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Officers justified in shooting Roxbury man, probe finds

Two police officers were justified in fatally shooting a 40-year-old Roxbury man in the back and side last summer and should not be criminally charged, police and prosecutors have concluded.

The five-month investigation found that Bert W. Bowen, while fleeing on foot after the officers stopped him for a traffic offense, turned and pointed his gun at one of them, according to a five-page summary of the findings released briefly yesterday. When the officers fired at Bowen, they legitimately feared that he would kill one of them or someone on the street, the summary said. Bowen was carrying a loaded .40-caliber semiautomatic handgun, the investigation concluded.

Because Bowen was shot from behind and because some witnesses said he was not armed, the killing angered residents and activists. Yesterday, police and prosecutors met with Bowen's family to explain the investigation findings.

"I can state that the family is not satisfied with what we heard," said Earl Howard, the lawyer for Bowen's widow, after she and community leaders solemnly emerged from a law office on Canal Street.

He declined to discuss specific findings of the investigation, repeatedly saying that the family needs time to digest the report. Bowen's widow, Dorothy, stood tearfully beside Howard as he spoke to reporters but declined to answer questions.

"As you can imagine, if your husband has been taken from you in this kind of way, you have got to be beset with grief," Howard said. "That is understandable."

Asked if the case might end up in civil court, Howard answered, "I suspect that it might," he said.

The release of the details of the probe unfolded yesterday in fits and starts. First, reporters were summoned to the offices of Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley and given a five-page statement summarizing the findings that he planned to read at a press conference. Then, after reporters had had time to read the statement, an aide told them to give back the copies and announced that the press conference had been cancelled.

The about-face followed a request by Bowen's family and community leaders, including Leonard Alkins, the president of the Boston NAACP, to consider their responses to the investigation before the findings were made public.

"We promised them that we would give due consideration to their concerns and opinions and . . . have decided that a public announcement of the findings of this investigation will be made at a later date," said David Procopio, spokesman for Conley. "We have a great deal of respect for the community leaders, and we have tremendous empathy for the Bowen family, and therefore we are certain that this is the right thing to do."

Procopio would not comment on whether investigators would alter their conclusions or when the report will be officially issued. But a law enforcement source close to the investigation said the delay is not expected to change the findings. "This was in deference to the family's concerns," the source said. "There are no new facts. The police did a thorough investigation. Our feeling is that if you sit down with these people and expect them to listen to you, then you have to listen to them."

As district attorney, Conley reviews all police shootings to decide if the officers were justified.

His statement pointed out that the police officer who fatally shot Bowen had met the man a few months earlier. In February 2004, Officer Brian Smigielski was investigating a report that shots had been fired on Blue Hill Avenue. Bowen approached Smigielski, and they spoke briefly.

Several days later, Smigielski checked Bowen's record, discovered he had a "long record of violent offenses," and told his partner, Officer James Sheehan, according to Conley's statement.

Smigielski encountered Bowen a second time early on the morning of June 27. Smigielski and Sheehan were patrolling Blue Hill Avenue in Roxbury about 3:30 a.m. when they said Bowen ran a stop sign and cut them off. The statement says that Smigielski recognized Bowen and asked him, "Mr. Bowen, whose car is this?"

Bowen had been on parole for about a year after 13 years in prison for armed robbery and assault and battery and had a 10 p.m. curfew as a condition of parole. The curfew violation could have returned him to prison. The statement does not say whether the officers knew about Bowen's curfew.

When the officers pulled Bowen over, he was acting agitated, and Smigielski asked him to step out of the car, according to Conley's statement. Bowen lunged at the police officer and then fled down the street, pulling out a gun, the statement says.

Both officers ran after Bowen, ordering him to stop and drop the gun, Conley's statement said. Bowen kept running and turned toward Smigielski, pointing his gun at the officer. Both police officers fired at Bowen, who was struck three times: at the top of his head, the fatal shot fired by Smigielski; above the right buttock, also by Smigielski; and in his left side, a shot fired by Sheehan.

Police and prosecutors concluded that the location of Bowen's wounds and the bullet paths show that he was killed as he turned to point his gun at Smigielski. Bowen was later pronounced dead at Boston Medical Center, where bags of crack cocaine were found on his body.

"There is dignity and meaning in all life, whatever choices Bert Bowen made," read Conley's statement. "We offer our condolences to the Bowen family."

Prosecutors yesterday rejected charges by some community leaders that city officials were more attentive to the family of Victoria Snelgrove, the white Emerson College student killed by police while she was celebrating the Red Sox pennant victory last month.

"That is absolutely untrue," Procopio said. "We have tremendous sympathy for the Bowen family, and we have given this case due importance, and I think today's announcement [of delaying the report's release] is indicative of that."

But Darnell Williams, president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, argued that city officials employ a double standard when they investigate the deaths of black victims.

"On the surface, it appears that when a person of color dies that the first thing that is talked about is the person's rap sheet . . . and that somehow or another their death was justified because of their criminal backgrounds," he said. "Conversely, when there is a tragic death in the white community, there is a swift response, an apology, outside investigators, and petitions that will say this or that should not be done."

But other community leaders said they have faith in law enforcement authorities and that the Snelgrove and Bowen deaths, while both unfortunate, are two different episodes with different circumstances.

"I'm sure it could look that way if you're looking through that set of lenses," Christopher Sumner, the executive director of the Ten Point Coalition, said of a possible racial double standard. "Both situations are very unfortunate. I'm trusting that the police department and DA's office did the best they could in bringing the facts."

Suzanne Smalley can be reached at

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