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Justice for all

It shouldn’t be that hard. When a person goes above and beyond the call of duty to do admirable work, that person should be rewarded, at least with praise if not anything else. And when a person screws up and does something wrong, that person should face appropriate consequences.

That is the basics of justice. It should be rare, but like common sense, it’s nowhere near as common as we want it to be.

For instance, we would always like the people in the justice business — lawmakers, police, judges and attorneys — to be held to the same standards they hold us to. This simple consistency shows that we can trust the system to protect all of us fairly.

That’s why New Yorkers are glad that longtime state Assembly Sheldon Silver was finally sent to prison recently for a six-and-a-half-year term. He was first found guilty of corruption charges in 2015, then had that conviction thrown out on appeal, and the was convicted at a second trial in 2018. He hadn’t done any jail time. Regular people usually aren’t able to evade the consequences of our actions that long.

We are not opposed to elected lawmakers in general. They are necessary, and mostly good, we believe. But they are given power by the people and therefore must be subject to checks and balances to make sure they don’t abuse it.

The same goes for police officers, who have been caught in the public spotlight’s glare more than usual since a Minneapolis cop killed George Floyd in late May. As we’ve said before, we strongly believe most cops are good, and we call on our neighbors to remember how hard their job is, the good work they do and how much society needs their services. We also think law enforcement officers should be listened to more in the process of making new laws.

But with power comes responsibility. The number-one thing protesters around the nation have been seeking is police accountability, and in that, we support them.

Police are far from the only profession in which unions and management team up to take care of their own, shielding them from the consequences of their actions, but it gets more noticed with them because society has entrusted them with authority.

Questions about that are raised by an incident that took place June 6, recently revealed by Albany Times Union reporter Robert Gavin. It’s a convoluted chain of events, but here is a summary: An off-duty cop from Cohoes was at his second home in Elizabethtown when he called 911 to report a gunfight he supposedly had with some Black young people. He said he was questioning why they were near his house when one of them unveiled a gun in his waistband. He said he drew his service revolver and exchanged gunfire with the youth as he retreated.

Then he called 911 back to say that tale hadn’t been true: The youths didn’t have a gun, but he was scared, hid behind a shed on his property and fired several shots into a log.

State Police investigators found his stories inconsistent and determined that the second wasn’t entirely true, either. For one thing, he said he was not drunk, but the smell of alcohol and his bloodshot eyes suggested otherwise when they met him.

This is not the kind of bad deed that, on its own, necessarily should lead to an officer being fired, although the fact that this officer had a prior driving-while-intoxicated conviction must be considered. But getting drunk and threatening people with one’s service weapon while off duty is certainly out of line and deserves discipline. Criminal charges could also have been in order since this officer admitted he falsely reported an incident, which can be either a misdemeanor or a felony. State Police also looked into a possible charge of menacing the youths, although they reportedly opted not to press charges on that.

State Police closed the case with no charges filed, which prompts questions about the rest of the story. But at least as concerning is that the city of Cohoes did not discipline this officer. That’s just wrong. The new mayor told the TU the disciplinary process is too long and difficult, so instead the city is letting this 46-year-old officer use up his accrued sick leave and then retire — with full benefits and nothing about this incident on his record, unless future employers read about him in the newspapers.

It’s sad it got to this point, but if the city won’t discipline him, the public deserves to know about it — and Gavin’s reporting gives an inside look at how the system works. We urge people to judge this cop with a sense of fairness — and maybe even a little mercy, since each of us makes mistakes. But systematically, this reminds us that we need to keep up calls for those who uphold justice to be subject to it as well.