City police dialogue helped ease tensions after killing White officer on trial in black driver's death

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It had all the makings of an inflammatory event. A white police officer shoots a young black motorist during a traffic stop. An angry crowd gathers. A protest follows. Vandals write "Killer Cop Pagotto" on the officer's van.

Tensions ran high on the cold, wet Northeast Baltimore street the February night Sgt. Stephen R. Pagotto fatally wounded Preston E. Barnes, 22, with a single shot fired through a rear side window.

But the anger expressed by neighborhood residents and the victim's family -- who are closely following the manslaughter trial of Pagotto -- never grew into a full-blown community uproar over police conduct.

Police commanders, criminal justice experts and community leaders point to a number of reasons for that -- among them a quick indictment, improved community relations and departmental willingness to term the shooting "troubling" from the start.

[Police] "were at least saying he did some things wrong and were not trying to cover up," said Rodney Orange, president of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which monitors all police shootings. "They are beginning to recognize that the public is watching."

Mark Washington, executive director of the neighborhood's community organization, said he enjoys a "fairly good" relationship with Maj. Bert L. Shirey, commander of the Northeastern District station. He said he met with Shirey after the shooting and was impressed that the commander "does not want to have any of his officers showing callous disregard for human life. He conveyed that in a sincere manner."

Police said they understood the need for sincere dialogue.

"We have to be able to look everyone in our city in the eye and speak honestly about our conduct," said Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier. "And that's exactly what we did."

Ten months later and in the middle of Pagotto's trial, which continues today, the officer and the community anxiously await the outcome. People living on Kirk Avenue, where Barnes was shot, are still upset. But most seem willing to watch the justice system do its work.

"A lot of people are still angry, but I guess they're trying to do it the positive way," said Barnes' mother, Sylvia Smith, who has attended every day of the trial since it began Nov. 25. "Just be patient and listen and let the chips fall where they may."

Barnes was killed Feb. 7 when Pagotto, a 15-year veteran whose job was to get guns off the streets, pulled over a white Subaru in the 2600 block of Kirk Ave. As his partner watched two passengers, Pagotto approached the car with his Glock 9mm handgun drawn.

The car began rolling forward and Pagotto's gun went off, a single bullet shattering a rear side window and hitting Barnes. Pagotto told investigators the shooting was an accident -- he said he fell away from the car as it accelerated and the gun discharged when his hand hit the car.

Pagotto's lawyers argue that Barnes refused to get out of the car and drove forward to escape and to keep police from finding 10 sandwich bags of "ready rock" crack cocaine he had stashed inside. But prosecutors are trying to convince a jury that the officer violated so many police policies -- such as reaching into the car with a gun in his hand -- that he is guilty of gross negligence.

So far this year, police officers have shot 17 civilians, killing eight. In 1995, officers shot 26 people, with eight fatalities. During the past two years, six police officers were wounded by gunfire.

Most are ruled justified and don't spark community outrage. The most recent controversial police shooting was of Betty Keat, 64, a mentally ill woman who was fatally shot in January after she refused to drop a steak knife.

In Pagotto's case, controversy emerged moments after the officer's gun went off. His partner called in the shooting without mentioning Pagotto's involvement, testifying in court last week he was afraid news reporters monitoring police radios would arrive and inflame a hostile crowd.

The Police Department's chief spokesman, Sam Ringgold, took the offensive the day after the shooting, saying the omission delayed a proper response by detectives. He immediately called the shooting "troubling," angering the police union, whose president complained the comments unfairly maligned Pagotto before all the facts were known.

A week later, the All People's Congress sponsored a rally near the shooting scene, attracting about 100 protesters who chanted, "Justice for Preston -- Stop killer cops" and "Jail for Pig-otto." A spokesman for the group, Andre Powell, ridiculed Ringgold's use of the word "troubling," saying, " 'Troubling' to us means that they haven't found a way to justify the killing."

But neighborhood residents are taking a wait-and-see attitude. Community leaders met with police commanders after the shooting and, at least for now, are satisfied the investigation is being taken seriously. Washington, executive director of Coldstream/Homestead/Montebello Community Corp., said the organized rally helped residents vent in a structured way. "Obviously, it is something the community is watching closely," he said of the case.

By contrast, a riot broke out in October in St. Petersburg, Fla., after a white officer killed a black motorist -- the latest in a rash of police-involved shootings during traffic stops. Two officers and seven civilians were wounded in the disturbances.

Lawrence Sherman, chairman of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland College Park, said the Baltimore force has "a stronger foundation for weathering this kind of a storm." Sherman, who studied the Barnes case and what happened in St. Petersburg, praised Ringgold and Frazier for immediately raising questions about the shooting. The St. Petersburg chief took the opposite approach. "His emphasis was more in terms of justification of the officers and condemnation of the protesters, which appears to be a strategic mistake for the prevention of disorder," Sherman said.

Ringgold said his comments labeling the shooting "troubling" were carefully chosen -- to assure the community that no cover-up was planned and to jump ahead of probing media stories.

"You can't insult citizens," the spokesman said. "If they don't trust your response, they aren't going to work with you and community policing goes nowhere."

Orange, of the NAACP, said he tried "not to inflame the situation. We are very concerned about this incident with Sergeant Pagotto. We try to assure people that we are on top of it and that we make the Police Department aware of conduct that is unprofessional."

Orange repeated his call for a civilian review board -- a concept rejected by Frazier -- and said the department does a poor job of investigating complaints. "That is why those so-called loose cannons are able to slip through the safety net," he said, referring to troublesome officers.

The shooting is vivid in the minds of neighbors. Many are angered that police yanked Barnes out of the car and that the body lay on the street during the investigation. "He had no reason to get out of his car with his gun drawn," Kennard Moss said one day last week as he looked out his front window to where the shooting occurred. While happy that Pagotto was charged, he complained "they didn't do it fast enough."

Another neighbor, Timothy Smith, said the officer should have been charged with murder, rather than manslaughter. But, he added, "I feel a little bit better now that it's coming out in the open."

Pub Date: 12/03/96

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