In a decision that is certain to send shock waves through City Hall and the Chicago Police Department, both the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office and the City of Chicago Law Department said Tuesday they would not oppose appointment of a so-called “Special Master” to investigate potential wrongdoing by an alleged crew of corrupt police officers who worked for years in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods.
The development has the potential to open up hundreds, if not thousands of cases, exposing the city to potential liability for wrongful prosecutions, and allegations of criminal activity by officers who are still on the street.
In court Tuesday, Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney Fabio Valenti indicated his office was in agreement that a so-called “Special Master” should be appointed for the case. All sides are to return to court on January 18.
“We still need to agree on the parameters but we are not opposed,” Valenti told NBC5 after the hearing. “Our hope is that by the 18th, we will have something to present the court.”
And late Tuesday, the Chicago Law Department said they also would not stand in the way of the new investigation.
“We support efforts to ensure that those convicted of crimes are guilty of the crimes for which they were convicted,” spokesman Bill McCaffrey said in a statement. “While we do not intend to oppose this petition…it would be premature to speculate that any additional convictions will be overturned as a result of this petition and further investigation.”
Two of the officers, Sgt. Ronald Watts and officer Kallat Mohammed went to prison for their alleged misdeeds. But two whistleblowing officers alleged that Watts’ entire tactical team was corrupt. And residents accused the officers of running their own drug operation and shaking down and framing other drug dealers in the neighborhood.
One of those residents, a man named Ben Baker, went to prison for ten years, insisting he had been set up by Watts and his crew. After Watts’ conviction, Baker was eventually set free.
The proposed “Special Master”, if approved by a Cook County judge, would be tasked with identifying other potential victims.
“Our first priority is justice for victims of these rogue officers who were out there,” said Chicago journalist Jamie Kalven, who filed the petition with the court. “But beyond that, I think we have the opportunity to learn a great deal about the inner workings of the department.”
Indeed, the two Chicago Police officers who attempted to expose Watts and his crew, Shannon Spalding and Daniel Echeverria said they faced retaliation within the department and won a $2 million whistleblower lawsuit against the City of Chicago earlier this year. The two said they worked with the FBI to uncover the extent of the corruption but were essentially blackballed within the Department, despite what they had learned about the corrupt officers.
“Some of those officers are still on the force,” said Kalven. “Some have been promoted.”
Kalven’s attorney Joshua Tepfer filed the petition requesting the appointment of the Special Master, to investigate the possibility of other tainted convictions obtained through arrests by Watts and officers working under his command.
“We’re asking for the court’s help, for the state’s attorney’s help, for everyone’s help in identifying which cases are bad,” said Tepfer. “Because there are so many—it’s so vast.”
The appointment of so-called Special Masters is rare. The most notable example was two years ago, when Loyola Law School Dean David Yellen was appointed to investigate claims of coerced confessions at the hands of disgraced Chicago Police commander John Burge.
Kalven said he especially would like to know how an investigation which had involved so many resources had produced so few results.
“How multiple agencies could have been investigating this criminal activity within the public housing unit and ultimately the second district for more than a decade,” he said. “We’re talking about the FBI, Internal Affairs, Drug Enforcement Agency, the State’s Attorney’s office—and have not brought home more than the conviction of Watts and Mohammed on a single charge.”
In his filing with the court, Tepfer included repeated references from the FBI’s own internal files, referencing Watts’ alleged illegal activity.
“Watts gets IBW drug dealers to pay him to work in the housing project,” one report quoted an informant in September of 2004. “If the payments are made to Watts, he will in turn allow the drug dealers to continue to sell drugs.”
“I think we’re all on the same team with this one,” Tepfer said. “Nobody wants to see the wrongfully convicted remain wrongfully convicted. And everyone has an interest.”