At Issue: Fallout from the Watts Scandal

In the first fallout for police brass accused of protecting Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts and his South Side extortion racket, Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle fired her director of homeland security, WBEZ reported.

Shannon Spaulding (Invisible Institute)

While Preckwinkle wouldn’t comment, according to WBEZ, sources said she fired Ernest Brown as director of homeland security and emergency management last month after reading an account of how the code of silence protected corrupt cops who worked under Brown in the Chicago Police Department’s Public Housing Section.

The Watts extortion ring was one of at least three criminal enterprises operating within the Public Housing Section that were investigated and prosecuted.

“Under the leadership of Brown, some of the most abusive officers operated with complete impunity,” Jamie Kalven of the Invisible Institute told WBEZ. He described the Watts operation and its coverup by CPD in a four-part article in The Intercept.

Shannon Spalding, an officer who served under Brown and investigated Watts, accused Brown of blowing her cover, according to Kalven. Spalding and Officer Daniel Echeverria were recently awarded $2 million in a whistleblower lawsuit in which they charged CPD brass retaliated against them for assisting an FBI investigation of Watts.

Brown denied participating in a coverup, WBEZ reported.

Petition for special master

On Tuesday, Circuit Court Judge Steven Watkins heard a petition by Kalven and the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago for a special master to consider claims of individuals who say they were framed by Ronald Watts and his crew.

Watkins set a January 18 hearing for the petitioners and the Cook County State’s Attorney to return with a detailed plan for how the special master will operate.

In an editorial last week, the Chicago Sun-Times backed the call for a special master. “As we learned from an earlier probe into dozens of old cases handled by another bad cop, Cmdr. Jon Burge, this would be the best way to get to the bottom of the Watts scandal,” the Sun-Times wrote.

The petition cites statements by federal prosecutors as well as FBI and ATF documents and sworn testimony by several Chicago officers suggesting that Watts and his crew repeatedly framed individuals who wouldn’t cooperate with their extortion racket. It also lists six known cases in which individuals were framed.

“The settlement of the whistleblower suit left many critically important issues unresolved,” said Kalven. “The most urgent is to identify those who suffered wrongful conviction as a result of false arrest by these rogue officers.”

Two years after Laquan McDonald was shot and killed in Chicago, Fault Lines investigates the role of the police union contract in creating a code of silence among police. Click the photo to see the full video from Al Jazeera.

Two years after Laquan McDonald was shot and killed in Chicago, Fault Lines investigates the role of the police union contract in creating a code of silence among police. Click the photo to see the full video from Al Jazeera.

Other issues include investigating the full scope of the Watts crew’s criminal activity, including the role of several officers who remain on the force, and uncovering the coverup that protected Watts, which allegedly involved high-level department supervisors, Kalven said.

A side note: Kalven’s petition discusses an interview by federal agents and Chicago officers of Wilbert Moore, who “described Watts’ tactical team’s role in criminal activity” and told of payments Moore made to Watts or his associates. In the Intercept, a source told Kalven that Moore, known as “Big Shorty,” was killed days after he was seen telling Watts he was going to inform federal authorities about the extortion racket. Six alleged leaders of the Hobo “supergang” are currently on trial for the murder of Moore and eight others.

In the news

  • Foxx promises reforms: Newly elected Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx tells the Tribune she will not wait for the Independent Police Review Authority to complete inquiries into police shootings before initiating her own parallel investigations.
  • She named Harvard Law professor Ronald Sullivan Jr. to reorganize the office’s conviction integrity unit, which investigates possible wrongful convictions, calling it “a top priority.” Sullivan, who headed the widely praised conviction review unit for the Brooklyn district attorney, “has real concerns about the way in which our unit has been comprised,” Foxx said.
  • In an interview with the Sun-Times, Foxx backed elimination of the cash-bond system, which she said is unfair to the poor. She said she would increase transparency by opening the office’s case management database to public view.
  • Kajuan Raye: The family of Kajuan Raye called for a criminal investigation of his killing after it was revealed that the officer who shot Raye last month faces a lawsuit over his fatal shooting in 2013 of another man. In both cases, Sgt. John Poulos said he saw what could have been a weapon in his victim’s hand; in neither case was a weapon found.
  • WBEZ reported that Poulos was disciplined for being “inattentive to duty” after he fired his gun inappropriately during a foot chase in 2012, and was suspended for using excessive force prior to that. More serious attention to earlier infractions might have prevented two subsequent deaths, said Craig Futterman of the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic.
  • Supt. Eddie Johnson stripped Poulos of his gun and badge after Raye’s death on Nov. 23.
  • Daley sued: Attorney Flint Taylor says he hopes to take former Mayor Richard Daley’s deposition “as soon as possible,” after a federal judge ruled a lawsuit can go forward charging Daley with ignoring evidence that detectives under Cmdr. Jon Burge tortured black suspects into false confessions, the Tribune reports. In two previous lawsuits in which Daley has been ordered to give depositions over torture claims, the city has settled out of court before the former mayor testified.
  • In 2008, the Chicago Reader compiled a backgrounder on questions about Daley’s role in the Burge controversy based on the extensive reporting of John Conroy.
  • Tearing down jails: County officials announced a plan to demolish three buildings in the Cook County Jail complex. The jail population is down to about 8,000 inmates thanks to efforts to divert nonviolent defendants and the mentally ill to community programs or electronic monitoring. Demolition will save the county $3 million annually in operating costs and $188 million in capital costs over the next decade.
  • And the Illinois Department of Corrections announced the final closure of Stateville Correctional Center’s F House, which featured a “roundhouse” design that “fueled a chaotic environment” considered inhumane by advocates, the Tribune reported. Gov. Bruce Rauner said the closing is part of his administration’s commitment to “reform our broken criminal justice system to balance punishment with rehabilitation to reduce crime overall, safely reduce our prison population, reduce recidivism, and help those who have paid for their crime find a positive path in life after serving their time.”
  • Videos to remain online: In its waning days, the Independent Police Review Authority has shelved plans to remove videos of serious police incidents from its web portal after six months, WBEZ reports. In the online portal’s first three months, videos have been viewed 1.6 million times, according to a report from the mayor’s office.
  • Tribune sues: The Chicago Tribune filed a lawsuit Monday against CPD charging it hasn’t received emails it sought in a Freedom of Information request filed almost a year ago. In March CPD told the paper it would provide 375 emails by department members about the shooting of Laquan McDonald, but never did so, according to the lawsuit.