The firing of Officer Robert Rialmo and the failure of Chicago Police Department training

The best police work minimizes force, confrontation and individual heroics. It uses words before batons, batons before tasers, tasers before guns.

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Chicago police Officer Robert Rialmo, the officer who shot and killed Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones in December 2015, arrives for court at the Daley Center on May 29, 2018. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Robert Rialmo was a Chicago police officer until being fired on Thursday.

Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

We know a guy who, some 40 years ago, didn’t know if he wanted to be a cop or a reporter.

So he took an aptitude test to be a Chicago police officer, even as he worked nights for a local news service.

Our friend aced the test. He scored so high that although he decided to stick with journalism — and eventually put together a distinguished career with another paper — the police called him a couple of times to ask, “You sure you don’t want to be a cop?”

We asked him how he managed to do so well on the test.

“You always call for backup,” he said.

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The point of the police aptitude test, he explained, was to see if he had good judgment and the right temperament. So, among other things, it presented him with a series of typical cop scenarios and asked him what he would do.

If, for example, he was sent out on a call and walked in on a married couple waving kitchen knives and screaming at each other, what would he do?

“Call for backup,” he wrote.

And if he asked a driver to step out of a car and the driver would not?

“Call for backup,” he wrote.

His point was clear. The best police work minimizes force, confrontation and individual heroics. It uses words before batons, batons before tasers, tasers before guns. It waits things out. It de-escalates.

If only Robert Rialmo had been that kind of cop. He might still have a job. And two people might still be alive.

The Chicago Police Board fired Rialmo on Thursday, nearly four years after he shot two people during a domestic disturbance call on the West Side. The board voted 7-0 to terminate Rialmo’s employment, making the tough but right decision.

A 40-year-old aptitude test tells us that Chicago has always known what kind of cop is best — the cop who resorts to lethal force only in the rarest of cases, when there truly is no alternative.

But the shootings by Rialmo, as well as questionable shootings by other officers in recent years, are indicators that a more confrontational and coercive culture is at work at the Chicago Police Department.

This is not exactly news.

Two years ago, the U.S. Justice Department, in a scathing review of the police department, said officers were far too quick to turn to excessive and even deadly force, most often against black and Latino residents. The Chicago police, then-U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch said, suffered from a “culture in which officers expect to use force and not be questioned about the need for or propriety of that use.”

But a court-supervised reform of the department, prompted by the federal review, remains a work in progress, far from completed. More must be done to recruit the right kind of officers — those who are temperamentally inclined to use lethal force only as a last resort — and the city has yet to begin construction of a new police training facility.

That reform has a ways to go is reflected in the disturbing posture of the Fraternal Order of Police, which seems to have never seen an on-duty shooting by an officer that its members cannot defend. They defended the shooting — 16 times — of Laquan McDonald by then-Officer Jason Van Dyke. They have defended Rialmo’s actions.

So let’s be clear about what Rialmo did and, equally important, did not do.

On Dec. 26, 2015, Rialmo and his partner were dispatched to a two-flat at 4710 W. Erie, in response to several 911 calls. A man had barricaded himself in a second-floor bedroom and his 19-year-old son, Quintonio LeGrier, was trying to get in with an aluminum baseball bat. Both the father and son had called 911.

When Rialmo and his partner arrived at the building, a downstairs neighbor who wasn’t involved in the domestic dispute, Bettie Jones, motioned to the upstairs apartment. Moments later, LeGrier came charging down the stairs with the bat.

It is a matter of dispute as to what happened next. LeGrier’s family claims Rialmo retreated several feet off the front porch and was in no immediate physical danger. Rialmo claims that LeGrier swung the bat within inches of his head.

Rialmo opened fire, killing both LeGrier and Jones.

The Police Board on Thursday had this to say about that:

“When Officer Rialmo fired his gun in the direction of Bettie Jones, he had the ability to safely reposition himself even farther than he already had from Mr. LeGrier. Had Officer Rialmo done so, he could have neutralized the threat posed by Quintonio LeGrier, and Bettie Jones would be alive today.”

Was that too much to expect of Rialmo? We don’t think so. On the contrary, the Police Board got to the heart of the problem. Every officer should be expected to make every reasonable effort to avoid using lethal force.

Rialmo owned a police baton. He didn’t use it. He left it in his police van.

Rialmo could have used a Taser. But, just the day before, he failed to get certified to carry a Taser.

All Rialmo left himself with was his gun, making a last resort a more likely resort.

What kind of police training was this?

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