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Editorial: How high does cover-up go in Laquan McDonald shooting?

In this Oct. 20, 2014 frame from dashcam video provided by the Chicago Police Department, Laquan McDonald (right) walks down the street moments before he was fatally shot by Officer Jason Van Dyke sixteen times in Chicago. The shooting helped prompt a Justice Department investigation. | Chicago Police Department via AP

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And now we turn to the top brass.

If Chicago’s overdue effort to hold police officers accountable when they cover up for other cops is to be more than show, Supt. Eddie Johnson’s decision late last week to fire seven officers was at best a beginning. Johnson and his predecessor, former Supt. Garry McCarthy, could have taken the same action at any time in the last year but did not. Johnson finally moved only after getting a kick in the pants in the form of a scathing report from the city’s inspector general.

Now the inspector general, Joe Ferguson, is turning his attention to what role the police department’s top brass — not just those in the lower ranks — played in falsifying reports of the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald two years ago — and that review is essential. Reform is not reform if it stops short of the top. It is not structural or permanent. It begins to look like scapegoating.

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McCarthy complained last week that Johnson should not have broken with custom in moving to fire the seven officers even before the fellow cop they are accused of covering up for, Jason Van Dyke, goes on trial for shooting McDonald. But McCarthy is wrong. If the evidence is clear an officer blatantly lied in a report, it does not compromise Van Dyke’s right to a fair trial to boot that officer from the police force immediately. On the contrary, every day the officer is not disciplined erodes public trust in the entire department.

Consider, for example, what one of the seven officers facing dismissal, Van Dyke’s partner Joseph Walsh, claimed in the official police report of the incident. Walsh told investigators that McDonald had advanced on them, ignoring commands to drop a knife in his hand. He said McDonald swung his knife at the officers in an “aggressive manner” when he was 12 or 15 feet away.

As anybody who has watched the video knows, that never happened, not even remotely. But until Supt. Johnson called for Walsh’s firing last week, the officer had remained on the force, undisciplined, for the last 22 months. He now has turned in his badge. His firing awaits a final determination by the city’s civilian Police Board.

There’s just no getting around it: Police abuse, especially against African Americans, has been a very real problem in Chicago going back generations, and to say so is not an attack on good cops doing a hard job. These days, it is often a matter of recorded fact, not just a cop’s word against a defendant’s. Just about everybody walks around with a cell phone camera now, and the video evidence cannot be denied. Dozens of allegations of police abuse in recent years have been settled in or out of court. The city has shelled out $500 million to settle police misconduct cases since 2004.

The scrutiny will continue. Every officer, from fresh-faced rookie to grizzled veteran, might as well accept it, and even welcome it. A special prosecutor is looking into the actions of every officer involved in the Laquan McDonald case. The Department of Justice is investigating how the Chicago police treat minorities and punish misconduct by officers. And all those cell phone cameras are not going away.

Officers who breaks rule and laws are more likely than ever to get caught out. And, more than ever, officers who cover up for a fellow officer’s bad conduct risk losing their own jobs.

This is as it should be. Transparency should be the only game in town.

We found ourselves last week staring at two more videos of the Chicago Police in action that make this point well.

In the first video, captured more than a decade ago by a security camera at a Northwest Side taco joint, two off-duty cops are caught pummeling a man for apparently no good reason. An appellate court judge ruled Aug. 9 that the officers’ claim that the man was threatening to kill cops was “inherently improbable” and “troubling.”

The judge strongly suggested the cops were lying, that is to say, and deserved to be fired.

But in another video, taken Aug. 16, two Chicago police officers chase after an apparently stolen SUV and refuse to back off even when the driver of the SUV pokes a gun out the window and shoots at them. You can see the flashes of gunfire.

In what other job outside a war zone does anybody take such a risk?

In the brave new world of video everywhere, the worst and best of the Chicago Police become impossible to deny.

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