The conclusion by the Justice Department that St. Petersburg police Officer James Knight did not violate TyRon Lewis' civil rights when he fatally shot him is not surprising. The information that is publicly known about the circumstances surrounding the Oct. 24, 1996, shooting that triggered two nights of disturbances did not appear to support such charges, and the federal investigation apparently turned up nothing new. This should bring some closure to the debate over the traffic stop and sharpen the focus on cultivating better relationships between St. Petersburg police and the city's African-American residents.
The Justice Department's explanation of its findings is clear. To charge Knight with violating Lewis' civil rights under federal criminal law, "the evidence would have had to show that Knight acted willfully and with "specific intent' _ that he actually knew that he was using excessive force at the time of the shooting." Federal investigators did not find evidence to support such a charge.
That does not mean Knight handled the traffic stop flawlessly or that Lewis deserved to be shot. While a grand jury did not indict the officer on criminal charges, Knight did err by placing himself in harm's way. He stood in front of Lewis' car in violation of police department guidelines and was suspended.
The Justice Department carefully avoided painting with the same broad brush used by Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros, who swept into town a year ago and unfairly blasted race relations in St. Petersburg and police treatment of black residents. Monday's news release pointedly states that federal authorities did not investigate whether there is a pattern of police misconduct and were not endorsing police practices in the city's predominantly black neighborhoods. A Times computer-assisted analysis published in December did not generally support sweeping charges of racism and brutality by the St. Petersburg force, yet too many African-American citizens have complained of unfair and demeaning treatment to be discounted.
With the civil rights investigation completed, the community and the police force can concentrate on addressing that broader issue and heading off the kind of tensions that led to the disturbances. Progress has been made. St. Petersburg has its first African-American police chief, officers have received better training and equipment, and new lines of communication between police and residents have been opened.
There is much more to be done, but further progress is jeopardized when National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement founder Omali Yeshitela denounces the Justice Department's findings and vows to see Knight fired, prosecuted and imprisoned. Those intemperate remarks conflict with Yeshitela's recent efforts to work with city government in creating more opportunities for residents of the disturbance area. They should not be given the same credibility as the Justice Department's findings.