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Saturday, October 21, 2017

First he killed him. Now he’s suing him.

I have no idea whether Robert Rialmo, the Chicago police officer who shot 19-year-old Quintonio LeGrier to death the day after Christmas, was justified in doing so. Certainly, the sequence of events Rialmo describes seems to suggest he was within bounds when he opened fire.

According to Rialmo, Bettie Jones, a 55-year-old grandmother, had just let him into the apartment building where he had been called to quell a domestic disturbance when LeGrier, a college sophomore with a history of emotional problems, charged down the stairs wielding a baseball bat. As Rialmo tells it, LeGrier ignored repeated orders to drop the bat and twice swung at the officer’s head, missing him by just inches. That, says Rialmo, is when he opened fire.

If that is, indeed, how it happened, then it would seem Rialmo had no choice.

If.

Unfortunately, as cellphone and dashcam videos have too frequently shown us in recent years, there can be a vast gulf between what a police officer says and what the truth actually is. There is no video here, but there is an autopsy report which indicates that of the six shots that struck LeGrier, one was in his back and another in his behind, which would seem to indicate that at some point during the barrage at least, he was not facing Rialmo. Not incidentally, one of Rialmo’s shots passed through LeGrier and fatally struck Jones, who was behind him.

It is a body of evidence that is, at best, open to interpretation. But about Rialmo’s decision to sue LeGrier’s estate, it’s a lot easier to reach a hard conclusion: Rialmo should be ashamed of himself.

The suit is ostensibly a counterclaim to the wrongful death suits filed by the Jones and LeGrier families against the city. Rialmo is seeking up to $10 million for his “pain and suffering…” But this is less a lawsuit than it is an act of gall, a product of the kind of petulance, pettiness and spite we have seen too often in recent years from too many police officers.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe most of the people who get into that profession do so for honorable reasons. In fact, I think that in the field of public service, cops are among the greatest — and last — true believers.

But I also believe that when a police officer meets legitimate inquiries about use of force by engaging in a work slowdown as has happened in New York and Baltimore, or by turning his back on the mayor at a police funeral as happened in New York, or by acting with blatant thuggishness toward protesters as happened in Ferguson, Mo., or by suing the family of the teenager he killed, as is happening now in Chicago, what is expressed is not public service, but public contempt.

Rialmo, after all, must know that, even in the very unlikely event he should prevail, he will not collect $10 million from the estate of a dead college sophomore. So obviously, he is doing this not as a means of enrichment, nor as a salve for his “pain and suffering,” but rather, as a brushback pitch, a middle digit salute, and a message.

How dare we question him? How dare we hold him to account?

As noted above, it’s a message that has grown drearily familiar. Perhaps it is time for a message in response:

The police cannot be above the law they enforce. The police must be answerable to the people they serve. I get that that’s unpleasant, but it’s also critical. Effective policing requires that an officer project authority and trustworthiness. Every lie and compromise of justice undermines that. And every act of petulant gall just makes other officers’ work that much more difficult.

So Rialmo has done his profession no favors here. When you project contempt toward the public, what do you expect the public to give you in return?

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.)

Photo: Robert Rialmo, the Chicago police officer who shot 19-year-old Quintonio LeGrier to death the day after Christmas. Robert Rialmo/Facebook