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The former Ida B. Wells public housing complex before it was torn down

This 2007 photo shows the former Ida B. Wells public housing complex before it was torn down. For years a crew of officers allegedly taxed drug dealers and framed people at the complex. Now four of those officers face termination.

A Chicago agency recommends firing four cops tied to a corrupt former sergeant

Over the objections of a former Chicago top cop, the city’s Police Board could decide on a long-hidden recommendation to fire four veteran officers accused of misconduct more than 17 years ago in a unit led by corrupt former Sgt. Ronald Watts.

A decision announced at a Police Board meeting Thursday night revealed that the Civilian Office of Police Accountability proposed the terminations nearly a year ago after finding that the four cops knowingly went along with several bogus drug arrests in a 2006 “reverse sting.” But the city’s interim police superintendent disagreed this past spring, leading to an impasse that had to be resolved by the board.

Paula Wolff, a board member chosen randomly for that task, ruled that the city should move forward with the discipline case.

“A full evidentiary hearing before the Police Board is necessary to determine whether the four officers violated any of the Chicago Police Department’s rules of conduct and, if so, the appropriate disciplinary action,” Wolff said.

The cops facing potential discharge are Detective Douglas E. Nichols Jr. and officers Brian J. Bolton, Robert R. Gonzalez and Manuel S. Leano. They could not be reached for comment Thursday night.

A COPA investigation, according to Wolff’s nine-page decision, found that all four officers failed to flag a batch of allegedly “unjustified” arrests April 24, 2006, at Ida B. Wells, a former South Side public housing complex where the Watts unit operated. The probe also found that Gonzalez and Leano made multiple false written reports about heroin sales.

COPA chief administrator Andrea Kersten recommended the discharges on Dec. 30, 2022. But interim CPD leader Eric Carter, in a March 28 response, said Kersten’s agency had not proved the allegations by a “preponderance of the evidence.”

Carter served as top cop during former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s final two months in office.

Wolff’s written decision said the COPA evidence included interviews with seven people present during the incidents and written police reports that had been “pre-typed with identical quotes” later attributed to three of the arrestees.

But Carter, Wolff wrote, argued that COPA had not “provided ‘conclusive evidence’ that the four officers were physically present in the precise location of the unlawful arrests.”

Until recently, a decision like Wolff’s would have been the final word on whether the Police Board holds its evidentiary hearing. But an arbitrator’s ruling in October would end the board’s exclusive authority over terminations and long suspensions and allow the union for most cops to contest them in private arbitration. Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration appears headed for a court fight against the union over it.

Arrest but don’t testify

Sgt. Ronald Watts led a tactical unit that was under investigation for more than a decade for allegedly taxing drug dealers and framing people at the Wells complex.

After hundreds of allegedly false arrests, Watts and Kallatt Mohammed, another member of the unit, were caught stealing what they thought was drug money from an FBI informant. Arrested in 2012, they eventually pleaded guilty and were sent to federal prison. No other member of the unit has faced criminal charges related to work under Watts.

No others faced serious discipline either until last year, when Sgt. Alvin Jones retired on the day the city released a COPA report that recommended his firing and that sustained allegations he engaged in extortion with the unit.

Among the four officers facing discipline, Nichols is a 20-year CPD veteran who was promoted to detective in 2020. He is assigned to Area 4, a West Side detective division, according to CPD.

Bolton, a 25-year department member, is assigned to the Special Investigations Unit, part of the Bureau of Detectives. The unit looks into sexual abuse of children.

Gonzalez, who also has 25 years with CPD, and Leano, who has 22 years, are both assigned to Wentworth, a South Side patrol district.

CPD has not stripped police powers from any of them, according to a department spokesperson.

But Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office, in 2017, added the four and several other former Watts underlings to a list of cops that prosecutors are forbidden to call as witnesses due to questionable credibility.

Die waiting

Wolff’s report said COPA’s investigation stemmed from the case of Lionel White Sr., arrested by Watts unit members at the same Wells building — and on the same day — as the “reverse sting.” White was convicted of a drug felony and sentenced to five years in prison. He served more than two years before his 2008 release on parole.

White’s conviction was vacated in 2016. He sued in federal court the next year.

“After he filed the lawsuit against the city and the officers, Lionel sat for an interview with city investigators in November 2018,” said Joel Flaxman, an attorney for White and dozens of other Watts exonerees. “COPA then took four years to complete its report. That is far, far too long.”

Carter’s opposition to the discharge recommendations added nearly another year. Now it’s up to the city’s Law Department to draft charges against the four officers. The Law Department has no deadline, and the COPA report is supposed to remain hidden until the charges are served on the cops. Many serious police discipline cases languish for months at this stage.

“The city hides its findings from both the public and even the very litigants, like Mr. White and his counsel,” said Joshua Tepfer, another attorney for exonerees. “Fighting these officers’ termination continues the longstanding practice of covering up for egregious police misconduct against Chicago citizens of color.”

Since 2016, Cook County judges have vacated at least 230 Watts-tied felony convictions, according to a WBEZ tally based on court records and proceedings. Nearly all of the 187 exonerees in those cases have sued for damages in federal court.

Johnson’s administration is negotiating a possible deal with those exonerees. If recent city settlement patterns hold, the deal could total more than $80 million, a WBEZ analysis this month showed.

But White will never see what happens with the discipline cases or the lawsuits. He died this past February.

Chip Mitchell reports on policing, public safety and public health. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1. Contact him at cmitchell@wbez.org.

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