over the years. AP photo

AMHERST — A former Boston police commissioner known for leading the marathon bombing investigation last year will spend the next two months conducting a comprehensive review of the way the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the town of Amherst handled last weekend’s Blarney Blowout.

The hiring of Edward Davis, a 36-year law enforcement veteran who served as Boston’s police commissioner from 2006-2013, is the highlight of a much broader approach by UMass Amherst officials to study the history and culture of not just the Blarney Blowout but other large, crowd-related disturbances that have occurred over the years.

In a telephone interview Thursday evening, Davis said UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy and other top university officials are calling for a thorough review that will enable him to “drill down” to study the issues that caused the problem and recommend solutions to avoid future dust-ups. The aim of the review will be to develop strategies and tactics to avert the sort of upheaval that occurred last weekend and ensure public safety that does not result in civil unrest.

“The scope of this is actually extensive,” Davis said. He later added, “I’m an optimist. Any problem can be mitigated and that’s what we’re going to try and do.”

Subbaswamy said the university must admit that its efforts to combine education prevention and stern warnings as a way to curb the unruly behavior simply aren’t enough. He said the disturbances go beyond the Blarney Blowout and have included other instances in recent years, particularly sports celebrations following the World Series and Super Bowl.

“We’ve gone down the standard path for several years and it hasn’t worked,” Subbaswamy said in a telephone interview Thursday evening.

He notes that Davis’ hiring is one of several steps the university and the town of Amherst is taking to “take a step back” and look at the issue with a wider lens. Others include consulting experts in the psychology of crowd behavior and development of a task force of students, faculty and staff to develope policies that change the culture of campus.

Davis’ review will examine campus and community preparation leading up to the Blarney Blowout, as well as the conduct of first responders, university officials and town leaders during and immediately following the disturbance, the university said in a press release. The hiring of Davis occurred two days after some 100 students attended a rally on campus accusing Amherst police of using excessive force in clearing the crowds.

Police have denied that they were heavy-handed in breaking up the melee in which traffic was blocked and injuries and vandalism occurred. Town officials and Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan have stood by the police, with Sullivan calling their actions “a reasonable response to a riot.”

While UMass President Robert L. Caret and chairman of the board of trustees Henry M. Thomas III this week expressed regret for “unruliness” during the blowout, a published online report has Caret also raising questions about police response to the event in which crowds of up to 4,000 people were cleared with dispersal orders, pepper spray and arrests while cans, bottles and snowballs flew from the gathering. Fifty-five people, many from out of town, were arrested and charged with crimes from underage drinking to inciting a riot.

Caret is quoted as suggesting that some police responses may have been overreactions.

Caret and Thomas, in a statement, pledged a full review of everybody involved from the university to the town. That review started Thursday with Subbaswamy’s announcement to hire Davis.

Davis said he intends to look at everything in his review, including the response of the police.

“We intend to talk to students, talk to police” to iron out some of these differences, Davis said. He adds, however, that “this isn’t about an investigation. It’s about moving forward.”

After consulting with Caret and Thomas, Subbaswamy moved to hire Davis given his notoriety as one of the county’s top law enforcement experts. The chancellor notes that during his time in Boston, Davis dealt with college and student issues on a frequent basis and has successfully used community policing techniques to curb unruly behavior. Now that Davis owns a consulting business that “does this sort of thing,” Subbaswamy said he was an obvious name in Massachusetts.

Davis is currently a fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a private security analyst who heads Dynamic Ideas Security. Davis led the Boston Police Department through the marathon bombing investigation and successful manhunt in April 2013. During his seven years as Boston police commissioner, serious crime declined by more than 30 percent.

Davis’ four-member team that will conduct the review for UMass is Mark Delaney, a retired colonel and former head of the Massachusetts State Police.

While cautioning that every case is different, Davis said his community policing experience came in handy recently in Boston following sports celebrations and the Occupy movement.

“There are small things that you can do that make a big difference,” he said.

Some examples include working with bar owners to identify ways to curb binge drinking and putting strategic checkpoints in place so people can’t congregate in the thousands.

“Every situation is unique,” Davis said. “Amherst is a very different environment than Boston.”

Subbaswamy said Davis’ effort has the support of the Amherst town government and police.

“The town and university have been doing collaborative work now closely for several years,” he said. “That’s the spirit in which we are approaching this. This is a very much a joint effort.”

Subbaswamy also announced a number of other initiatives to evaluate campus life and deter unruly student behavior. They include:

• Working with leaders in student government to create a task force of students, faculty and staff to develop policies to discourage unruly behavior and change the culture of campus. This could involve launching alternative activities to the blowout.

Subbaswamy said a vast majority of the university’s 21,000 undergraduate students act responsibly and don’t condone the behavior that occurred last weekend, which they note gives the school a bad name. He said the majority of those arrested were not UMass students, though those that are are being disciplined.

• Consulting experts in the psychology of crowd behavior to develop improved crowd management strategies. Subbaswamy said the university’s messages up to now have not been effective and he hopes these type of experts can provide some insights on ways to improve. This might also involve examining police response to large gatherings.

• Examine expanding the UMatter at UMass bystander intervention program to also discourage bad behavior by others at large social gatherings.

• Consider broadening the campus social norms campaign, largely focused on binge drinking, to address perceptions of other troublesome behavior.

Caret commended Subbaswamy for his decision to initiate a comprehensive review of the blowout.

“Those who truly know UMass Amherst are thus all the more disheartened when disruptive events occur and threaten to obscure the quality and accomplishments of this outstanding campus,” Caret said in the press release. “Additionally, we need to look for answers any time public order and public safety appear to be at stake and who better to lead this effort than former Commissioner Davis.”

Davis will present his report to Subbaswamy, Caret and Thomas in about two months.

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