You might wonder how Boston Police Commissioner William Evans found the strength to spare the life of the most wanted terrorist in his city’s long history when he had him surrounded by cops and federal agents with guns blazing.
“You gotta have faith,” Evans, 59, told Our Sunday Visitor in a recent interview. “As a Catholic, our Church teaches us that life is precious. As cruel as (the terrorist) was, our faith says his life is as precious as everyone else’s.”
Evans was the commander running the scene in Watertown, Massachusetts, four years ago when surviving Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the target of a manhunt that shut down one of the country’s largest cities for days, was found hiding in a boat behind a home in a crowded neighborhood.
Bullets were ripping into the boat, “and I was screaming ‘Hold your fire! Hold your fire!’” Evans said. “I didn’t want us to kill that man in the boat. We knew it was him. He was poking at the top cover of the boat, and it almost looked like he had a gun in there.”
Evans is a strong believer in mercy, which, in his job heading a 2,000-member police force, can be a severely tested virtue. Nevertheless, The Boston Globe named him as a Bostonian of the Year in 2015, dubbing the South Boston Irish-Catholic “the police commander with a gift for empathy.”
‘Just like me’
Evans came to mercy the hard way. He grew up in South Boston, a predominantly Irish-Catholic bastion of the city that has spawned notable politicians and notorious gangsters — chiefly William Bulger, the former president of the University of Massachusetts, and his outlaw brother, James “Whitey” Bulger, an international fugitive for 16 years.
Evans still lives in South Boston. He is the youngest of six brothers who were raised in a tenement apartment where he and two brothers shared a bedroom.
“Everything is based on my faith. My patron saint is St. Michael (protector of police officers), and I wear a cross around my neck. I pray for St. Michael’s protection for me and my officers and our families. I prayed all that week that God would watch over me, over all of us. ‘God get me through this.’”
— William Evans, Boston Police Department commissioner
Tragedy marked the Evans family during his childhood: His mother died from cancer when he was 3; the older brother he was closest to later was killed in a hit-and-run accident; and his father died of a heart attack when Evans was 14.
The family’s pastor, Father Paul White, held the household together.
“He was our go-to guy when things would go bad,” Evans said of the late priest. “He was at the kitchen table when we needed him. He married all of us. He baptized all of us.”
Father White directed Evans to St. Sebastian’s High School in the tonier neighborhoods west of Boston when he saw him hanging out on street corners.
“I took three buses back and forth every day for four years,” he said. Nearly everyone in the all-boys Catholic prep school was better off and better dressed than Evans, but he persevered, graduated and was admitted to Chaminade University in Hawaii. He missed home, however, and returned to Massachusetts after his freshman year to enroll at Suffolk University in Boston.
“I never forget where I came from,” Evans said.
This has been evident throughout his career. In his climb from beat cop to commissioner, Evans saw versions of his younger self too often in handcuffs.
“I want my commanders to push down through the ranks that, in their role, they will deal with a lot of kids who grew up in tough situations, that it is always a tough balance to see the crime and understand why someone did it,” Evans said. “There is no such thing as a bad kid … those kids are just like me.
“My belief that people aren’t born evil shapes the way I lead this department. If everybody treats everyone with respect and dignity and fairness, society would be a far better place for everybody.”
Keeping the peace
Since moving up the ranks, Evans has seen his share of trials, including the tough days following the marathon bombings, the national anger over police shootings and implementing the Trump administration’s immigration policies. Through it all, he approached each situation with his Catholic-inspired policing philosophy.
“We are community police working with the community to build trust and transparency,” he said. “We have good approval with the white, black and immigrant communities. ... We are not the immigration police. If there is a violent felon, we cooperate with ICE. But for minor offenses or for someone in here illegally with their family ... these are regular guys and girls.”
While many American cities — most notably Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 — have seen race riots and subsequent multiple conflicts following police shootings of black persons and shootings of police officers in recent years, Boston has remained relatively calm. Many credit this to the police commissioner’s leadership style.
On April 19, 2013, the city felt the power of Evans’ leadership. It was four days after bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring some 260 others, including 16 who lost limbs.
Evans had run in the marathon that day — one of more than 50 he has completed — and he had finished ahead of the explosions, learning about them only when his wife and one of his sons caught up to him while he was in a whirlpool at the Boston Athletic Club.
“That week was so stressful, but I prayed, and throughout that week I knew I could do it,” he said. “My mindset was based on my faith — everything is based on my faith. My patron saint is St. Michael (protector of police officers), and I wear a cross around my neck. I pray for St. Michael’s protection for me and my officers and our families.
“I prayed all that week that God would watch over me, over all of us. ‘God get me through this.’”
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, then 19, and his brother, Tamerlan, 26, who died earlier that day in a gun battle with police in Watertown, were the prime suspects. The minutes during which Evans and two lieutenants approached with guns drawn on the boat where Tsarnaev was hiding that night proved to be the final moments of the “most stressful and intense manhunt” in the old city’s history — and Evans felt every bit of the pressure.
“I had seen those bodies covered with blood at the marathon finish line,” he said. “I looked at him as the evil individual that he is. You come in and you blow up our marathon, premeditated! That is evil. I have seen evil before. But for someone, a terrorist, to come here, the magnitude of what he and his brother did — he is the most evil person who has ever crossed my path.”
But, Evans said, “I knew we had a lot to learn from him; we needed to try him and find out why he did this.”
In the darkness of that backyard, Evans faced evil, and he responded with mercy. He told his men to back away. He turned the capture over to the FBI’s Hostage Rescue team. In the famous pictures of the capture, the 19-year-old terrorist emerged bloodied.
“He was hit. Thank God, he wasn’t killed,” Evans said.
Evans continued to show mercy in court, where he opposed giving Tsarnaev the death penalty. Despite Evans’ plea, however, Tsarnaev was sentenced to death on May 15, 2015, and is being held in a high-security federal prison awaiting his execution.
For Evans, there is no line between him being a cop and a Catholic. He is a Catholic cop who practices his faith on the job.
“Everything is based on my faith,” he said.
At the time of the interview, Evans was in training to again run in the Boston Marathon, scheduled this year for April 17. His daily six-mile run started at 4:45 a.m.
Joseph R. LaPlante writes from Rhode Island.