IF THERE IS any agreement about the fatal shooting of Preston E. Barnes last February, it's that the 22-year-old man did not have to die. That he did had a lot to do with his own actions that night. But a jury determined it had more to do with the actions of the police officer who shot him. Sgt. Stephen R. Pagotto was convicted Tuesday of involuntary manslaughter and two counts of reckless endangerment.
The whole episode is tragic. Family and friends of Mr. Barnes, who had a criminal record, say he was trying to turn his life around. Sergeant Pagotto and his colleagues believe his conviction sends a terrible message to officers who daily have to make rapid life-and-death decisions. The stridence of each camp accurately represents points of view that are common in crime-ridden communities where a strong police presence has become necessary.
Though often referred to as a routine traffic stop, it was more than that when Sergeant Pagotto and his partner pulled over Mr. Barnes' car. The policemen were part of a new squad put together by Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier to get guns off the street. Only six days before, Sergeant Pagotto had a .38-caliber revolver pointed at him by a 15-year-old boy who had been asked by the officers why he wasn't in school. It was in this frame of mind that the policeman stopped Mr. Barnes' car.
He said what happened next was an accident. With the driver's door open, the sergeant reached in and grabbed Mr. Barnes with his left hand while wielding his gun in his right. The car began to accelerate. The sergeant said he fell and his gun fired, hitting Mr. Barnes. Experts testified Sergeant Pagotto did not follow proper police procedures: He never should have approached the car with his weapon drawn; he should have allowed Mr. Barnes to drive away rather than risk firing an errant shot.
Other police procedures were not followed. Sergeant Pagotto did not let his partner know he had drawn his gun, which meant Officer Steven Wagner was unwittingly in the line of fire. And Officer Wagner testified that he didn't initially report the incident as a police shooting, which meant there was an unnecessary delay in sending supervisors to the scene to investigate. No one knows what would have happened had Sergeant Pagotto done everything by the book. But after his conviction it should be clearer to other officers what can happen when you don't.
Pub Date: 12/21/96