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BOSTON

Boston Riots and the Tragic Death of Victoria Snelgrove

10-23-2004

The tragic and violent death of Emerson College student Victoria Snelgrove during the celebrations after the Boston Red Sox claimed the ALCS for the first time since 1986 shocked Boston. Here's my take on what happened, some pictures I took at the celebrations, and some thoughts on what can be done to lower the risk of yet another deadly post-game celebration.

(Update: Picture of the Boston Herald cover at the end of this article. Please beware its graphic nature. You can enlarge the pictures on this page by clicking them.)

Do you remember the celebrations in February, 2002, after the New England Patriots won their first Super Bowl title? They were loud and spirited but did not degenerate into mayhem and vandalism. 33 months later, we can look back at 12 months of athletic success and fandom tragedy. Violent disturbances marred the Red Sox abortive playoff run in 2003. A Northeastern student was killed when hit by a speeding car while celebrating the Patriots' second Super Bowl triumph. Last Wednesday, out of control post-game shenanigans caused the death of yet another local fan when a police officer opened fire with a pepper-ball gun at a hostile crowd, inadvertently killing a bystander in the process.

News accounts about what led to the deadly shooting are still somewhat sketchy, but this is what may have happened:

The events that led to Victoria Snelgrove's death

It all started shortly after midnight when the Boston Red Sox got the final out in game seven in the American League Championship Series against the hated New York Yankees. People immediately spilled into the streets to celebrate the victory. The streets around Fenway Park are lined with bars, restaurants, and nightclubs and attract people from near and far. Fenway Park is also surrounded by student housing, mostly for Boston University students, but also for kids from MIT and Northeastern. Finally, it is easy to get to Kenmore Square , just a few hundred feet from Fenway Park, where three major streets intersect (Brookline Avenue, Commonwealth Avenue, and Beacon Street).



Predictably, celebration turned into vandalism and violence. Police started to clear out Kenmore Square and the Lansdowne/Brookline Ave. intersection at about 1:30 a.m. The action in Kenmore Square was apparently undertaken after members in the crowd started attacking the McDonald's restaurant on the south side of the square, damaging the sign, and setting fire to a trash bin, among other things.



While things reportedly went relatively smoothly in Kenmore Square, they went horribly wrong on Lansdowne Street. The crowd there apparently didn't yield to a small detachment of mounted and dismounted police. A verbal altercation between a mounted police and a rioter turned physical when the officer threw his antagonist to the ground.

Bottles were tossed at the police officers. One landed right next to a horse, which was "startled" and an officer on foot turned around and at some point fired into nearby gathering of onlookers.

An article in the Boston Globe makes it sound as if the policeman spun around and instantly fired on a group of bystanders, while the Boston Herald quotes a witness who says about 30-40 seconds lapsed before after the bottle was thrown before the policeman fired two shots in rapid succession.

It may also be that the police officers started shooting before the bottle incident, as they tried to force a number of people trying to scale the steel structures behind the Green Monster to climb back down.

Either way, one of the pepper balls hit 21 year-old Emerson College student Victoria Snelgrove in the eye and she immediately fell to the ground. Friends of her quickly came to her aid and an ambulance arrived a few minutes later, but her life could not be saved. Victoria Snelgrove became the second fatality in the string of celebratory violence that has beset Boston and parts of New England over the past year.

I did not see Snelgrove get shot. In fact, I didn't go Lansdowne Street at all, partly because it is a high-risk street during post-game celebrations. Lansdowne Street is long and fairly narrow street. To the south it is walled off by Fenway Park. The north side is lined by a virtually uninterrupted string of commercial establishments. People flow into the street from both directions. Fans inevitably scale the supporting steel structures behind the Green Monster. To top it off, the street lighting is fairly poor, adding to the sense of one being trapped in an urban canyon.

However, I did see the celebrations that took place on Brookline Avenue. And I did see officers readying their pepper-ball guns.

People started gathering outside Fenway Park immediately after Boston Red Sox threw out the New York Yankees last batter. It was only a matter of minutes before Brookline Avenue was full of people from Lansdowne Street to Yawkey Way and beyond, and thousands of more people kept streaming to the area. It was probably no more than 20 minutes after the end of the game that I saw a number of people jumping up and down on top of car on Brookline Avenue. At that time it had already become difficult to move along Brookline Ave.

It was not as if police had been caught flat-footed. There were scores of officers positioned along and around Brookline Avenue, including some 30 or so riot-tooled officers who had formed a box outside of McDonald's at Kenmore Square. Other officers had taken up positions on the sidewalks of Brookline Avenue, with police officers standing behind motorcycles parked perpendicular to the sidewalk. Those hedgehog positions gave the officers room to operate from and within small rectangles clear of civilians, without taking up a lot of real estate. Some half-dozen mounted police had also formed a line across the I-90 overpass, presumably in a (quite frankly vain) attempt to break up the crowd as it approached Fenway Park from Kenmore Square.

I don't know what the set up was on Lansdowne Street and Yawkey way, but I imagine that there was a heavy police presence on those two streets as well.

The swelling crowd quickly swamped the police on the scene. The cops stood back as the crowd gradually worked itself up. A half-dozen police officers managed to slowly escort a South-bound police car on Brookline Avenue. The crowd was actually pretty cooperative at that point, making way as best it could, although I did see one young woman try to drape herself, face up, across the trunk of the car before she was shooed away by an officer.



Soon after rolls of toilet paper started to fly through the air and one person climbed to to the top of a streetlight at the corner of Brookline Ave and Yawkey. It was clear that celebration was about to give way to something much less enjoyable. I decided to make my way back to Kenmore Square. I was able to slowly pass through the crowd until I got just past the Lansdowne/Brookline Ave. intersection where it became impossible to make headway without resorting to serious physical force. Not wanting to do that, i tried to turn back again, in an effort to find an exit to the vast parking lot wedged between Brookline Avenue and Beacon Street.



But the intersection had become so crowded that I was, in effect, trapped, unable to move in any direction. That was not a pleasant moment, as I knew that ever more people were heading towards Fenway Park from all directions, adding to the crush of people. Suddenly the mounted police officers I had seen earlier trotted into the crowd. The resulting surge created openings in the crowd that allowed me to slip out of the mass of bodies. I quickly took cover behind a paddy-wagon parked next to the side walk, a few feet away from one of the hedgehog positions. There I joined a reporter and a cameraman, possibly from NECN, and four or five Special Operations officers. From what I could tell the news team had the camera off, which was a good idea since any rolling camera instantly attracted hordes of screaming fans, pushing and shoving to get in front of, and as close as possible to it.



One of the police officers climbed on top of the vehicle, armed with what at I at the time assumed was a bean-ball gun, but it was probably a pepper-ball gun. The officer gestured at several kids who had climbed up on the roof of a bar adjacent to Fenway Park, across the street from the vehicle, to get down. At first nobody obeyed him, but after repeated commands they finally budged. As that went on, two other officers brought out and loaded another gun.



I got the impression that the officers at the wagon were calm and collected as they methodically went about their business. Neither their moves nor their demeanor suggested that the sea of screaming people surrounding them was affecting their psyche. That did not surprise me, as Boston police officers have always been restrained whenever I've seen them in crowd control mode.



At one point a scrawny white kid dressed in a white Red Sox jersey sauntered up to the vehicle and asked one of the officers whether the guns were loaded with bean bags or tear gas. In the understatement of the evening, the officer answered "you don't want to know" (or, possibly, "you don't want to find out").



After hanging out behind the vehicle for a few minutes I once again tried to get out of the mass of people. I somehow managed to sneak through one of the hedgehogs and from there I was able to slip into the parking lot west of Brookline Avenue. The atmosphere in the parking lot was remarkably different than that on the avenue. For one thing, it was a lot less crowded. People milling about in the lot were much calmer, even though groups of screaming kids were passing through the lot on their way from Beacon Street.



From there I continued to an almost abandoned Beacon Street, where two officers has turned a paddy-wagon into a roadblock, preventing cars from getting to Kenmore Square. There were a lot of people in the square itself. A thick crowd spilled into the streets from the south end of the square, between Pizzeria Uno and McDonald's, while there were much fewer people in the northern half, below the Citgo Sign. I had no problem crossing the square. A line of riot police at the east end of Commonwealth Hotel forced people off the street and onto the sidewalk.



About half a block away from Kenmore Square I struck up a conversation with a couple of young women who had been separated from their friends. They came straight from Kenmore Square and described the scene their as wild and chaotic. (At this point I also saw a car madly race eastbound through the Commonwealth Ave. Charles Gate West intersection, right through a red light. The driver just barely avoided a collision. It's a frighteningly common occurrence in that intersection. The State could put trooper there and hand out enough tickets to cover a complete scrapping of the state income tax.)

Shortly after, police moved in on the crowd in Kenmore Square.

Pepper ball guns prove fatal

Two differences between the 2003 and the 2004 riots stand out. In 2003, the crowds were smaller than they were on the night of Snelgrove's death. Moving about was not much of a problem during the baseball disturbances last year. Even though there were thousands of people hanging around, it was quite easy to quickly move from, say, the I-90 overpass to Ipswich Street. This was not at all the case in the early hours of October 22. The overpass and the Lansdowne Street/Brookline Avenue intersection were both jammed with people.

I think the police made a mistake in not cutting off access from Kenmore Square to Brookline Avenue and Lansdowne Street at an early stage. I actually tried to make that suggestion to the most senior-looking officer at the paddy-wagon (who may have been SO chief Robert O'Toole) but he brushed me off, which I certainly can't fault him for doing. It may have been highly impractical to execute such a plan, anyway, considering the available assets and the crush of people.

Second, the police did not have pepper-ball guns last year. In fact, they didn't have much at all in way of equipment. They were, as I called it at the time, "sticks and helmets". The same held true during the post Super Bowl riots. Since then they seem to have beefed up substantially in the gear department. I assume that's thanks to the goodie bags from the Democratic National Convention last summer. Apart from the pepper-ball guns, many Boston officers sported almost futuristic-looking body armor during the ALCS game seven 2004 riot.

The city had not, for whatever reason, banned parking around Fenway Park, as it had during some of the ALCS games last year. Now, it is a profoundly poor decision to park your car along Lansdowne Street or Brookline Avenue on the night of a certified big game, but the since the burden of all those poor decisions fall on the city's police officers, tasked with maintaining law and order and protecting peace and property, it would make sense for the city to help out with a parking ban. But, no, not this time.

All that said, there is simply no way for police to forcibly disperse crowds without putting people at risk. Water cannons, spray, gas, dogs, horses, clubs, and "less lethal" guns can all cause a person's death. Some methods are obviously more high-risk than others. The risk is not only how lethal the force is for the person at whom it is directed, but also what kind of impact it has on bystanders. Hose down a bunch of American college students and you'd be hearing about "fascism" and "police brutality" from here to Kingdom come.

Besides, water cannons and teargas clouds can set a crowd in panicky motion and result in serious injury and even death from trampling.

Pepper-ball guns have a fairly low risk profile. They are far more accurate than gas and water cannons, yet deliver a stinging sensation that is likely to prove severe enough to persuade most rioters to comply with police commands. It is in theory hard to fault the police for using pepper-ball guns against the crowd outside Fenway Park, but, in hindsight, perhaps it would have been better if the officers had used pepper spray rather than pepper balls. Of course, in hindsight, it would have been a lot better had we all stayed at home.

That last insight touches upon a dark truth about the post-game riots over the past 12 months. I don't think many of the people who flooded into the Fenway Park area did it primarily to celebrate the championship. I think the overwhelming majority of them were there to see what would happen, and to record the proceedings. A fair number of people, way more than the one percent that Police Commissioner Kathleen O'Toole claims, are there to take advantage of the situation, to light fires, flip over and vandalize cars, and otherwise create mischief and mayhem. The bystanders are not merely bystanders, but also, and probably knowingly so, function as cover for the more aggressive elements of the crowd.

That has to be the assumption as Boston Police and City officials plan for future post-game crowd control operations. I recommend that police cordons off Lansdowne Street altogether at some point late in the game at hand, be it after the seventh inning stretch or halfway through the fourth quarter. From that point on, patrons will be allowed to leave Lansdowne Street, but nobody will be allowed to enter it.

Police should also employ a crowd dispersal strategy. Instead of allowing crowds to form and then disperse them once things get out of control, the police should break up all gatherings and keep fans moving. Make Brookline Avenue a one-way street, from north to south, and use the mounted police to keep people moving.

But, again, there are no guarantees. The BPD could plan and execute to perfection and somebody could still get killed. That is just the harsh reality of things.

Update 2005-02-28: Several official investigations are looking into the Snelgrove's death. None has been completed so far. The BPD learned its lesson from the tragic death. After the Boston red Sox won the World Series against St. Lois Cardinals, hundreds of police and correctional officers were deployed to keep celebrations under control. After a couple of hours of closely supervised celebrations, police cleared the area around Kenmore Square from fans without incident.

Update 2005-05-03: A settlement between Victoria Snelgrove's parents and the city of Boston was announced yesterday. The city will pay the parents $5.1 million and takes full responsibility for Snelgrove's death. The city states that Snelgrove did not engage in any activities that should have made her a target for any police action. Read more about the settlement here.

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