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After tragic death, much work to do

Javon Dawson’s DNA was detected on the gun that police recovered near his body.

Special to the Times

Javon Dawson’s DNA was detected on the gun that police recovered near his body.

The physical evidence and credible testimony left Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe with only one reasonable conclusion in the tragic death of Javon Dawson: The teenager was shot by St. Petersburg police after he carried a gun, ignored their commands and fired it in their direction.

The findings make Dawson's death no less regrettable, but it does put to rest some of the explosive accusations that have remained unanswered in the intervening two months.

The most provocative of those claims — that Dawson was unarmed and shot in the back — is directly refuted by physical evidence. Dawson's DNA was detected on the gun that police recovered near his body, and gunshot residue was found on his pants pocket. Further, the angle of the bullet wounds in his body are consistent with the officer's claim that Dawson was pointing a gun while running away from police.

The events leading up to Dawson's death could have been avoided. Far too many young people are caught up in a culture of guns, so much so that guns often show up at parties and are fired into the air as though they were little more than celebratory firecrackers. So many shots were being fired at the party Dawson attended that police officers arriving to the scene were forced to duck behind their cruisers for cover. There is no indication in the state attorney's report that the teenager made any attempt to comply with the officer's commands.

That Dawson was black and the officer is white raised the specter of racial motivation. Maybe such claims are inevitable in a nation that still struggles with ugly biases. But the investigation should also serve as a reminder to those who jumped too quickly to see race in a nighttime encounter that was defined more by guns in a disorderly crowd that filled the street.

The day before the release of McCabe's report, elected leaders in Dawson's mostly black community already were stepping forward to be heard. Their voices are welcome. Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch helped pen an open letter signed by Mayor Rick Baker and other leaders that called for calm and respect for the rule of law. He also offered some heartfelt words.

"To end this spiral of violence, crime and death," Welch wrote, "we will all have to intensify our efforts to create more educational and economic opportunities, to build a stronger sense of personal responsibility and mutual respect for our neighbors, and to counter the pervasive gun culture which glamorizes guns, especially among our youth."

That was a positive first step on the eve of the release of McCabe's report. The real work along those lines is still to come.

After tragic death, much work to do 08/12/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 17, 2008 12:36pm]
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