With a new focus on police accountability and allegations of systemic victimization of African American citizens, attorneys and recently exonerated individuals in Cook County are asking why it takes so long to investigate allegations of police corruption.
"I don't know what's second to killing Black citizens, than systemically putting them away in prison and taking away their life," said attorney Joshua Tepfer. "And I think it's time that we have some accountability for those officers who were responsible for that."
In November of 2017, 15 individuals were exonerated of drug charges brought by Sgt. Ronald Watts and his tactical team at the former Ida B. Wells housing project on Chicago's South Side. At the time, even veteran prosecutors conceded those citizens had almost certainly been framed.
"In these cases we concluded that unfortunately, the police were not being truthful," said Assistant State's attorney Mark Rotert.
Watts and one of the officers under his command, Kallatt Mohammed were both charged and convicted federally, but residents of the Wells housing development had long complained that the entire tactical team was corrupt.
"Whole crew," said Philip Thomas, the day his case was thrown out in 2017. "There was not one person on his team that I know of that was an honest cop."
And the exonerations continued. After the initial 15 in 2017, there were 18 more in September of 2018. Then another 10 the following February. A dozen more six months ago.
All told, 75 individuals have had cases thrown out which were brought by Watts and his crew. At least 15 officers were placed on desk duty. And the State's Attorney's office sent a letter, notifying the City of Chicago, that at least ten of those officers would never be called again as witnesses in a criminal case, "due to concerns about their credibility and alleged involvement in the misconduct of Sergeant Watts."
But none of those officers have been charged, or disciplined. And 31 months after the first round of dismissals, Tepfer wants to know why.
"All I know is it shouldn't take 31 months when we have literally hundreds of affidavits, and we have all of this testimony that I've laid out that is essentially admissions of corruption," he said. "And we have findings from the Cook County State's Attorney's office that these officers engaged in perjury, and fabricating police reports."
Indeed, Tepfer points to statements from the officers themselves during sworn depositions.
"We have testimony from these officers who claim they were in two different places at the exact same time," he said. "We have testimony from these same officers who are still on the force, who would say that they would pre-write police reports, including quotations from arrestees, before they even went out into the field that day!"
After the first round of exonerations, Lori Lightfoot, who was then president of the Chicago Police Board, spoke of the need for swift action against any remaining corrupt officers associated with the wrongdoing at Ida B. Wells.
"Any of those officers who remain on the job must be quickly brought to justice through criminal prosecution and/or disciplinary action," she said.
Now, of course, she is Mayor Lori Lightfoot. And nearly three years later, there has been no action against any more officers associated with the corruption at Ida B. Wells, even though more than a dozen officers have been sitting on desk duty, apparently awaiting investigations.
"Well first of all, they're on desk duty---that means they're doing work," Lightfoot told NBC 5 at an unrelated event last week. "But look, I take the point, and Superintendent Brown has been obviously dealing with a range of different things, but we do need to get those cases resolved, and get them resolved quickly. They've been on desk duty for quite some time, and I think it's incumbent upon, whether it's IAD or COPA to move those investigations forward, so that we have some resolution and some certainty about the resolution of those officers."
A police department spokesman said of the initial 15 officers who were identified as being pulled from the street, not all are still on the force.
"Some officers are on full duty status working in various districts and areas," spokesman Michelle Tannehill told NBC 5. "Two others have resigned, and one officer has retired."
With the exception of the three who left the department, all are on desk duty. Tepfer argues its incumbent on the mayor to take action.
"I just think it's really, really important that she looking in the mirror, because in her back yard, in her own words, there is a huge example of systemic corruption of Black citizens in this city," he said. "And she has the power to act on that. She has the power to hold these officers accountable."
Former Wells resident Clarissa Glenn, who saw her own Watts-related case thrown out two years ago, is among those asking why the investigations are moving so slowly.
"They have officers who are sitting on the desk, do do what?" she asks. "The people and myself who have been victimized are still paying a price."
Glenn says the officers who framed residents at Wells knew they were easy victims.
"Who would listen to a community that had lack of education, finances, support system---where would we go?" she asks, noting that residents did complain, but were shocked at how those complaints were handled.
"Nothing was done except having these same officers that we complained about, come and knock on our door to do an investigation on their own case," she said.
Tepfer says he has in the neighborhood of a hundred more cases in the pipeline. And dozens of civil suits have been brought against the city.
As for Glenn, she choked back tears as she asked for a resolution of the citizen complaints against police.
"We are grateful and thankful for the sentiments that we have received from the state," she said. "But that does not remove the pain, the hurt, the anger, the disrespect, that the city has put on us."