A Times Editorial

Get the facts, and get guns off the streets

It should not be considered routine in any community for a 17-year-old high school student to be shot and killed by a police officer outside a graduation party.

Javon Dawson's death Saturday night in St. Petersburg is a tragedy for his family. It is not good news for St. Petersburg police, who once again find themselves under scrutiny and on uncertain footing in predominantly black neighborhoods. And it reaffirms there is a serious problem, particularly in Midtown, with guns on the street.

There should be no rush to judgment about the circumstances surrounding Dawson's death, which occurred after police arrived to break up a large crowd of partygoers. Police say Dawson ignored several commands and aimed his gun at the police officer as he began running away. Officer Terrence Nemeth shot Dawson twice, and a revolver was found near Dawson's body after the shooting. The investigation needs time to proceed, and it will produce more evidence that should shed more light on what happened in a chaotic situation.

Elected leaders, from state Rep. Darryl Rouson to St. Petersburg City Council member Wengay Newton, have responded with appropriate calls for calm, pledges to wait for more facts to come out and pleas for witnesses to come forward. It would be particularly helpful for teens and residents who were in the area at the time of the shooting to tell investigators what they saw and heard, although that almost guarantees conflicting stories.

What is not helpful is for members of the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement to spread wild accusations they will not back up about the circumstances surrounding the shooting of a black teen by a white officer. They appear more determined to inflame emotions rather than ease tensions, and they breed mistrust of law enforcement in an area of the city where many law-abiding residents quietly wish for a greater police presence. If Uhuru members have identified witnesses who can add to the understanding of Saturday night's shooting, they should direct them to the police.

Dawson's death brings more urgency to the broader issue of getting guns off the streets. Illegally carrying handguns and casually firing them has become all too common in many cities, including St. Petersburg. If the police account is correct, why would a 17-year-old have a gun at a graduation party and fire several rounds into the air? And Dawson would not have been the only one. A witness saw two other men firing guns.

Residents in most neighborhoods in St. Petersburg and throughout Tampa Bay would not tolerate such an open display of weapons or routine gunfire. Midtown residents should not have to accept it, either. But tackling the issue requires a renewed effort by police, who just announced a series of initiatives, and the voices of residents who have the courage to speak up and demand better for their families and their neighborhoods.

Patience will be required while the shooting investigation plays out. Ultimately, residents will have to choose how to remember Javon Dawson's death. Those who are destructive will focus on race and recklessly hurl unfounded allegations against the police, regardless of the investigation's findings. Those who are interested in creating safer neighborhoods will find ways to work with law enforcement and public officials to get guns off the streets and out of high school graduation parties.

Get the facts, and get guns off the streets 06/10/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 12, 2008 7:18pm]

    

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