For those who think Police Supt. Eddie Johnson is in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s pocket, his decision in the tragic Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones fatal police shooting could prove them wrong.
Or it could signal that despite having a black man as top cop, and two years of work by activists, police reform is still a long ways off.
Either way, Johnson’s conclusion that a police officer who fatally shot a young black man and an older black woman in response to a 911 call suggests, that despite all the protests and all the promises of reform, police officers can still shoot black people with immunity.
LeGrier was a 19-year-old college student suffering a mental episode, and Jones was a 55-year-old tenant in LeGrier’s father’s two-flat, when they were fatally shot in 2015.
Their deaths came on the heels of the release of a video showing Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyke shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times as the teen was walking away.
Chicago Police Officer Robert Rialmo told investigators LeGrier had a bat “above his head” and Rialmo opened fire as he back-pedaled down the front porch.
Jones, a bystander, was accidentally shot during the confrontation.
The tragedy is still the subject of civil lawsuits, but the Cook County State’s Attorney has not sought criminal charges.
The Civilian Office of Police Accountability — or COPA — ruled in December that Rialmo was unjustified in firing his weapon and recommended that he be fired.
COPA’s ruling was denounced as “political” by the Rialmo’s attorney, Joel Brodsky, who said: “[Eddie] Johnson is under the mayor’s thumb, [and] the police board has to rule on firing Rialmo.”
COPA has 15 days to submit a rebuttal to the police superintendent.
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The matter will then be referred to a single member of the Police Board. That member will decide whether the Rialmo’s case will be dismissed or be heard by the full police board.
This process is so convoluted, it’s easy to see why so many people believe that justice will not be served in cases involving a fatal police shooting.
In rejecting COPA’s finding, the top cop has made a good case for why Chicago needs an empowered civil police oversight agency that can set policy and strategy for the police department.
Johnson, an African-American, came up through the ranks and landed in the top spot amid a backlash so fierce it pushed former Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez out of office.
It was expected that Johnson would help restore community trust in the police department, which had done little to earn the respect of citizens living in predominantly black areas.
What happened to LeGrier was a parent’s worst nightmare.
And it was another example of what happens too often in black neighborhoods when police officers are too quick to use deadly force.
Rialmo and his partner showed up on a domestic disturbance call without Tasers, and apparently no training on how to deal with someone going through a mental episode.
And Jones’ death was treated like so much collateral damage — as if there had been a shootout between the cops and the bad guys, and an “errant” bullet struck her when there was only a young man with a bat.
It is entirely possible that Johnson, a former street cop and someone who understands the rules and regulations governing police actions, saw no way around keeping Rialmo on the force.
It is entirely possible that Johnson’s interpretation of those rules gave Rialmo permission to use deadly force.
But while I would expect an armed civilian in Rialmo’s situation to fire a lethal weapon, I don’t expect that from a police officer.
After all, the Chicago Police Department’s recently revised Use of Force policy places “sanctity of human life at the center,” and says, “Deadly force may only be used as a last resort.”
Hopefully, the Chicago Police Board will overrule Johnson’s surprising ruling.
After what happened to LeGrier and Jones, I can’t imagine how Rialmo would ever be fit to police our communities again.