In recent years, Cook County and the state of Illinois have worked hard to identify people who decades ago were wrongfully convicted of crimes after being tortured by rogue cops.
It is time to do so once again, this time for anybody who might have been falsely charged by notorious former Police Sgt. Ronald Watts and his crew of crooked cops. For years, they ran a shakedown operation at the now-closed Ida B. Wells public housing complex, planting evidence and lying on the witness stand to punish those who would not pay.
On Tuesday, lawyers for the University of Chicago Law School’s Exoneration Project and independent journalist Jamie Kalven filed a petition asking Cook County Circuit Court Criminal Division Presiding Judge Leroy Martin Jr. to appoint a special master to dig into cases Watts and his crew initiated. As we learned from an earlier probe into dozens of old cases handled by another bad cop, former Cmdr. Jon Burge, this would be the best way to get to the bottom of the Watts scandal.
Watts’ modus operandi was to plant drugs and fabricate charges against people who wouldn’t go along with his shakedowns of drug dealers and gang members. He and his crew also would falsely testify against their victims in court.
The FBI arrested Watts and Kallatt Mohammed, another police officer, in 2012. Watts and Mohammed pleaded guilty to stealing thousands of dollars from an FBI informant.
But that was just one case.
In another case, Ben Baker, a man who said he was framed by Watts and his crew, was sentenced to 14 years in prison. Documents from that case showed the police internal affairs division had known of corruption allegations against Watts and his crew as long ago as the 1990s, but did not act. In May, the City Council voted to pay $2 million to two whistleblower cops who said they were suffered retaliation from the Police Department for aiding the investigation into Watts and Mohammed. Baker was freed in January.
The lingering question is: How many more Ben Bakers are out there Who else, framed by Watts, was sent off to prison How many of them remain behind bars According to the filing, “There is little question that [the known cases] barely scratch the surface of the wrongful arrests, prosecutions and convictions.”
Federal court records show Watts and his crew of as many as 10 officers per shift operated their scheme from at least 2000 to 2012. Watts allegedly picked up cash every two weeks from those he was shaking down. That could translate into a large number of people falsely targeted by the police.
Two years ago, a Cook County judge appointed David N. Yellen, dean of the Loyola University Chicago School of Law, as a special master to examine cases of alleged torture by Burge. Similar work has been done by the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission. Yellen and the torture commission have developed procedures for identifying valid claims of police abuse. For example, a victim must have complained at the time fabricated charges were filed, not only after they hear a new investigation is under way.
A court-appointed special master would have the legal tools, including the power of subpoena, to gather such information. The special master would turn cases with solid claims over to Martin, who could appoint a lawyer to represent the defendants.
The work of Yellen and the torture commission shows this can be a long, cumbersome process. But it’s the best way to clean up another stain in the Police Department and the criminal justice system.Tweets by @csteditorials