No Choice for Police
Without Notice from Hackers, MIT Police Couldn’t Know Concrete “Bomb” Was Safe
CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: Because of an editing error, a news article that ran on May 8, 2009 was erroneously re-run as an opinion column in the 2009 Year in Review.
MIT police probably would not have called in the fire department to inspect a bomb-shaped concrete hemisphere on Kresge Oval if someone had taken responsibility for it before or immediately after they put it up.
The Burton Third Bombers now face the possibility of shouldering MIT’s costs for the incident — potentially thousands of dollars — if Cambridge decides to charge the Institute for its efforts in ensuring the hemisphere was harmless.
Students claimed the “bomb” as theirs in discussions with housemasters and Senior Associate Dean for Students Barbara A. Baker, said Burton-Conner housemaster Merritt Roe Smith. But those claims came mid-Friday morning, long after police had called in the Cambridge authorities, who called in the city’s bomb squad.
Police weren’t told in advance of the “bomb,” actually a party advertisement. No note was left explaining what it was or how to take it down, and no one was around to say it was theirs in the early Friday morning hours after it went up.
The “bomb” was actually a concrete hemisphere with a rope “fuse” and metal stakes affixing it to the ground. It was painted with the letters “DTYD” to advertise the 40th “Dance Till You Drop” party, held by the Burton Third Bombers, the third floor of the Burton half of Burton-Conner Hall.
Just before 4 a.m. on the morning of Friday, April 24, MIT police eyed the bomb, tipped off by Tech photographer Eric D. Schmiedl ’09 at about 3 a.m. that there was something interesting to see on the lawn. Schmiedl asserts he described it as a “fake concrete bomb,” but MIT police only recall being told to look at it.
Police called MIT Facilities to ask for help removing the hemisphere, to avoid a flood of concerned phone calls to the Cambridge Police.
MIT police were pretty sure that the hemisphere was just a student prank. It looked like something out of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon, after all. But as police considered how to remove the “bomb,” no one from Burton Third was on site to explain that it was completely harmless and contained no pyrotechnics, or to help take it down.
As daylight began to stream onto the lawn, police were unable to get the “bomb” out of plain sight, MIT Police Chief John DiFava said. (It weighed hundreds of pounds and eventually required a forklift to remove.)
Phone calls started coming into the MIT police station about the bomb. With no way to be completely sure that the hemisphere was harmless, and no way to remove it, police called in the fire department to make sure that the bomb was harmless. The Cambridge Fire Department was called at about 5 a.m.; the bomb squad arrived by 6:40 a.m.; and the all-clear was given about two hours later.
In the end, it took a fire truck, a winch, and a long chain to pull the concrete hemisphere out of the ground.
Better outcomes were likely if MIT police made the call rather than have someone else do so, DiFava said. “Do we call the fire department or does someone else call?”
Still, MIT might not have called Cambridge if students had been available to explain the item, DiFava said.
What about the contention that police should have known the bomb’s marking, “DTYD,” was a party registered to the Bombers that evening, and called the Bombers themselves? Students should take responsibility for their hacks, DiFava said. “How far are we supposed to go?”
The day of the hack, MIT dean Barbara Baker told the Bombers that MIT would be get a bill and the Bombers would pay it. Rumors have swirled that it could reach tens of thousands of dollars, a number which “hacking czar” David M. Barber said didn’t sound unreasonable for a multi-hour many-person effort.
But if any bill comes, it will be as part of MIT’s annual Payment in Lieu of Taxes, a payment negotiated in part based on the value of City of Cambridge services rendered to the largely tax-exempt university.
No decision has yet been reached about how much, if anything, MIT will be billed for the bomb squad action.
“This was definitely a hack … a misunderstood one,” said Roe Smith.
Next time… advance warning?
The bomb squad might not have gotten called in if the MIT Police had known ahead of time about a possible public “bomb,” DiFava said.
DiFava didn’t say he wanted students to run all hacks by him. But they should take responsibility for their actions and for their hacks, he said.
Students should feel comfortable talking with trusted police officers about ideas that involve public displays which could be misinterpreted, he said.
“Students need to realize that there are people in the police department that they can trust,” DiFava said. He said he could be one such person: “Chief, here’s an idea that we have…”
“We’re here as a resource,” he said.
This column originally appeared in The Tech on May 8, 2009.