Conviction of Sgt. Pagotto is a boon for lawbreakers

December 19, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The narcotics traffickers should be doing handstands today. They should chip in and send condolence cards to Preston Barnes' poor mother, who says she will visit her son's grave and tell him the wonderful news that his killing has been avenged. The drug traffickers should accompany her, in a gesture of group solidarity, and all should lay flowers in the cemetery.

Barnes' death, and the subsequent conviction of the hapless police Sgt. Stephen R. Pagotto, is the drug dealer's triumph. Put aside, for a moment, that Pagotto made mistakes of procedure, and that, in the terror of a few frantic seconds, in a gesture of self-preservation, he failed to follow a rule book. The verdict chills every officer -- both the honest and the overbearing -- in the city of Baltimore. It gives universal pause, which is a gift to the criminal class.

A jury finds Pagotto guilty of manslaughter and reckless endangerment, and every cop with brains does one of two things today: turns in his badge and finds sane employment, or cuts a silent deal with himself.

The silent deal is simple: You take fewer chances now. If this happened to Pagotto, then it happens to anyone. You move a step slower now. If there's a crime in progress, maybe you remain in your car a moment longer and arrive for the postmortems. You look the other way now. Give the suspect some breathing space. If there's a car missing a license, you let it drift into traffic and out of your sight, and life goes on.

That's what Pagotto should have done, instead of playing cowboy. On the night of Feb. 7, he and a partner stopped Preston Barnes' car in the 2600 block of Kirk Ave. for appearing to lack a rear license tag.

Three guys were in Barnes' car and, as it happens, a quantity of crack cocaine. This was nothing new for Barnes, who was already in trouble, already on five years' probation for a conviction last year of drug possession with intent to distribute. Not to mention, a prior handgun conviction. He saw the cops now, and he must have imagined a door closing on his future.

"Get out of the car," Pagotto ordered as he approached Barnes, and he pulled out his gun. The rule book says he was too early with such a move. A mistake, yes. But, the first step in an intent to kill, or self-protection?

In court, Pagotto testified to the great irony of this case: He was on the street looking for illegal guns, which the mayor and the police commissioner believe is the great key, even more than narcotics, to cutting into this city's hideous crime.

Pagotto, trained specifically in such endeavors, noticed all three men in Barnes' car looking back at him. He saw Barnes dropping his shoulder. There are police training videos that are very clear about such gestures, Pagotto testified. It's the movement of someone who is armed.

"Get out of the car," Pagotto said again. The next few seconds become a blur: Pagotto reaching into the car and grabbing Barnes' arm to control him with one hand while bringing up his gun with the other. Barnes' hand jerking up and his foot hitting the accelerator. Pagotto being pulled into the car, grabbing the door frame, falling forward. Pagotto's gun hitting the car and going off, and a bullet going into Barnes and killing him.

On Tuesday, a jury sitting in the safety of a courthouse took 5 1/2 hours to find Pagotto guilty. The rest of us can debate it for 5 1/2 years, or forever, and we still won't know what it felt like in that darkness. We can talk about the rule book, and the various guidelines that tell a cop when to pull a gun and when to stay in his car, and how Pagotto threw out the book.

And we can say that, yes, Preston Barnes was trafficking in dope, but, no, that doesn't justify his killing. And this is true.

But it's also true that Barnes had made his own deal. He'd chosen to conduct his life in a certain way, which involved the breaking of laws, the taking of criminal risks. He could profit in the drug trade, and all it involved was the destruction of his own community, the bolting of his neighbors' doors, the telephone calls from frightened people for help from the police.

Maybe those police arrive a little slower today. Their position is impossible, and the Pagotto verdict is only the latest evidence. We read in the newspapers about cops who are too pugnacious now, too aggressive, too quick to use muscle. Some of them are. Nobody condones bullying, and nobody gives them license to be brutal.

But the aggressiveness doesn't come from nothing. The nation's drug policies are a disaster, and yet no one mentions an alternative without being vilified. And so we deal with the facts at hand. A criminal class has been created. An underground economy flourishes, with money to be made but risks that are fatal. The guns are everywhere, and thus the anxieties mount.

Into such conditions, you throw this Barnes kid, desperate not to go to prison after a couple of convictions, and this Pagotto, a 15-year veteran who's had guns pointed at him, and knives slashed at him, and imagines it happening again.

And every cop with an ounce of self-preservation looks at this jury verdict, and either turns in his badge or makes the silent deal with himself: Today, maybe I move a little slower. Today, maybe the community takes its own chances.

Pub Date: 12/19/96

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