Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

Police fear, fear of police take growing toll in city



That's what Richard Wright named Book One of his classic novel "Native Son." It's as if, in 1940, Wright knew that more than 50 years later fear would still be one of America's predominant obsessions. One of the main themes of "Native Son" is that fear can have disastrous, even deadly, consequences.

Last week, a Baltimore jury convicted police Sgt. Stephen R. Pagotto of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Preston Barnes. Pagotto testified that when he approached Barnes' car with his gun drawn the night of Feb. 7, 1996, fear of being shot was foremost in his mind. The rest of the story has been told countless times by now: how Barnes refused orders to get out of the car; how Pagotto reached into the car to forcibly remove Barnes; how Barnes hit the accelerator and forced Pagotto to lurch forward and his gun to go off. The bullet hit Barnes in the left armpit and killed him.

On Tuesday, Pagotto took the witness stand and told the court that he was a man afraid that night, fearing he would get shot. That fear is reasonable. In a conversation last Thursday, Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier said the two leading causes of death among police officers are being shot in traffic stops, calls.

So we have Pagotto out on the streets last February, under orders to get guns off the streets. In our fear of violent crime, some of us actually believe it's the guns, not the criminals, that are the cause of crime. Yep, take those guns away, and criminals will slink off into some hole and apologize to us all collectively if they even dream of committing a crime with a handgun again.

But I digress. The point is that today's criminals are armed with the most sophisticated weaponry in the history of criminality. America's legacy of fear afflicts its own police officers. Pagotto, gun drawn, thinks of violent criminals with handguns as he approaches the Barnes' car and probably remembers the police adage "I'd rather be tried by twelve than buried by six."

But for the moment let's try to think of what's going through Barnes' mind that night. Police officers have no monopoly on fear. Barnes is on probation for a drug and handgun offense. He and two friends are allegedly on a mission to sell crack cocaine, so Barnes is probably going to do time. He's definitely afraid of going to jail.

But isn't it possible that Barnes himself may have been afraid of getting shot? Sure police have been killed in routine traffic stops. So have black male civilians. Gregory Habib, stopped without probable cause and beaten to death by Prince Georges County police in 1989, comes immediately to mind. But there are others. So when Barnes refused Pagotto's order to get out of his car, it's possible that this was just another career criminal defying police.

Or Barnes may have been thinking this: if I get out of the car, I'm a better target. I have no idea what this cop's intentions are.

Barnes, only 22, may have been too young to remember the 1980 incident in which another young black man named Jawan McGee reached into his pocket to pull out a cigarette lighter. A police officer who thought McGee was about to rob a pizza shop shot him several times, paralyzing him for life.

Barnes may have known nothing of that specific incident, but if you're black and male in America, you'd better damn well know the generality.

"If I get out of this car," Barnes could have justifiably thought, "is this officer going to see something in my hands that isn't there?"

That's the dilemma black men stopped by police face: We could be getting Officer Friendly or we could be getting Mark Fuhrman. Or we may be getting a Stephen Pagotto, who the night of Feb. 7 just wanted to get home alive at the end of his shift. We simply don't know. So our fears are as justified as the police officer's, especially if the black man stopped is an unarmed, law-abiding citizen. Cops might figure they're safer if they assume we're all gun-toting thugs. Such is the nature of fear. But black men may figure that if they just refuse to stop for police until we get to a public area with about 200 witnesses, the police officers' fears and ours are at least temporarily allayed. That police adage of being tried by 12 rather than buried by six can apply to black male civilians as well.

The America of Richard Wright's day -- overtly racist, bigoted and committed to keeping black Americans in peonage through intimidation and fear -- drives protagonist Bigger Thomas to truly grisly and despicable acts. Today fear afflicts us all, as if we have incurred some great karmic debt. Stephen Pagotto's life is ruined, and Preston Barnes' life is lost. The legacy of Book One continues to haunt us.

Pub Date: 12/22/96

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad