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Tragedy in Boston: The impact projectile death of Victoria Snelgrove

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As most police agencies with a major league or Division I athletic program know, the potential for sports related public disorder cannot be ignored. Thankfully, the statistical probability of a riot occurring in most American cities is low. Likewise, those that have experienced one can often point to an athletic event as the catalyst.

“Celebratory Riots on university campuses are not a new phenomenon, but are clearly escalating in prevalence and magnitude.” Ohio State University, Task Force on Celebratory Riots

Fourteen people have been killed with impact projectiles in the United States and Canada since 1971. Each and every case was a tragedy, but only one generated international press coverage and a level of attention that likely exceeds that of the other 13 combined. The October 21, 2004 death of Victoria Snelgrove touched such a nerve for a variety of reasons, including not only that she was a totally innocent bystander, but the historical significance of the event she was involved in when she was killed.

Victoria “Tori” Snelgrove was a junior majoring in journalism at Emerson College, and a dedicated Boston Red Sox fan. The year 2004 was going well for the Sox, as they had only to beat the Yankees in the American League Championship to earn another shot at erasing the “curse of the bambino”. This superstition involved the 1919 Red Sox sale of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees, and the subsequent reversal of fortune that both teams faced.

The Red Sox won the first world series in 1903, and a total of five by 1918. The Yankees had not been so fortunate, but that all turned around after they acquired, “the Babe”. Following that transaction the New York Yankees went on to become one of the most successful ball clubs in history, while the Red Sox spent the next 86 years without another World Series victory. In 2004 the Red Sox had been down three games against the Yankees and trailing by a run in the bottom of the 9th in game four-but they made a come back that culminated in game seven on the night of October 20th. Though it was being played in New York, approximately 35,000 fans watched from bars, college dorms, and other facilities in the immediate area around the local venue-Fenway Park.

The Boston Police Department had seen its share of public order events, and put together an action plan for the game that included 334 officers, two Public Order Platoons-each supported by grenadiers using impact projectiles-Mobile Field Force Units including mounted patrol, and additional officers from the Massachusetts State Police and area colleges.

They also activated a Unified Command Center out of Boston Police Headquarters that monitored live surveillance video cameras, and was staffed by representatives from MA State Police, Transit Police, Boston Fire, Boston EMS, and area colleges. The Red Sox won the game, and became the first team in Major League Baseball history to win a seven-game postseason series after losing the first three games. As they say at such times, the crowd went wild.

Within minutes of the game ending, the traditional gathering place of Kenmore Square became “wall to wall” people. The mood was celebratory and appropriately, Boston Police officers stood by and allowed the crowd to exercise their right of assembly.

In less than an hour elements in the crowd reportedly become “unruly”, and persons were observed climbing onto buildings around Lansdowne Street-including Fenway Park. Missiles were reportedly thrown at the police, and small fires were lit in the street.

0Mounted and foot officers were sent to the area to address the “sea of people” near the “Green Monster” (left field wall are of Fenway Park-on Lansdowne Street). An equipment truck responded as well, and it had chemical agents and FN303 launchers on board. The officers reported having difficulty in controlling the crowd, and the on-scene Tactical Operations Commander ordered the issuance of the FN303 launchers. Three officers were ultimately armed with the device, and all three reported firing rounds. During this process, Victoria Snelgrove was accidentally struck in the eye and killed.

The Boston Police Department responded to this tragedy in a most unusual way, at least unusual for police agencies in America. Within hours the Police Commissioner publically accepted full responsibility for the death. She then initiated three separate investigations:

• Homicide
• Internal Affairs
• The Stern Commission (headed by former U.S. Attorney Donald Stern)
1. Independent Commission
2. Examine all issues involved in the event
3. Ensure that lessons learned can be used to benefit the Boston PD as well as other agencies.

The homicide and internal affairs investigations are SOP when an unexpected and/or unintended death occurs at the hands of police, but giving an outside independent investigative body free reign is simply unheard of.

The Stern Commission investigation lasted six months, and members interviewed 111 witnesses, reviewed voluminous case files including hundreds of reports, video tapes, and photographs, and met with department personnel, representatives of the Snelgrove family, and representatives of the manufacturer-FN USA. The group released its final report on May 25, 2005, and offered a number of findings including:

• That less-lethal weapons offer promising benefits, and provide law enforcement with additional tools to arrest a person, disarm a person, or de-escalate a public disorder.

• That less-lethal does not mean non-lethal, as the devices can cause serious injuries and even death, and upon recognizing this-safeguards must be put in place.

• There was inadequate planning related to deficiencies in the crowd control plan, and no specific rules of engagement for using the FN303.

• There was inadequate training on the FN3030, specifically as it relates to training on when to fire the weapon.

• There was a breakdown of command discipline on Lansdowne Street.

The commission offered numerous recommendations, including:

• The need to improve the planning process to include table top exercises.

• Clearly delineating the roles of commanders in the operational plans.

• The need to create weapon-specific Use of Force policies
– Specific policy for each less-lethal weapon
– Individual officer should not decide which conduct triggers the weapon.

• Restrict LL weapon use to certified officers.

• Agencies should designate a lead officer for less-lethal weapon procurement, and minimize over-reliance on information from vendors.

• Improve officer training on less-lethal weapons with specific focus on the role and use of each weapon, and when to shoot as opposed to just how.

In conclusion, the tragic death of Victoria Snelgrove set a number of processes in motion-three of which are mentioned above. One that was not was the misinformation process that circulated among law enforcement, with so called “experts” offering their thoughts via pen or podium. Unfortunately, these folks had their facts wrong on a number of critical issues, which furthered the confusion and made post event learning more challenging that it needed to be. The two most often heard factual errors were:

The device involved was a Pepperball when in fact, it was the FN303. The FN303 is an outstanding weapon, and in my view quite possibly the best overall extended range public order impact device available. The launcher offers extremely accurate rounds that deliver middle of the road energy (read: motivation to leave, with legs still capable of allowing same), at ranges out to and beyond 50 yards. The device in my opinion was unfairly demonized following this event, as the origin of the regretful outcome was not found within the weapon.

The shooter involved in the fatal event was untrained when in fact, he was an FN303 instructor. The officer involved was an FN303 instructor, who simply made an error in judgment when he deployed the device in the manner that he did. Victoria Snelgrove was not the intended target, but a completely innocent bystander talking with friends approximately 30 feet behind the target in the crowd. The “lack of training” was put forth by many as an explanation for how this tragedy occured.

Upon closer examination, it is abundantly clear that as an instructor, the involved officer had considerable training. What was lacking was quality training specific to decision making (when to shoot, where to aim, etc.), which is generally and appropriately, beyond the scope of most manufacturers programs.

For more detailed information concerning this event and critical issues involving impact projectile use, please go to:

Public order picture from:

Victoria Snelgrove picture from the family.

Steve Ijames was an original member of the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) board of directors, and the course developer/lead instructor for the NTOA and IACP less lethal “train the trainer” programs, addressing impact projectiles, chemical agents, and noise flash diversionary devices. Steve has provided such training across the United States and in 31 foreign countries, and frequently provides litigation consultation when the use of such tools are called into question.