It was a stunning achievement.
At one stroke, on November 16th, 15 men falsely accused and convicted of serious crimes had their convictions overturned when mounting and overwhelming evidence demonstrated that their police accusers were themselves criminals who engaged in the serious crimes of framing these men. Later that night, seven alleged corrupt cops were taken off the streets of Chicago – a belated recognition that these men worked part and parcel for years with Sgt. Ronald Watts and Officer Kallatt Mohammed, who had previously been caught in an FBI sting, convicted of felonies and served time in prison.
It was perhaps the first, and certainly the largest, mass exoneration in Illinois history, and for the men, their friends and families, and their attorneys, a long-fought and immense victory.
But joy over the news that the 15 could finally restart their lives with their family and friends was tempered not only by the years lost, but also by news from attorney Josh Tepfer that perhaps more than 300 other people had also been framed and wrongfully convicted by the same officers. Three hundred more damaged lives, the effects of which spread like waves among far larger numbers of family members, friends and communities forced to endure years of prison visits, prison phone company charges, missed family gatherings, lost careers and incomes, and funerals of loved ones.
For those who’ve lived in Chicago for decades, news of the mass exoneration was sadly familiar. While it didn’t happen in one stroke, dozens of exonerations followed the more than 200 tortures committed by Chicago police during the 1970s and 1980s led by notorious Commander Jon Burge. While never convicted of torture – the statute of limitations on that crime had expired – Burge was finally convicted of perjury for lying about the tortures in a later deposition and served a few years in prison as a result. And he continues to collect a City pension.
Which begs the question, why does Chicago keep repeating this ghastly history? Following the 2015 release of film showing the police killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, 16 shots into the body of a young man who a suppressed police dash-cam showed was not posing a threat to officers, the City erupted in protests for several months. The police superintendent and Cook County State’s Attorney who allegedly suppressed the video were fired and lost election, respectively.
But as with previous Chicago police scandals, the subsequent reforms were largely cosmetic. Police over-sight agencies got renamed, but the personnel and system of control over them remained the same. Calls for an elected, civilian police accountability council (“CPAC”) were ignored by City officials. Instead of spending money on things that black lives matters activists said could help reduce the city’s notorious violence problem – mental health clinics, programs for youth such as librarians in the public schools, after school programs, sports and arts programs (all largely lacking) – the City is closing more public schools and plowing ahead with plans to spend $95 million on a new police training academy.
But is “training” the main answer when the City rewards brutal officers with promotion after promotion? The failure to reign in crooked and brutal cops requires more than a technical fix. It requires the political will at the highest levels of the department and city government to discipline and fire people who shouldn’t be welcome in any workplace, especially one charged with enforcing the law.