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EDITORIAL: A hint at how to build community trust, even in Chicago

Bettie Jones and Quintonio LeGrier. | Provided photos

That sound you hear is of people not marching in the streets.

We write constantly that Chicago and Cook County must go the extra mile to reform the Chicago Police Department and local courts system to make them more deserving of the community trust that is crucial to maintaining law and order. Without that trust, police and prosecutors cannot fully do their jobs.

EDITORIAL

Now, in a small way, we are witnessing an example of how that greater public trust can play out for the good of all.

On the day after Christmas in 2015, a Chicago police officer, responding to a domestic disturbance call, shot and killed an emotionally upset African-American teenager, Quintonio LeGrier, who was armed with a bat. The officer also killed LeGrier’s upstairs neighbor, Bettie Jones, firing an apparently errant gunshot.

The community outrage was immediate, as you would expect, especially in a city still reeling from the utterly unjustified police shooting one year earlier of another African-American teenager, Laquan McDonald.

But in February 2017, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, after reviewing the evidence, announced it would not charge the officer, Robert Rialmo, in the deaths of LeGrier and Jones. State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said there was “insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt” that the officer “did not act in self-defense.”

It’s important to note what did not happen next. Though many Chicagoans doubted the wisdom of Foxx’s decision, there were no widespread or continual public protests. Certainly, there was nothing like the furious demonstrations that hit Chicago when the previous state’s attorney, Anita Alvarez, was so painfully slow to charge the police officer who shot McDonald.

Sun-Times archive: The Quintonio LeGrier case

There are any number of explanations, no doubt, for these two distinctly different grassroots responses to a questionable shooting by a police officer, beginning with the simple fact that the McDonald slaying was caught on camera. The wrongness could not be denied.

But the explanation lies as well, we believe, in the changing of the guard — from Alvarez to Foxx.

The state’s attorney’s office under Alvarez, seemingly reluctant to hold to account police officers who cross the line, had squandered — or never earned — the trust and faith of much of the public. That’s why Foxx ran against Alvarez for state’s attorney in 2016, on a pledge to restore and build that trust, and that’s why she won.

This hasn’t always sat well with our local police. In November, when Foxx dropped charges against 17 men because her office was uncomfortable with the integrity of the police work that led to the charges, a leader of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police accused her of running a “renegade prosecutor’s office” that panders “to the powerful anti-police movement in the city.”

But, as we are seeing, professional integrity eventually works out best for all, even for a cop who finds himself in a bad spot. Foxx was able to announce that no charges would be filed against Officer Rialmo without inviting the kind of blowback that would have hit Alvarez hard.

For any elected official, the toughest calls are easier if you’ve earned a level of community trust.

Rialmo is by no means out of the woods. Last week, Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability released a report that concludes there is “no evidence” to support Rialmo’s assertions that any of the shots he fired were necessary. Investigators found Rialmo’s statements to be “inconsistent and ultimately unreliable.” He stands a good chance of being fired.

That COPA produced such a tough assessment of Rialmo’s actions is, in itself, a signal that maybe — just maybe — real police reform is inching forward. COPA was established by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2016, in the wake of the Laquan McDonald scandal, to replace another police oversight board that had a bad habit of looking the other way.

Foxx declined to charge Rialmo because, she said, she would have to prove his guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” and she didn’t think she could. COPA, on the other hand, had a much lower hurdle to jump. It had to show only that “the preponderance of evidence” indicated Rialmo was at fault.

Both Foxx and COPA got this one right, we suspect, and it is essential that they keep getting things right. No backsliding.

Keep the reform coming, and the trust of a city will follow.

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