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EDITORIAL: A prison sentence too short, and a fight for reform that carries on

Jason Van Dyke reads a statement at his sentencing hearing at the Leighton Criminal Court Building on Friday, Jan. 18, 2019. | Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/Pool

Six years and nine months is not enough.

Not when, with time off for good behavior, Jason Van Dyke could walk out of prison in half that time.

Not when his crime was killing a drugged-up teenager holding a knife who presented no immediate physical threat, who was in fact walking away.

OPINION

We are not King Solomon. We can’t say with all wisdom what a more appropriate sentence would have been, and neither can anybody else.

Solomon never lived in Chicago.

But a sentence of less than four years, allowing for good time, for 16 shots? Home burglars go away for that long.

There is a reason this case turned Chicago upside down.

There is a reason it led to marches in the streets, the firing of a police superintendent, the defeat for reelection of a state’s attorney, and the decision by a mayor not to seek reelection.

On the night of Oct. 20, 2014, a Chicago police officer stood over an African-American teenager, Laquan McDonald, and pumped bullet after bullet into him for no sane reason. His fellow officers had to be wondering what in hell he was doing, though they’ll never say it aloud.

It was all caught on video, putting the lie to every police report of what went down that night. It crystalized every reason so many African-Americans in Chicago don’t trust the cops. It forced everybody else to see.

We would like to believe the scandal of the death of Laquan McDonald — both the murder and the coverup — marks a turning point in police behavior and race relations in Chicago, and maybe it does.

But only if we don’t let up.

Because McDonald was murdered, the U.S. Justice Department investigated the Chicago Police Department and forced upon our city a painful moment of truth.

In a groundbreaking report, the feds concluded that CPD is not trusted by the very people it is supposed to serve and protect, especially African-Americans. The police department, said the feds, resorts to guns too quickly, covers up for officers who cross the line and punishes bad cops lightly or not at all.

As if we did not know. But now that judgment came with a federal stamp.

Because McDonald was murdered, Mayor Rahm Emanuel bowed to general outrage and agreed that Chicago would enter into a court-monitored consent decree to reform the police department, from training to supervision to discipline. Reform efforts were useless, the mayor finally understood, if the public didn’t buy into it.

Because McDonald was murdered, a reform-minded Cook County state’s attorney, Kim Foxx, was elected and is shaking things up. Convictions based on questionable police work are getting a second look. Any decision not to file charges in a police-involved shooting is to be reviewed by a state appellate prosecutor. Fewer people are being held in jail just because they’re too dirt poor to make bond.

RELATED: Complete coverage of the Laquan McDonald case

Because McDonald was murdered, we are witnessing a mayoral election like none other in Chicago history.

In a crowded field, a majority of the candidates are positioning themselves as champions of both police reform and better policing, which go hand in hand. Most of them are stressing their support for the police, as candidates always do and should, but also for the reforms of the consent decree.

At a forum hours after Judge Vincent Gaughan announced Van Dyke’s sentence, a number of the candidates were quick to criticize.

Toni Preckwinkle said she was “disappointed and outraged.”

Lori Lightfoot said the sentence “does not send a message of justice or equality.”

Amara Enyia called it “barely a slap on the wrist.”

Paul Vallas said Van Dyke “should have gone to jail for a longer sentence.”

Willie Wilson asked, “Is that all a black life is worth?”

Susana Mendoza said, “Today’s lenient sentence did not fit the severity of the crime.”

Bill Daley said, “The appearance of a lenient sentence is a problem.”

This is not Daley’s father’s mayoral election.

When a Chicago cop is dispatched to prison, even for just a handful of years, for unjustifiably killing a young black man, that in itself is a turning point. It is unprecedented. It is stunning.

But the work of creating a better police department, worthy of trust in every neighborhood, is just beginning.

The consent decree must be carried out. At the moment, it is little more than an expression of intent.

The police union contract must be renegotiated to eliminate provisions that serve no purpose but to protect bad cops from being held accountable.

And we believe, more than ever, that a new police academy should be built on the West Side. A better training facility is called for in the Justice Department report, and we can allow no excuses for not getting the job of reform done right.

Above all, we would like to believe this entire miserable chapter in Chicago history, encapsulated in a horrific video, has changed hearts and minds.

That would be the turning point that matters most.

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