Editorial: Trust in police demands a full accounting

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Laquan McDonald

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Between now and Wednesday, the Chicago Police Department will release a video of an officer shooting a teenager 16 times, killing the young man.

When or before the department releases that potentially incendiary video, as ordered Thursday by a Cook County judge, it should also provide a detailed explanation as to why the officer — more than a year after the shooting — has yet to face disciplinary action. The officer has been stripped of his police powers and reassigned to administrative duties but remains on the force.

The video is sure to be upsetting enough. But City Hall’s refusal to release it for months, saying it was not the “appropriate time,” while agreeing to a $5 million settlement with the teenager’s family, has fueled suspicions the city was trying to hush this one up.

EDITORIAL

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Police brass say they cannot begin disciplinary action against Officer Jason Van Dyke until a federal probe is completed, and legal experts tell us there is truth in that. But it is unclear how forcefully the police and City Hall reacted in the first weeks after the shooting. Nor should the dashcam video have been kept under lock and key this long. If reliable witnesses statements — free of any taint from viewing the video — haven’t been gathered by now, that ship has sailed.

A full accounting, with specific dates, could allay concerns.

This is about trust. A police department must have the trust and support of its community to do its job. But that trust must be earned every day, and most especially after an officer shoots a teenager 16 times.

On Thursday, after Judge Franklin Valderrama’s ruling, City Hall’s strategy and tone both took turns for the better. Mayor Emanuel put out a statement saying the city will release the video by Nov. 25, rather than appeal the judge’s decision. And the mayor was pointed in expressing his own disgust.

“Police officers are entrusted to uphold the law, and to provide safety to our residents,” Emanuel said. “In this case, unfortunately, it appears an officer violated that trust at every level.”

On Oct. 20, 2014, 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was walking down the middle of Pulaski Road at 40th Street. According to a lawyer who has seen the police dashcam video — and was interviewed by Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell — McDonald was holding a knife in his right hand, but was not running or lunging, just walking.

Two officers, responding to a call of a man with a knife walking oddly, jumped out of a police vehicle with guns drawn, separated from McDonald by a lane of traffic. One officer, allegedly Van Dyke, shot McDonald 16 times. Neither officer, inexplicably, reportedly was equipped with a Taser gun.

An autopsy revealed McDonald was shot at least twice in his back. The autopsy also concluded McDonald had PCP, a hallucinogenic drug, in his system.

Because the video has not been released, this is all we know. We cannot know crucial details and nuance. In the absence of the video, conjectures and rumors flow freely.

Until Thursday’s court ruling, the city had resisted pressure to release the video, saying it would be inappropriate while a federal investigation was pending, but common sense says city officials were plenty worried as well about the public reaction. If the video were not highly inflammatory, it is unlikely the city would have reached a financial settlement with McDonald’s family even before the family filed suit.

No doubt adding to City Hall’s concern, Laquan McDonald was shot at a height of tense relations between police departments and communities across the nation, with racial conflict often a factor. McDonald, a black teenager, was killed by a white police officer in Chicago just ten weeks after Michael Brown, a black teenager, was killed by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

Nonetheless, the Chicago police could have released the video months ago without compromising any federal or local investigation, and this is really what the public demands most — just level with us.

One officer’s bad actions do not define an entire police department. Most Chicagoans understand that. We are confident Chicagoans will react thoughtfully and responsibly when the video is released.

But how a police department deals with an officer’s bad actions reflects mightily on the whole department.

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