March 1, 2017 (Fault Lines) — Prosecutors may be investigating if a corrupt Chicago cop tainted other convictions, as the headline for the article explains, but they’d have to be the stupidest bunch of prosecutors on earth if they think for one second that what they know about crooked cop Ronald Watts comes anywhere close to comprising the full extent of his wrongdoing.
In an extraordinary move, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office is investigating whether a former Chicago police sergeant convicted of corruption tainted far more convictions than those of the three defendants he’s already been held responsible for framing.
Prosecutors confirmed the investigation as a University of Chicago lawyer on Monday withdrew his request that a “special master” be appointed, saying that step was unnecessary now that prosecutors agreed to pore over potentially hundreds of tainted convictions involving ex-Sgt. Ronald Watts and officers he supervised.
DUI prosecutors sometimes spout amusing statistics about how the average drunk driver who gets caught has driven drunk an alarming number of times before finally getting caught. It’s irritating because it’s fairly obviously a totally make-believe number. If they didn’t get caught for it before, then how can we possibly know how many times they did it, right? From self-reporting? We’re trusting people who are drunk to accurately recall the number of times they previously did something while drunk?
That’s an almost impossible thing to know with certainty, but it’s also likely true: perhaps not to the extent you can even ballpark the number, but definitely true to the extent it’s probably not the case that the person just happened to do one wrong thing one unlucky time and had such awful luck they got busted for it. It’s exceedingly unlikely that somebody gets caught the only time they’ve done something wrong. It happens, but not as often as someone finally getting caught after having done the same illegal thing ten or fifty or hundreds of times before. Another main reason many people get caught is also because they become sloppy about it. They let their guard down and don’t try to cover it up because they’re so used to doing it.
And so it goes with police corruption. What we know about Watts clearly shows the extent of his corruption is remarkable:
The Chicago Tribune has written several front-page stories since last year detailing the fallout over Watts’ nearly decadelong run of corruption. So far, four drug convictions involving three defendants have been tossed because of the convicted officer’s wrongdoing. And two officers who maintained they were victims of the code of silence won a $2 million settlement to their whistleblower lawsuit that alleged they were blackballed for trying to expose Watts’ corruption years ago.
At least five other officers who were part of Watts’ team are still on the force, including one who has since been promoted to sergeant and another accused in a federal lawsuit of shooting a teen in the back without justification three years ago.
A few things should be big red flags for prosecutors, obvious indicators that an enormous portion of what Watts touched, if not everything, is tainted. A cop who’s so bad that his misconduct gets him several front-page articles and is described as having had a “decadelong run of corruption” isn’t the sort of cop who’s going to handle most of his cases by the book. Corruption is probably the rule rather than the exception. The fact two other officers became whistleblowers should drive home how corrupt Watts had to be. It takes a lot to make a cop report another cop for something.
Just how egregious what Watts did was should also be a good indicator that he wasn’t out there doing honorable police work most of the time:
Watts is a former public housing officer notorious for shaking down drug dealers for protection money and pinning false cases on those who wouldn’t play ball.
He didn’t seem to have a problem ruining lives at all.
Since Watts’ conviction, three defendants have successfully fought to have their drug convictions overturned based on allegations that they were framed by the sergeant and his crew. One of them, Ben Baker, was released from prison last year after serving nearly a decade behind bars.
Another defendant, Lionel White, agreed to plead guilty to a five-year sentence in 2006 to avoid a potential life sentence if he went to trial. White, who had proclaimed from the beginning that Watts had framed him, ended up spending about 2 1/2 years in prison. Prosecutors dismissed his conviction in December.
This wasn’t “testilying” and fudging some facts about a minor potential constitutional violation in order to make a conviction stick. That’s bad enough, but it’s a different level compared to someone like Watts literally shaking people down for money and framing them when they didn’t cooperate. Those people may have been up to no good, but the things for which they were convicted may not have even happened. It’s a slippery slope from a white lie to get a bad guy off the street to outright extorting money from people, but Watts was at the end of the slope.
Luckily, prosecutors seem aware of just how likely it is that there are going to be other issues.
“There is little question that (those cases) barely scratch the surface of the wrongful arrests, prosecutions and convictions at the hands of an individual the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office now acknowledges is a ‘dirty police officer,'” the filing said. “The interests of justice necessitate a full accounting of all the victims that have been harmed by wrongful conviction through the actions of these rogue Chicago police officers.”
Prosecutors also see the biggest problem confronting them:
Having represented numerous clients in police misconduct cases, Tepfer said in a telephone interview Monday that the corruption surrounding Watts’ crew “encapsulates the code of silence within the Chicago Police Department more than any other situation that I’ve ever seen.”
“We know from law enforcement documents that Watts and his crew were accused of taking kickbacks on a weekly basis,” Tepfer said. “It was clear as day that they were routinely framing individuals for crimes that they didn’t commit. And individuals at the highest levels of CPD were aware of this misconduct.”
That’s perhaps where things start to change drastically for criminal cops as opposed to your average person who’s committed a crime. One reason why the things we know about people’s wrongdoing rarely constitute the full extent of their wrongdoing is because we can’t catch everyone or even close to it, and the hardest people to catch are dirty cops, especially when they’re being enabled by others in the system. It’s because they know how to get away with things up to, including, and even after getting caught. That knowledge is yet another reason why someone like Watts probably did far more than we realize. He thought he could do it with impunity and his experiences confirmed that, so he did it.
Hopefully prosecutors will liberally give people convicted even in small part thanks to Watts the benefit of the doubt when reviewing their cases. His position of power and the extent of his corruption don’t just make his victims especially deserving of help. They also make it that much more likely that we might not yet know the worst he’s done.