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Editorial: The lessons of one bad day for Laquan McDonald judge

Judge Vincent Gaughan as a Cook County public defender in 1974.

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Judge Vincent Gaughan may owe his life to Chicago Police officers who responded with patience and compassion some 45 years ago when he was a young man who behaved recklessly.

How ironic it is today that Judge Gaughan will preside over the trial of a police officer, Jason Van Dyke, who reacted in an entirely different way when confronted with another young man, Laquan McDonald, who behaved recklessly. Officer Van Dyke shot 17-year-old McDonald 16 times, killing him.

EDITORIAL

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The remarkable story of Gaughan’s run-in with the cops long ago was told online last week by Chicago Reader reporter Steve Bogira. We urge you to read it, if you have not. It is a story that says volumes about how our city works, for better and worse. Allow us to sum it up here and make two brief observations.

The year was 1970. Gaughan, a 28-year-old law student at DePaul University and a decorated Vietnam veteran, was living with his parents in Lincoln Park. He had been “nervous” since returning from the war, his father would later say.

One evening that April, Gaughan came home agitated after getting into a scuffle with another driver after a minor traffic accident. He went to his third-floor bedroom and locked the door.

At 3 a.m. the following morning, the couple next door was awakened by gunfire. Two bullets, according to a later Chicago Tribune report, had shattered their bedroom window and pierced the wall above their bed. The couple called the police. Two officers arrived. As they talked in the dining room, two more shots came through the window, narrowly missing the officers.

The police figured out where the shots had come from — the third floor of the Gaughan house — and more cops swarmed in.

What then? Bullhorns? Tear gas? Flying bullets?

No.

Gaughan called down the stairs that he wanted to talk to a priest friend, Father John Richardson, who was vice president of DePaul. Richardson soon arrived and assured the officers he knew Gaughan well and that “he won’t hurt me.”

But as the priest started up the stairs, Gaughan called down, “Wait — I want a policeman to come too. An Irish sergeant.”

“That broke the tension,” Bill Mullen of the Tribune later wrote. “The policemen smiled, and the guns went down.”

Sgt. Charles Adamson, volunteering that he was Irish, walked up with Richardson.

Inside his bedroom, Gaughan laid down an M1 rifle. He walked down the stairs. He rode in a squad car with Richardson to a police station.

Gaughan’s father wanted to go, too. An officer put his arm around the older man’s shoulders and offered him a ride.

That’s pretty much the whole story. Gaughan, according to Bogira, was charged with several serious offenses, including aggravated assault, but nothing much came of it. Two years later, Gaughan was admitted to the Illinois bar.

Our first observation:

We know for a fact that Chicago Police officers, then and now, respond to such tense calls all the time with this kind of sensitivity and patience. Not an hour goes by that a cop somewhere in Chicago isn’t talking down a dangerously angry husband, a furious teenager, a crazed neighbor. No matter the color of the cop. No matter the color of the enraged person.

This is what our police do, though it hardly makes the headlines. Maybe it should.

Our second observation:

Can anybody who reads this story of the honorable Judge Gaughan’s one bad day long ago feel confident things would have gone down the same had certain facts been different?

If Gaughan had not been a Lincoln Park law student? If he had not had a distinguished friend? If he had not been white, the son of Irish immigrants?

What if Gaughan had conveyed that particular alienation, like Laquan McDonald, that comes from being beaten by your mother’s boyfriend and bounced around foster homes?

How might it have gone with the cops if Gaughan had not looked like family?

Maybe that’s what all the street protests, the upheavals at City Hall and the Justice Department civil rights investigation of the Chicago Police Department are about:

Too often in Chicago, instead of seeing a troubled member of the family of man, we think we see the enemy.

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