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Editorial: A price to pay for whitewashing McDonald shooting

Laquan McDonald | provided

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Have you watched the video of the last minutes and death of LaQuan McDonald? It is 6 minutes and 33 seconds of horror, but a necessary civics lesson in how justice sometimes really goes down in Chicago.

If you have watched, you know this is not what happened:

“Officer Van Dyke fired his weapon in fear of his life when the offender while armed with a knife continued to approach and refused all verbal direction.”

This is what Deputy Police Chief David McNaughton wrote in a report of the shooting that he signed off on. It was not true. It was a fabrication designed to cover up. It was, to be blunt, a lie. Seventeen-year-old McDonald clearly was walking away from Jason Van Dyke, of no immediate threat to anybody, when the officer unloaded 16 bullets into him on the night of Oct. 20, 2014.

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On Friday, McNaughton announced his retirement from the Chicago Police Department, and on Monday reporters for the Sun-Times explained why: the City of Chicago’s inspector general has recommended that at least 10 officers involved in the McDonald case, including McNaughton, be fired or severely disciplined. Apparently there is a price to be paid for whitewashing a police-involved killing. Or we can hope. If Police Supt. Eddie Johnson follows through forcefully on Inspector General Joe Ferguson’s report — which is sitting on his desk awaiting action — it would mark one of the biggest house-cleanings in the department’s history and, far more to the point, send a strong message that the old Blue Code of Silence won’t be tolerated.

But will this happen? Recent history leaves us skeptical. Even top cops in Chicago have a way of looking the other way when it’s one of their own. We witnessed this vividly in the case of David Koschman, the young man who died after being punched by a nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley one night in 2004. Ten years later, a report by a special prosecutor — forced into existence by Sun-Times reporting — singled out six police officers for mishandling the Koschman investigation in ways that always — no surprise — worked to the favored nephew’s advantage.

But all six named officers got off easy, if they were disciplined at all. Four of the officers retired, as the police department dragged out an internal investigation, allowing them to avoid disciplinary actions. The other two officers received one-year suspensions. One of those two has since returned to duty after cashing in unused paid time off, while the other remains on duty, fighting the suspension.

So forgive us if we ask Supt. Johnson how long disciplinary action will take now in the case of Laquan McDonald. One officer, McNaughton, already has ducked out by resigning. And then there were nine.

We want to be utterly clear about something here: All ten cops named in Ferguson’s report deserve a fair and impartial review by Johnson. Cop work is dangerous and confusing and nobody should demand or tolerate a rush to judgment. Just as there should have been no rush to judgment when Laquan McDonald was killed. But if any facts in this case remain unclear at this late date, that in itself is an indictment of the police depart. Supt. Johnson should be able to act quickly and boldly.

Time matters. Nine officers still on the Chicago police force are now under a terrible cloud. The inspector general’s recommendations — that the officers be disciplined hard or even fired — make them less effective in their jobs. And until disciplinary action is taken, that cloud will extend in ugly ways over the entire force.

In the end, the U.S. Justice Department, which is conducting its own civil rights investigation into CPD’s practices, may have its own say in who stays and who goes, who stands proud and who acted shamefully.

Johnson’ actions, whatever he now does, will mark only a beginning of what we hope will be true and permanent reform.

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