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EDITORIAL: What Chicago cops have to do — Run into danger, and accept tough oversight

Screen shot from a police bodycam video after an Chicago Police officer shot Aquoness Cathery last November. | Screen shot

Two stories on one day about Chicago cops, offered in Thursday’s Sun-Times, spoke volumes about how harrowing police work can be — and why strong civilian oversight is essential.

In the first story, by far the more significant, Sam Charles of the Sun-Times reported on a police video that shows an officer shooting a fleeing man — a fleeing man with a gun. The video, taken by the officer’s body camera, is a mere 1:49 minutes long and jumpy, but it sheds light, should anybody have doubt, on the kind of instant life-and-death decisions police officers must make.

EDITORIAL

We can question those decisions, and we should. But we first had better put ourselves squarely in the officer’s place.

It was the afternoon of Nov. 29, 2017, and the officer was responding to a call of “shots fired” in the Washington Park neighborhood on the South Side.

Consider that: The officer was running toward a call of reported gunfire. The rest of us would have run the other way.

The officer chased a suspect, Aquoness Cathery, 24, into an apartment in the 6100 block of South King Drive. He burst through the door.

Consider that: The officer could not know what dangers he might face on the other side of that door.

The officer chased Cathery out the apartment’s back door. Cathery — the video appears to leave no doubt — was holding a gun in his right hand as he fled down the stairs.

If you watch the video frame by frame, you can see that Cathery’s right arm was pressed against a handrail as he turned a corner, and his gun — later found to be a semi-automatic weapon — appeared to be pointed in the officer’s direction.

The officer opened fire.

Consider that: If this was not a justifiable use of “deadly force,” what is?

Cathery fell to the ground, mortally wounded. The officer called for an ambulance. In the background, six steps up on the stairs, was Cathery’s gun.

Consider that: Officers often are accused of planting guns on or near suspects to justify police shootings. But thanks to the officer’s body cam — a reform the police resisted for years — the existence of Cathery’s gun appears undeniable.

Shortly afterward, a top police official talked to reporters, and what he didn’t say was as significant as what he did say.

Deputy Police Chief Kevin Ryan said that an officer had shot a man armed with a semi-automatic gun. He said the suspect, who would die of his wounds hours later, had been taken by ambulance to a local hospital. He said the officer would be placed on a 30-day administrative leave, pending an investigation. And he said a review would be done by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability.

But consider this: Ryan did not leap to the officer’s defense.

In the recent past, the Chicago Police Department has left it to a spokesman for the police officers’ union, the Fraternal Order of Police, to answer reporters’ questions at the scene in cases such as this. The FOP, not waiting for a review of the facts by anybody, has always rolled out an instant narrative that exonerated the officer.

But what of that other big cop story of day?

Also Thursday, the Sun-Times reported that several officers, including a sergeant, have been stripped of their police powers while the feds look into allegations of drug dealer rip-offs. The officers have not been charged, but a source told the Sun-Times that the officers were robbing dealers.

Consider this: Chicago must always stand up for police officers who do their best, and it must hold to account those who would destroy the reputation and credibility of the entire department. The professional training should never end.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.