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Time for an inquest

Victoria Snelgrove is dead. The least we can do is stop referring to the gun that killed her as a nonlethal weapon.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Police Commissioner Kathleen M. O'Toole have been pointing fingers in all the wrong directions since Boston police sprayed a crowd outside Fenway Park with pepper-packed pellets, killing the 21-year-old Emerson College student. The mayor blames the bars for serving too much alcohol, the TV cameras for giving rowdy fans too much air-time, the universities for enrolling too many "knuckleheads." The commissioner blames the "punks" who provoked the police.

All of those factors certainly contributed to the general chaos in Kenmore Square early Thursday morning. None is responsible for the death of the aspiring journalist from Bridgewater. The crowd did not kill Victoria Snelgrove; the botched crowd control did.

No one underestimates the challenge or the danger when police officers confront streets jammed with thousands of booze-fueled revelers, some of them bent on mayhem. One sergeant suffered a broken nose the other night when he was hit in the face with a bottle. But these events are neither unprecedented nor unanticipated. That's why police departments train and equip special units to deal with riot situations.

A lot went wrong the other night, but some questions are more pressing than others. Why drunken sports fans are driven to destructive behavior after a championship win is a question best left to some blue ribbon commission. What went fatally wrong on Lansdowne Street is a more urgent question best addressed by an investigation independent of the Boston Police Department.

Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley should ask for an immediate judicial inquest into the circumstances surrounding Snelgrove's shooting. An internal police investigation is not an adequate response to the fatal shooting of a young woman who O'Toole concedes was an innocent bystander to the riotous celebrations. An inquest by an impartial party could determine not only whether police discharged their weapons recklessly, but also whether officers armed with those pepper launchers were adequately trained in their use.

Boston Police Department bought the weapons in anticipation of riots that never materialized at the Democratic National Convention last July. They had never been used outside training sessions until the Red Sox defeated the Yankees in Game Seven of the American League pennant series. The weapons come with manufacturer's warnings against aiming for the face to avoid a projectile penetrating an eye, as it did in Snelgrove's case. If the accounts of witnesses are correct, and police "sprayed" the crowd without warning rather than targeting specific suspects, it is amazing others were not killed or seriously injured.

The Police Department has been on the defensive for good reason since February when riots erupted after the Super Bowl win by the New England Patriots. James Grabowski, 21, of West Newbury was killed when an allegedly drunk driver plowed into a crowd of revelers that had taken over the streets around Northeastern University. Police had not dispatched enough officers or planned a coordinated response to bands of drunken students, who overturned cars and set fires.

This time, police were out in force, but they were no better prepared. The 700 or so officers on duty after the Red Sox win found themselves surrounded in narrow streets by tens of thousands of students who had poured out of area apartments and dormitories.

Crowd control requires more than officers in riot-gear. Leadership requires more than righteous denunciations of "punks" and "knuckleheads." The failure of police to quell another near riot and the unwillingness of the mayor and police commissioner to acknowledge their flawed planning underscores the need for an impartial inquest into Snelgrove's violent death. It's the least we can do.

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at

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