'I was going to get shot,' Pagotto says But officer admits he never saw a gun in suspect's possession


Finally given his chance to tell what went through his mind the night he killed a suspect who was driving away, Baltimore police Sgt. Stephen R. Pagotto put it this way: "That I was going to get shot."

Testifying in his manslaughter trial, during which police supervisors and experts have accused him of violating basic standards of policing, Pagotto said he had an overriding instinct to stop the car Preston Barnes was driving that night, to keep him from grabbing for a gun.

But Pagotto had to admit that he never saw a gun in Barnes' possession. He had to admit that, while his fear that night was clear in his mind, many other things were not.

Despite his 15 years on the police force and his promotion to supervisor, he did not remember whether he had been trained to have his finger below the trigger of his Glock 9 mm pistol; whether he had received 1995 guidelines on the use of force; at what point his gun went off as he fell from the car he was trying to stop.

He did say, without qualification, that he did not mean to shoot 22-year-old Barnes.

Pagotto and a partner stopped Barnes' car in the 2600 block of Kirk Ave. the night of Feb. 7 because the car appeared to lack a back tag. When Barnes, allegedly on a drug-selling mission with two passengers in the car, did not respond to the officers' commands to get out, Pagotto approached the driver and reached into the vehicle. Moments later, Barnes was dead from bullet to the left armpit. The 40-year-old sergeant's tone was subdued as he described that night, except when he demonstrated for the jury his loud commands to Barnes: "Get out of the car! Get out of the car!"

He said he was afraid, making split-second decisions. "It happened so fast. The whole thing happened in 2 to 3 seconds, 3 to 5 seconds."

As the officers approached the car that night, Pagotto said he noticed a lot of movement inside. The passengers kept looking back at him. Meanwhile, Barnes appeared to be dipping his shoulder down, as if hiding a gun, in a manner that a police training video showed was a prime indicator that a person was armed. "The driver was very still," Pagotto said. "His movement was really slow and meticulous."

Pagotto drew his gun, telling his partner "Watch him," but not saying he had his weapon out. As he approached the car, the driver's door popped open.

But Preston Barnes did not get out of the car, according to Pagotto. So, the sergeant said, he reached into the car to control him, grabbing one of Barnes' arms with his left hand while holding his gun in his right. When Barnes jerked his hand up, the sergeant said, he was pulled into the car as it started moving. He tried to stop the car by turning off the keys, but could not. Trying to disengage, he grabbed the door frame of the car and fell forward. As he did so, he said, the back of his gun hand hit the car and the gun went off.

On Monday, several experts in police training testified for the prosecution that Pagotto should not have approached the car with his weapon drawn or reached inside to grab the driver. Instead, they said, he should have taken cover, trained the gun on the Subaru, continued to issue commands and called for backup if necessary.

When his attorney, Kimberly A. Kelly, asked why Pagotto didn't return to his vehicle, Pagotto said: "I didn't think of it at the time. It was the best plan of attack to go and get hold of him. I was always trained to go into the ambush."

For the past three years, Baltimore police have been trained to hold their Glock 9 mm pistols below the trigger guard to prevent accidental discharge. But Pagotto said he did not remember being trained that way, and that instead he had had his finger along the slide of the gun -- the original positioning that city officers were taught when they began using the Glock six years ago.

Under cross-examination by prosecutor Lawrence Doan, he said he could remember that he might have been trained to place his finger "elsewhere."

Holding his firearms tests in his hand -- with perfect scores of 100 as recently as 1994 and 1995 -- Pagotto admitted he had answered questions correctly about wielding a gun while trying to control a suspect.

After the shooting, Pagotto said, he left the area because he was "shaken up" and that a "hostile" crowd was forming. He said he didn't know that department policy required him to remain at the scene of the shooting.

On the way to turn surrender at the homicide unit, Pagotto said, he asked the officers to stop at North and Greenmount avenues because he had forgotten to surrender his gun. As the officers waited for a supervisor to get the weapon, Pagotto called his fiancee and a lawyer for the Fraternal Order of Police.

Pagotto is expected to conclude his testimony today.

Pub Date: 12/11/96

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