Chicago police stood guard Wednesday as demonstrators protested the death of Laquan McDonald. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

When cops in trouble enjoy the benefit of the doubt, is it because they’ve earned it? Or is there something else going on? Do the people in charge think cutting cops some slack is the prudent thing to do?

In Baltimore, six cops are in trouble. Last April, Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, suffered a spinal injury while in the custody of Baltimore police and died a few days later. Counts against the six charged officers range from second-degree murder to manslaughter to false arrest, and the first of the trials begins Monday. Though it’s remarkable that the officers were charged at all, said Todd Oppenheim, a Baltimore public defender, in an op-ed in the Sunday New York Times, they have since received “extraordinary treatment.” For instance, their bail was “disproportionately low,” they were excused from showing up in court for pretrial motions, and their cases moved through to legal system to trial on an accelerated schedule.

This “preferential treatment,” as Oppenheim calls it, is put in the shade by Chicago’s response to the October 2014 killing of Laquan McDonald. Though a video showed the 17-year-old being fired at by a police officer he wasn’t threatening, an autopsy report said he’d been shot 16 times, and eyewitnesses were plentiful, Officer Jason Van Dyke wasn’t charged with murder until last Tuesday, the same day the video finally was made public.

The reaction of the public was predictable and in character: protests that began Tuesday and reached a peak on Friday when demonstrators shut down the merchants of Michigan Avenue. The reaction of the media was also in character: It’s demanding answers from the police, the state’s attorney’s office, and the mayor. Why, Clarence Page asked in Sunday’s Tribune, “did the city sit on the video for more than a year before a judge ordered its release?” Why, asked the Tribune editorial page, “did it take 13 months to charge Van Dyke with a crime?”

Why did other police officers at the scene let the firing continue, and why did 86 minutes of security video recorded at an adjacent Burger King disappear after police demanded a look at it? Why were civilian witnesses reportedly shooed away by police instead of being interviewed? Why did the audio fail in all of the police videos taken at the scene? Why did the City Council approve a $5 million settlement to McDonald’s family six months after he was shot down even though the family hadn’t filed suit? The Tribune calls it “hush money.”

“This can’t be filed away as the actions of a single rogue cop,” said the Tribune. “It can’t be chalked up as yet another example of dysfunctional police disciplinary process. This looks like an attempted cover-up.”

The reaction of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police also was true to its nature. I visited the FOP’s website Sunday. I found a reminder that checks contributing to the JVD Bond Fund (for Jason Van Dyke) should be made payable to his wife, Tiffany. But the “top story” reported that a demonstrator who’d hit a uniformed officer Tuesday and been charged with felony aggravated battery was cut loose the next day. The FOP called this decision a “travesty” and said it had asked the state’s attorney’s office for an explanation. On asking “why the ASA would release a person who had felony charges for such a serious incident, especially during a time when the last thing anyone wants is demonstrators to think they could get away with striking uniformed Police Officers, we were told ‘things were moving at light speed. . . . Everything that is going on now is unprecedented.'”

The italics are mine. To the FOP, release of the video didn’t make this a time for soul-searching. It’s a time when it’s more important than ever to remind Chicagoans who’s boss.

That’s not an unreasonable way for the FOP to construe the city’s relationship with its police department. The kid-gloves response to the killing of Laquan McDonald recalls the blind eye City Hall and the state’s attorney’s office turned on Jon Burge and his crew of torturers. The Reader’s Steve Bogira observed in a recent Bleader post that the Independent Police Review Authority, like the Office of Professional Standards before it, has “mostly curled up harmlessly when it comes to police misconduct.” Only twice in its eight-year history has the IPRA recommended that an officer investigated for a shooting be fired, Bogira wrote. One was Francisco Perez, an off-duty cop who responded to a drive-by shooting four years ago by firing 16 times at the wrong car. The other was Dante Servin, who fired over his shoulder into a crowd of people in March 2012 and killed 22-year-old Rekia Boyd. Servin, who said he thought he’d seen a gun, was charged with involuntary manslaughter and acquitted by a judge who said the charge should have been murder.

Perez and Servin are both still on the force.

Perez, like Van Dyke, was caught on video. In October Mayor Emanuel let it be known that if the police aren’t happy to be videoed so much, neither is he. “We have allowed our police department to get fetal,” said the mayor, “and it is having a direct consequence. They have pulled back from the ability to interdict . . . they don’t want to be a news story themselves, they don’t want their career ended early, and it’s having an impact.”

Some would call this treatment coddling, and I suppose it is. But it also smacks of propitiation. Civilian authorities treat the police force like something they’re a little afraid of—and why wouldn’t they be? It’s a massive paramilitary organization, a thin blue line happy to be romanticized as the only thing between decent people and chaos. What would happen to Chicago if cops became seriously unhappy and acted out? If you were the mayor, or the state’s attorney, the idea might haunt you. Or your fear might be more visceral, something along the lines of the vague dread that causes a lot of people on hearing a deep rough voice on the telephone ask for a handout for the patrolman’s fund, to pledge $50 just to stay on the safe side.

I like the cops I’ve gotten to know, and I’ve never had an encounter with a cop that I’d describe as anything close to harrowing. But many Chicagoans can’t say the same. And as John Conroy wrote back in 1990, in the first of his many Reader stories on police torture, when he met Jon Burge he liked him. The world is full of people who are likable if you’re on their good side, which is where you want to stay, their dark side being so very touchy. The historic passivity of Chicago’s powers that be when cops behave badly suggests that something about the prospect of taking them on turns our leaders into cowards.