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Editorial: Good cops need not fear unfair accusations

A 23-year-old was fatally shot May 8, 2021 in Lawndale.
CHICAGO, IL - FEBRUARY 04: A Chicago police officer guards the perimeter of a crime scene where six people were found slain inside a home on the city's Southwest Side on February 4, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. Last month Chicago recorded 51 homicides, the highest toll for the month since at least 2000. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 603444953

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A Chicago Police officer, Aldo Brown, was sentenced to two years in prison Wednesday for unnecessarily kicking and punching an employee of a South Side convenience store.

A fair sentence? We believe so, based on the evidence presented at trial, including a security camera recording of the beginning of the beating. But we know that many police officers see the matter differently. Once again, they say, an officer has been unfairly punished just for doing his best in a bad situation. Civilians, they say, don’t have a clue.

This frustration and fear — that officers increasingly are being accused of misconduct just for doing their job aggressively — is being blamed by police brass for an alarming spike in homicides in the last two months. Officers in January and February made only a fraction of the usual number of police stops, wary of increased scrutiny by civil libertarians. The brass says this — along with unseasonably mild weather — may explain why homicides are up.

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We don’t know how true this is. No study has ever shown a link between crime rates and how often the police stop and frisk people. It is possible, though, that Chicago police officers in recent months have been less aggressive over all — not just with respect to making stops — for fear of being targeted unfairly for misconduct. Nobody wants to be the next YouTube sensation.

To which we would say: A good cop, which is far and away most cops, should feel no fear.

Consider those YouTube videos. Consider, as well, other highly publicized recent cases of police misconduct that supposedly have slowed down an entire police force. What you see in each case is a cop engaged in clear misconduct, not simply making a mistake.

Officer Jason Van Dyke shot Laquan McDonald 16 times. Nobody can defend that. Off-duty Officer Dante Servin shot wildly into a crowd, killing Rekia Boyd. Nobody can defend that. Officer Brown beat that store employee, who at first was armed, long after the employee posed a threat.

As Interim Police Supt. John Escalante assured the rank-and-file in a video this week, “there is a difference between a mistake and misconduct” and the consequences for one are not the consequences for the other. There can be “no tolerance” for misconduct, he said, but a mistake can be “corrected through training and supervision.”

This is no small distinction, this difference between a mistake and misconduct. But it’s a distinction that often gets lost in public discussions about police conduct and performance. Our guess is that it is this general sense of being underappreciated, more so than any real fear of being unfairly accused of misconduct, that may be undermining morale among the police.

Maybe that’s why we love the last 2 minutes and 20 seconds of Escalante’s six-minute video to his troops, a powerful collage of photos showing all the ways in which the Chicago Police serve and protect our city.

An officer carries a child from a burning building. An officer runs down a dark alley. An officer works crowd control at a demonstration. An officer rides a horse along the lake. An officer shakes hands in the Bud Billiken Parade. An officer speeds to the scene of a crime. An officer plays basketball with children.

Chicago can’t look away when a police officer shoots a young man 16 times for nothing. And we really have to wonder about all the other cops that night who did look away, even giving false witness statements. The Justice Department’s civil rights investigation of the police department was long overdue.

But Chicago must also, always, stand up and defend all the good officers who may make mistakes — who doesn’t? — while putting their lives on the line for us every day.

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