Senseless Death in Virginia

Friday, March 3, 2006

APOPULAR YOUNG man is dead in Alexandria in an incident that began with an allegedly unpaid bill at a pancake house. Aaron R. Brown, 18, was in the back seat of a Jeep Cherokee with a group of friends when he was struck and killed by a bullet fired by an off-duty Alexandria police officer, Carl Stowe. Mr. Stowe, moonlighting as a security guard, opened fire after a restaurant employee told him that the group had skipped out on its bill. The police say that Mr. Stowe shot at the Cherokee because he believed his life was imperiled by the moving sport-utility vehicle.

Let's start with some questions. Under those circumstances, why would Mr. Stowe try to stop a moving vehicle -- let alone an SUV -- in the first place? Why not just take down the license number? Alert the police with the vehicle's description? Did Mr. Stowe needlessly put himself in harm's way? And did he really fire at the Cherokee as many as five times, as a passenger told WRC (Channel 4) and as Mr. Brown's parents (quoting the police) told The Post?

Are Mr. Brown's parents also correct in quoting the police as saying that one bullet hit the rear door on the driver's side and another hit the rear quarter-panel? Did Mr. Stowe fire at the vehicle from the side as well as from the front? Five times? Over a possibly unpaid check?

Alexandria police policy allows officers to shoot at a moving vehicle only if their lives are endangered, no other means of defense works and it is impossible to move from the vehicle's path. How would that square with bullet holes in the side of the car?

Mr. Brown -- a college student, an Eagle Scout, a guitar player -- had no criminal record. Neither, as far as we know, did anyone else in the Cherokee, although the 19-year-old driver, Stephen J. Smith, was charged with driving while intoxicated and possession of marijuana. Alexandria's police chief, Charles E. Samarra, told Mr. Brown's parents and the City Council that the police investigation would be "complete and honest and thorough," guided strictly by the evidence. "[We] will investigate this case as I would if it had been my son in this unfortunate tragedy . . . and when we are finished, we will reveal the details of the investigation and whatever the findings are," he said. That is precisely the standard to which the inquiry should and will be held.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company