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Alderman questions CPD’s slow discipline of Watts cohorts

Former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts i shown leaving the Dirksen Federal Building in 2013. He'd just been sentenced to 22 months in prison after being found guilty. | Sun-Times file photo

The chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus on Friday demanded to know why it took the mass exoneration of 15 defendants to convince the Chicago Police Department to yank seven police officers who worked with disgraced Sgt. Ronald Watts off the street.

“We shouldn’t have a policy where we keep bad officers on the job that long for them to continue to make possibly bad arrests or even the taint or the appearance of a bad arrest because of what they had done previously,” said Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th).

“Now, all of their arrests come into question. It puts it on us, the taxpayers, to pay for things for a few bad actors.”

The 15 men whose criminal drug convictions were vacated Thursday alleged that Watts and his crew framed them between 2003 and 2008.

Watts and an officer under his command were sent to federal prison in 2013 for stealing money from a drug courier who’d been working as an FBI informant.

More than a year ago, the City Council signed off on a $2 million settlement to police partners Shannon Spalding and Daniel Echeverria, who were blackballed by their colleagues for blowing the whistle on Watts and his crew who were shaking down drug dealers.

The settlement had been reached on the eve of their trial, averting the need for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to testify, as a federal judge had ordered the mayor to do.

Given that long history, Sawyer said he finds it hard to believe that it took until Thursday night for Police Supt. Eddie Johnson to reassign to desk duty the six police officers and one sergeant who worked with Watts and signed off on his reports.

“It took longer than it should have. No doubt. It should have been done a few years ago,” Sawyer said.

“Superintendent Johnson had a lot on his plate coming in…But I will be interested in seeing what the inspector general or whoever else takes a look at this says about IAD taking as long as they did to make this determination. Somebody would have to have dropped the ball for them to be there that long.”

Chicago Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said that the department has cooperated fully with past investigations, “and we will cooperate fully with any future investigations into these incidents because as the Superintendent’s actions showed yesterday, we have absolutely zero tolerance for misconduct and illegal activity within the CPD.”

Sawyer said Eddie Welch III, chief of the Police Department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs, should be called before the Committee on Public Safety to explain why it took so long to remove the officers from street duty.

Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th), chairman of the Public Safety Committee, agreed that the disciplinary action taken Thursday night — hours after Johnson insisted that officers who worked under Watts were entitled to due process rights “like any citizen in this country”— should have been done “sooner than later.”

Reboyras said Sawyer “has a right” to demand that Welch testify before the City Council.

But the chairman said, “If it’s an ongoing investigation, I’m not gonna bring ’em here because they’re not gonna speak. And it appears to be an ongoing investigation. They’re off duty because they’re still looking into the matter.”

Spalding, the whistleblower, worked closely on the investigation of Watts’ crew with the FBI — a probe dubbed “Operation Brass Tax”, a reference to the illicit “street tax” Watts collected from neighborhood residents.

She said the two officers indicted weren’t the only ones who were targeted by the feds, and the theft of cash from a single informant was only one incident among many.

“CPD and the FBI know who these targets are and they know they’re still on the job,” said Spalding, who left the department because of the harassment from superiors and other officers that came after her involvement in the FBI probe became known.

“What kills me is, I’m not on the job, but the targets of Operation Brass Tax are still on the job.”

Contributing: Andy Grimm