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Editorial: We need prompt answers in latest police shooting

In this frame grab from a body cam provided by the Independent Police Review Authority, a Chicago police officer fires into a stolen car driven by Paul O'Neal on July 28 in Chicago. O'Neal's autopsy results showed he died of a gunshot wound to the back. (Chicago Police Department/Independent Police Review Authority via AP)

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Six hundred forty-seven days.

That’s how long the Chicago Police Department has had to clean up its act since 16 bullets were fired into Laquan McDonald, 17, on Oct. 20, 2014.

It’s had that much time to ensure police officers are better trained. To make sure department policies are followed. To show the department has earned the trust and support of its community.

Yet on July 28, police shot in the back and killed an unarmed Paul O’Neal, 18, in a South Shore incident that Police Supt. Eddie Johnson said “raised a lot of questions about whether departmental policies were followed.”

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After all the controversy, all the marches, all the promises to do better, shouldn’t we expect more?

When Johnson says the department will be “open and honest about what we discover and we will work together with our community partners to implement solutions,” isn’t it fair to wonder whether those solutions should have been implemented already?

Not all the information in this case has come to light, and it would be unfair to judge the actions of the police officers until it does. The nine videos released Friday not only record a disturbing death but also once again remind us how unimaginably perilous it can be for a police officer to respond to a crime in progress. In one video, it appears the car O’Neal was driving came dangerously close to striking a police officer.

Yet it’s fair to ask when we will stop seeing video evidence from around the nation repeatedly showing us young men, many of them African American, dying at the hands of police.

In O’Neal’s case, police were trying to stop a reportedly stolen Jaguar he was driving. The videos show the Jaguar apparently sideswiping a police car near East 74th Street and South Merrill Avenue. As the driver attempts to flee in the car, police shoot at the car, even though the use-of-force policy does not permit shooting at a moving vehicle if the only danger is to police themselves. One video shows the Jaguar subsequently crashing head-on into a different police vehicle. A police officer can be heard at one point saying, “I don’t know if they fired or not.”

The videos also show police after giving chase through backyards after O’Neal runs away on foot, but the shot in the back that killed him was not captured. The videos show police handcuffing a mortally wounded O’Neal, and police can be heard swearing at him, but the videos do not show anyone rendering aid. The body camera worn by the officer who fired the fatal bullets recorded nothing, possibly either because it was not working or was dislodged during the chase.

To its credit, the reconstituted Independent Police Review Authority — long best known for foot-dragging and obfuscation and targeted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel for replacement — promptly released the videos. Newly appointed administrator Sharon Fairley, who called the videos “shocking and disturbing,” vowed to ensure “that justice is served and our pursuit of justice here will be steadfast” and to make certain the agency works quickly to arrive at a fair resolution.

Working quickly is essential. The longer it takes to arrive at a resolution, the more risk that any divide between police and the public will widen and trust will erode.

When Johnson tried to make a public statement Friday afternoon, a small group of protesters blocked him from the microphones, denying him a chance to speak. That was unfortunate. Too many police shooting cases in the past have been shrouded in official silence. We should welcome the words of a police superintendent who is willing to talk about a controversial case.

Earlier in the day, Johnson said, “My promise to the people of Chicago is that we will be guided by the facts and should wrongdoing be discovered; individuals will be held accountable for their actions.”

It’s absolutely essential he and other authorities deliver on that promise.

The city cannot afford to wait another 647 days — or anything close to that amount of time — for answers.

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