After fighting for more than a year to keep it secret, the city of Chicago on Thursday released a report on disgraced former Police Sgt. Ronald Watts and his crew, who framed and shook down residents of the Ida B. Wells housing project for more than a decade.
The Civilian Office of Police Accountability's report is the first by the oversight agency to be made public involving the scandal. More than 250 convictions tied to Watts and his team have since been overturned.
"The police officers that were terrorizing this housing project were making a lot of money," attorney Jon Loevy, who's part of the legal team representing several of the individuals who have been exonerated, said at a news conference Friday morning.
"They were not only running a protection racket where they were charging people money to not arrest them, but they themselves were involved in the drug trade. And they were stealing money and drugs. And then they were reselling them," Loevy continued. "So to keep that going, and to enable them to be able to pull this off, they were putting false cases on people, anybody who got in their way."
Watts and one other officer were arrested in 2012 and ultimately went to prison over the scheme. No other officers implicated were ever criminally charged.
The newly released 33-page report centers only on the cases involving two people who have since been exonerated: Clarissa Glenn and her husband Ben Baker. But dozens of other individuals have made similar allegations against Watts and many members of his crew.
"To be belittled and humiliated, you will never get over that," Glenn said through tears at a news conference Friday morning, recalling her time in jail following her 2005 arrest that the report acknowledges was engineered by Watts and his team.
The report is the culmination of a nearly four-year investigation, completed in March of 2021 - nine years after Watts was arrested. It finds fault with just one member of his team: Sgt. Alvin Jones.
"Jones enjoyed great official authority and abused it brazenly for his own gain," the report reads, adding that his conduct demonstrated "blatant contempt for the principles of justice, his oath, and the rule of law."
COPA advised CPD to fire Jones as "a necessary step in restoring community trust." He resigned in May of this year – 14 months after that recommendation.
"We need answers from the city about why it took so long to release this," said attorney Joel Flaxman. "We need answers from the city about why they fought at every step to release this. And we need answers from the city about why they let this go on, that even before this investigation, there was lots of evidence that the city knew this was happening. There were many complaints and the city failed to take action against these officers."
Jones was one of 10 officers named in a letter from the Cook County State's Attorney's office in November 2017, informing CPD that it would never again call those officers to testify in any criminal case "due to concerns about their credibility and alleged involvement in the misconduct of Sergeant Watts."
Compensation histories obtained via public records request show that Jones earned more than $600,000 in salary, overtime and more after that letter was sent. Several other members named in that letter remain on the force to this day, still drawing paychecks as the city's investigation into the scandal moves at a glacial pace.
"What about these other officers? When are they going to be held accountable?" attorney Joshua Tepfer asked.
"We want real change," Flaxman added. "We want the city to live up to what it tells us every day about transparency, and police misconduct and really doing things differently that it's time for a change. And it's time for something real to happen in these cases."
It's not clear how many other COPA investigations into individual allegations against Watts’ team may be ongoing. Both CPD and COPA declined to comment.
But for Glenn, the release of this report was a victory.
"It's not easy to relive and to communicate about what happened to me," she said, listing off agencies and public officials she previously contacted to try and prove her innocence. "Now it's out there that we have been telling the truth for years and years and years. It is a shame, because of where we're from, no one would listen. No one would believe us."
The city currently faces 85 federal lawsuits from individuals who say they were framed by Watts and his team, the attorneys said Friday, estimating that the city's legal bills tied to those cases have reached roughly $10 million.
The attorneys also said they expected the number of suits to double in the wake of the most recent mass exoneration earlier this year.