In the latest Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune, Jamie Kalven wrote about the dire need for more civic attention on the legacy of the Watts scandal, and what society owes the victims of abusive policing in public housing:
Next month, seven years will have passed since the video of the police murder of Laquan McDonald was released, precipitating a cascade of events that transformed the civic life of Chicago. For the better part of a decade now, there has been a broad consensus that police reform is an urgent priority for the city. Yet hopes for a fundamental paradigm shift have not been realized. The reform process has proved bureaucratically opaque and now appears stalled. Increasingly polarized, public discourse churns but does not advance. Civic morale is fragile, as anxieties about crime threaten to eclipse concerns about police accountability.
Most important, the ultimate metric — the lived experience of those most directly affected by our form of apartheid justice — has not discernibly improved.
While not losing sight of the limited areas in which progress has been made, it’s important that we acknowledge the extent of the failure. This is not only a failure of leadership. While sharp criticism is certainly warranted, it’s not sufficient to blame the mayor, the police superintendent and the various oversight agencies. Nor are the inevitable catchphrases “code of silence” and “cover-up” adequate to take us to the heart of the matter. There is something deeper that must be confronted: We have proved incapable as a society, as a polity, of learning from experience and acting on what we have learned, making it inevitable that avoidable harms will recur in the future.
Among the most telling instances of this dynamic is the human rights disaster commonly referred to as the “Watts scandal.” Here are the basic facts:
For the better part of a decade, then-Chicago police Sgt. Ronald Watts and members of the gang tactical team under his command were an integral part of the drug trade in public housing developments — primarily the Ida B. Wells Homes — on the South Side. They have been accused of operating a protection racket, exacting a “tax” from drug dealers, as the buildings that constituted the developments were being demolished one by one as part of the city’s Plan for Transformation. Throughout most of this period, they were the subjects of open-ended investigations by the Chicago Police Department’s bureau of internal affairs and the FBI that dragged on and on.
In pursuit of their criminal ends, Watts and his team routinely planted evidence and fabricated drug and gun charges against those who did not cooperate with them, prosecutors have said. Since I first reported on their criminal activities in 2016, 183 people have been exonerated and some 220 convictions have been overturned.(Some exonerees had more than one conviction.)
Caught in an FBI sting in late 2011, Watts and his partner, Officer Kallatt Mohammed, were convicted on a single charge of stealing government property — the $5,200 used as bait in the sting — and were sentenced to 22 months and 18 months, respectively.
The criminal sentences served by Watts victims who have thus far been exonerated come to more than 450 years.
Despite these stunning facts, the Watts scandal is only partially and intermittently visible. Neither the scale of the suffering inflicted by these officers nor the downstream implications for the city have been recognized and acknowledged.
Imagine living your life and raising your children in a community where Watts and his team are the face of civil authority. Imagine they are free to prey on the community with impunity, while you and your neighbors have no means of redress and no sanctuary. Such conditions bear comparison to life under the most repressive, rapacious regimes.
How has the city responded?
Apart from the light sentences given Watts and Mohammed, not a single officer has been charged or disciplined. After the first group exoneration in 2017, CPD put 15 officers on desk duty pending investigation of their involvement in Watts’ criminal enterprise. Today, five are collecting their pensions after retiring, while the rest remain on the city payroll.