On a snowy night five years ago, Chicagoan Ben Baker walked to freedom from a downstate prison.
"I guess slow justice is better than no justice," Baker declared.
Baker, a former resident of the Ida B. Wells housing project, had long alleged he had been framed by Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts and officers under his command. But even though 15 officers were pulled from the street and placed on desk duty, only Watts and one other officer ever faced corruption charges.
On Monday, more than three years after taking the case, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability issued its first recommendations in the case to Chicago Police Department Supt. David Brown. While the report remains confidential, the mere fact that recommendations were made indicates COPA believes some level of discipline, up to dismissal, is merited against more officers from Watts' team.
"What took so long?" asked attorney Joshua Tepfer, who represented Baker and obtained dozens of exonerations for other Ida B. Wells residents who said they were also framed. "It wasn't just Ben Baker in 2005, it was hundreds of people telling the City of chicago that this was going on."
Indeed, the Watts team was the target of an FBI investigation which included Chicago police officers working undercover. And those officers have since indicated that they believed most if not all of Watts' team shared culpability in the wrongdoing. But even though members of Watts' unit were pulled from the street, none were fired, and most continue to be paid. Some chose to retire.
"It is just more of the same when it comes to police accountability and police oversight," Tepfer said. "Why the city of Chicago has no interest in promptly removing corrupt police officers from being police officers I will never understand!"
A COPA document in the case obtained by NBC 5 Investigates under an open records request, indicates the recommendations announced Monday stemmed from the Baker case in 2005. The heavily redacted report shows that in addition to Watts and Mohammed, another sergeant and three other officers were under investigation---and thus may be included in the report submitted to the superintendent Monday.
But scores of cases have been thrown out since the scandal first came to light.
"As far as we know, they are investigating dozens of other cases," says defense attorney Joel Flaxman who has also obtained exonerations in the Watts matter. "Taking three years for the first investigation does not give us a lot of hope that the next 20, 30, or 40 are going to be concluded any time soon."
Flaxman noted what he called a disconnect between the city of Chicago and Cook County prosecutors, who have thrown out more than a hundred convictions. Indeed, in November of 2017, the Cook County State's Attorney's office sent a letter to police, naming 10 of the officers who they said would never be called again to testify in a criminal case, because of questions about their credibility.
"Here's the state's attorney saying we don't have confidence in these cases, we don't have confidence in these officers, and finally that has carried over to the city," Flaxman said. "There may be this problem that the city has developed evidence showing misconduct by the officers and the state's attorney doesn't know about it. That's why its so important for this investigation to made public."
COPA emphasized in a statement that they had interviewed dozens of witnesses including current and former officers, former Wells residents, and former prosecutors.
“No matter how long ago an allegation of misconduct occurred, it is incumbent on us to seek accountability," administrator Sydney Roberts said. "Our community deserves nothing less.”
The COPA report remains confidential. Brown has 60 days to review it, and could decline to follow the accountability board's recommendations.