Op-Ed: What about the city’s other police scandals?

Originally published on Chicago SunTimes:

What about the city’s other police scandals?
By Joshua Tepfer
The city’s continued failure to address a systemic police scandal that cost hundreds of black citizens their freedom has never quite sustained the public’s attention.

It is “Groundhog Day” for the City of Chicago as the Lightfoot administration tries to respond to the suppression of the latest Chicago police misconduct caught on video.

Emails confirm that in November 2019 when the City’s top brass caught wind of the “wrongful raid” of Anjanette Young’s home as she stood naked pleading with nearly a dozen male Chicago police that they “had the wrong place,” the first thought was not of the wellbeing of Young or holding the police accountable. The overarching concern was ensuring that the public never view the video.

This strategy prevailed for over a year, as the city’s law department sought to restrain CBS from airing the horrific video, while simultaneously pursuing sanctions against Young’s attorney for releasing a video that should have been made public two years prior.

It is hard to find any real difference between these actions and those of the Emanuel administration in its handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting.

The players have changed but the game is the same — the city and its leaders instinctively act to cover up rather than address abhorrent Chicago police misconduct.

After CBS aired the video, the city put the offending officers on desk duty, withdrew its sanctions motion, blamed the Civilian Office of Police Accountability for a snail’s pace “investigation,” and forced out the city’s top lawyer. Mayor Lightfoot met privately with Young and apologized.

While appropriate, without the intense public outrage, it is hard to imagine the same outcome.

Take the Ronald Watts scandal. In less than two weeks, it will have been five years since Ben Baker left prison — exonerated of a drug crime invented by the disgraced former police sergeant. Six unprecedented mass exonerations later, 100 convictions tainted by Watts have been thrown out.

In 2013, the feds sent Watts to prison for 22 months for his corruption. But let’s be very clear — Watts was not some rogue bad actor. He led a team. And that team conspired with Watts to frame African Americans in public housing.

In each of those 100 overturned convictions, one or more of Watts’ officers signed his or her name to the false police report and testified under oath at a hearing or trial relaying that same invented story in the report. One hundred times. Those are crimes — crimes with real victims who collectively were sentenced to over 250 years of wrongful imprisonment.

Since Baker’s exoneration opened the floodgates on this scandal, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx correctly decided Watts’ police co-conspirators were no longer welcome to testify in her cases. The Illinois Appellate Court corrected a loophole that prohibited some of the Watts victims from being certified innocent, using unusually strong language to describe Watts’ officers as perjurers and corrupt. The downstate Court of Claims — which decides how much compensation to give the state’s wrongfully convicted — pulled no punches in calling Watts and his police team “a criminal enterprise right out of the movie ‘Training Day.’ ”

Lightfoot talked tough about the Watts team of officers in 2017 when her mayoral aspirations were uncertain. The corrupt officers must “quickly” be brought to justice through discipline or criminal prosecution, she demanded.

But since she became mayor, her administration has done next to nothing. COPA is still “investigating,” having failed to even preliminary report on the roughly dozen or so of Watts’ henchmen still on the force who drafted most of those 100 false police reports. For five years these men have still received their weekly pay while padding their pensions on desk duty. And the city’s taxpayers are footing the bill on outside counsel to the tune of $5.4 million and counting to defend against the 70 or so civil lawsuits that remain pending, with no end in sight.

With no video for the internet and television to replay, the city’s continued failure to address a systemic police scandal that cost hundreds of Black citizens their freedom has never quite sustained the public’s attention. But when viewed in conjunction with the Anjanette Young case, the Watts scandal reinforces that the city’s worst instincts remain: Accountability for the police only when the cover up fails and the public literally demands action.
Joshua Tepfer is an attorney with the Exoneration Project who represents more than 150 men allegedly framed by former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts and his team.