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Published: Saturday, 4/27/2002

An avoidable tragedy

Let there be no mistake about it. Having a noisy party at home is not a capital offense. No one should die as a result of it, at the hands of police officers or anyone else.

Let there also be no mistake about this: A person with a gun in his hand in the presence of a police officer has set himself up - if only through bad judgment - for real trouble.

Details are still emerging in the fatal police shooting last Saturday night of Donald Sargent, 19, a narrative difficult to piece together because of the changing stories of witnesses. It would be wrong to prejudge the outcome, and we won't. Further forensic investigation should help clarify Mr. Sargent's position when he was shot in a way conflicting accounts by witnesses cannot.

What is clear is that there was under-age drinking in the home and that a neighbor complained about noise. Though other neighbors later said they had not been disturbed, the complaint brought police to Mr. Sargent's Leybourn Avenue home.

There is a dispute over whether Mr. Sargent opened the door to police and then ran upstairs, police in pursuit, to hide a gun he was carrying, or whether he was in an upstairs bedroom when police arrived, trying to hide the weapon.

There is no doubt that police kicked down the locked bedroom door and that there were three people in the room with Mr. Sargent. Two of them initially insisted they'd seen no gun, police said. But later the two told a reporter for The Blade that Mr. Sargent was hiding the handgun, one of several firearms in the house, when police broke into the room. One of them reported hearing police say “Drop the gun.” The other didn't. The third claimed not to have seen a handgun.

Mr. Sargent's family is naturally upset and angry at their son's death, which they rightly see as a cruel loss. A review board will decide whether it is appropriate for them to blame the officers.

If Mr. Sargent's avoidable demise tells us anything, it is that lapses in judgment may be fatal. A firearm in hand in the presence of police must inevitably be construed as a threat, one officers are trained to deal with automatically. They are very good at their job. Most of us want them to be.

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