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The rule of law // THE FACTS OF OCT. 24

Published Jul. 6, 2006

A white police officer did shoot and kill a young black man on 18th Avenue S in St. Petersburg on Oct. 24, but that explosive racial image cannot be allowed to define the event entirely. It has to be measured against the facts, and, as a panel of citizen jurors found, the reality of the events that afternoon is considerably more complex than the stark image.

What the grand jurors found, and this determination seems indisputable, was that TyRon Mark Lewis forced the confrontation and escalated the potential for danger. He ignored not only the officers' repeated requests that he stop his car and roll down his window, but also the pleas from his own friend, who was sitting in the passenger seat asking Lewis to listen to the police. What is also clear, from the grand jury's work, is that Lewis had substantial reason to want to evade the police: Lewis had three outstanding felony warrants, and he possessed illegal drugs.

So as Lewis pushed his car up against officer James Knight, he was not only assaulting a police officer; he was in some measure inviting a response.

Those facts don't mean that Lewis deserved to be shot or even that Knight performed precisely as a well-trained officer should under such duress. But they help put the event into context. Knightand his partner repeatedly warned Lewis. Knight fired only after the car knocked him down. And neither officer has any history of gunplay.

What Knight did wrong, and the police internal review was correct on this point, was to put himself in harm's way. The officer moved in front of the car partly because the side windows were so darkly tinted he had no other way to see the driver inside. But in losing a defensive position, he also limited his own options. In doing so, Knight could easily have lost his own life. Instead, Lewis did.

The grand jury report and the police department review should help the community get a more accurate picture of what happened on Oct. 24. But too many people seem willing to view the event in the images of black and white. Even police chief Darrel Stephens seemed unduly influenced by image, issuing a 60-day suspension that seemed harsh given Knight's commendable history as an officer.

Would Lewis have been shot had he been white, and had the confrontation taken place on Snell Isle rather than on 18th Avenue S? No one will ever be able to answer that question. We can only be guided by the facts, and the facts in this case don't describe either a renegade or a racially blinded police force.