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For Victims of Corrupt Chicago Police, An Unusual Taste of Justice

Fifteen men had their tainted convictions vacated by State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office, but this isn’t the norm when it comes to prosecutors.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

For Victims of Corrupt Chicago Police, An Unusual Taste of Justice

Fifteen men had their tainted convictions vacated by State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office, but this isn’t the norm when it comes to prosecutors.

Former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts had a pretty sweet deal going for himself. For years, he and other officers tasked with policing a housing project on the city’s South Side routinely demanded cash from drug dealers in exchange for protection from arrest, and framed residents of the housing project by planting drugs on them. His reign of extortion drew to a close when he and another officer were arrested in 2012. Watts served 22 months in prison after his sentencing, and is now a free man.

Yet for years, Chicago law enforcement leaders did nothing to heal the lives that Watts and his cohort tore apart with their abuse of power. Some of Watts’ victims went to jail or prison, serving sentences secured by illegally obtained evidence. Once they were released, they couldn’t find work thanks to their wrongful criminal records.

In mid-November, 15 of those men made headlines when Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx vacated their tainted drug convictions, all of which were tied to Watts and his cohort. The Conviction Integrity Unit in Foxx’s office determined that the convictions were based on false testimony and planted evidence — but only after Joshua Tepfer of the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago petitioned a judge in September to clear their names. The vacated convictions have been described as a first-of-its-kind “mass exoneration” in Cook County by wrongful conviction experts.

“Everyone knew…if you’re not going to pay Watts, you’re going to jail,” 36-year-old Leonard Gipson, one of the 15 men, told reporters. “That’s just the way it was gonna go.” Gipson was convicted multiple times based on charges brought by Watts, and at one point spent two years in jail because of him.

Tepfer began representing men convicted on charges brought by Watts and his co-conspirators and investigating their cases when Foxx’s predecessor Anita Alvarez was still in office. When Foxx took office in 2016, Tepfer said her office cooperated with him as he pursued relief for people charged by Watts. By December 2016, three convictions tied to Watts had been vacated. During that petitioning process, Tepfer obtained a spreadsheet from the DA’s office identifying “at least 1000 arrests during an eight year period that led to at least 500 convictions” in which Watts and his fellow officers were involved. After realizing the breadth of the misconduct, Tepfer moved to have several cases consolidated this year — those of 15 men who had already served their time, but still had a conviction on their record. But Foxx’s office pushed back throughout October and early November, arguing that procedurally, each case should be handled separately. As Tepfer prepared for a hearing scheduled for Nov. 16, he assumed until the day before the argument that it would be dedicated to the litigation against the consolidation.

“They called me the morning before and said they’d be dismissing all [of the] convictions,” said Tepfer. “I didn’t think I was persuading them at all, but it appears that they concluded they couldn’t have faith in these convictions either.”

The media jumped to praise Foxx for vacating the illegally-obtained convictions. But the spotlight on Foxx illuminates just how rare it is for prosecutors to dismiss charges or vacate convictions premised on police officers’ fabricated testimony, corruption, or illegal behavior.

“It is extraordinarily uncommon what [Foxx’s office] did, and they should be applauded,” Tepfer told In Justice Today. “The reality though, is that it should be done all the time. When there’s intentional and systemic law enforcement misconduct across cases, you have to go back and look at all those cases.”

“As a prosecutor’s office, inasmuch as we fight for public safety, we also recognize that we have to right wrongs and be willing to do that,” Foxx told the Tribune following the exonerations.

Not everyone agreed with Foxx that the fight for public safety entails righting past wrongs. Police officers took Foxx’s exonerations as a challenge. The day after her office announced the convictions would be vacated, she was chastised in a public letter from Kevin Graham, president of Chicago’s police union, for “pander[ing] to the powerful anti-police movement in the city” and creating a “level of mistrust among police officers” that will discourage them from testifying. The letter could be read as a threat: without the testimony of officers, Foxx may struggle to secure future convictions.

But Graham’s letter fails to explain why vacating falsely obtained convictions would threaten law enforcement officers. If police and prosecutors’ goal is to protect and improve public safety, as is so often stated, then getting abusive police who frame innocent people off the street would seem to be in their interest. That the working relationship between DAs and police could be compromised by exonerating innocent people suggests that more is at play in Graham’s anger than the alleged quest for safety and justice.

Though Foxx’s actions are rare, she isn’t alone. A new generation of prosecutors shares Foxx’s commitment to vacating convictions or dropping charges based on police’s bad behavior. In July, 34 drug and gun charges were dismissed by Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s office after news surfaced that the charges relied on testimony from officers who allegedly planted drugs at a crime scene. In August, DA Gurbir Grewal of Bergen County, New Jersey dropped 8 cases brought against 17 defendants, all of whom were charged based on faulty, illegal police work. The same month, DA Kristen Barnebey of Aransas County, Texas made the surprising announcement that her office would no longer take cases brought by a local police department until its officers were better trained and educated, as In Justice Today’s Carimah Townes reported. These prosecutors appear to recognize that police misconduct isn’t just the police’s problem.

Tepfer of the Exoneration Project is investigating dozens of other casesinvolving the officers who worked with Watts, and WGNTV notes that as many as 7 other officers involved in their cases are still on the job. Foxx’s office has said it will continue to cooperate with Tepfer and review convictions based on charges from the indicted officers.

“These are not the only people this happened to,” said Tepfer. “These guys were working a decade with impunity. This is certainly not the end of it, and I’m working on bringing them more cases very, very soon.”

As Incidents of Police Misconduct and Abuse Pile up Nationwide, Justice for their Victims Remains Fleeting

Officer Marco Becerra

As Incidents of Police Misconduct and Abuse Pile up Nationwide, Justice for their Victims Remains Fleeting

A staggering 1,094 people have been killed by American police so far in 2017. At the current pace, this will make 2017 the second deadliest year ever measured for police violence. As I’ve said many times here, and across the country, most Americans can’t name a single victim. Trump has all but sucked the wind out of the entire news cycle.

The State of Virginia could soon free over 200 inmates after a local newspaper investigated the state’s unfair application of its three-strikes law. Because of the way the law is currently being applied, hundreds of non-violent offenders are serving longer prison sentences than some convicted murderers.

Body camera policies across the country are failing. For police departments that actually took the step toget the cameras, many, including the Denver Police Department, allowofficers to use the footage from their cameras as “cheat sheets” as they write their reports. Because officers are allowed to see the footage before they write their reports, they have the opportunity to explain away what the footage may or may not have caught and create stories around the footage. A better policy would be to require officers to write their reports without access to the footage, then compare the two for accuracy.

It’s not enough to have body cameras — the policies governing them have to be progressive as well.

Activists and organizers in Austin, Texas, and around the country, are smartly targeting the police contracts in their city. Unbeknownst to everyday people, those contracts often go out of their way to protect even the bad apples in local police departments. Because, in most cases, the contracts only come up for renewal every four or five years, the opportunity for local activists to have a say in the negotiations doesn’t come around very often. This process needs to be open and transparent for all to see.

Very few police officers are ever held accountable for even the most egregious shootings and acts of violence. Over the course of this past week, that trend has continued in many cases where families and victims expressed genuine hope for justice.

A Dallas cop who was filmed wrongfully shooting a mentally ill man in the gut was sentenced to just two years of probation. The cop and his partner told multiple lies about the incident and should’ve received hard time.

Another Texas cop fired his gun through the wall of his apartment, critically injuring a sleeping neighbor. He admitted it, but was found not guilty of recklessly shooting a firearm. If the neighbor had accidentally shot the cop while he was sleeping you and I know the neighbor would be jail right now.

In both of those shootings the victims suffered from life-altering injuries, but the cops got off without serving even a day of jail time.

Minnesota, with the family of Philando Castile, is continuing the national trend of refusing to hold the cops accountable criminally while paying out enormous sums of money to those families on the back end.

All over the country police officers continue to be charged with horrific sex crimes. These are all from this past week alone:

A cop from Yuma, Arizona was arrested for raping a woman in San Diego.

A California cop who was charged with three felony counts of statutory rape just resigned. How was he not fired?

A Utah cop was arrested and charged with having sex with an underage boy.

A Connecticut cop was charged with sexually assaulting a juvenile inmate.

A Wisconsin cop was charged with sexual exploitation of a child.

A Hawaii cop was sentenced to jail for soliciting a prostitute.

Shaun King is a writer in residence with the Fair Punishment Project. He is a father, writer, humanitarian, political commentator and activist who lives in Brooklyn. He was previously Senior Justice Writer for the New York Daily News. The views and opinions expressed in this article are Shaun’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.

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Tennessee Sheriff Launches ‘Busted Bingo’ To Round Up People With Warrants

“Kiss your boyfriend goodbye.”

Sullivan County Sheriff Wayne Anderson, host of Busted Bingo

Tennessee Sheriff Launches ‘Busted Bingo’ To Round Up People With Warrants

“Kiss your boyfriend goodbye.”

The men in black are coming for you.”

So says the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Department in Tennessee, which recently announced a game to decide who to round up and jail for outstanding warrants. Entitled Busted Bingo, the game has the look and feel of a typical televised lottery. But instead of money or a tropical vacation, victors are rewarded with an “all-inclusive stay at the Sullivan County Correctional Facility.”

Busted Bingo is hosted by Sheriff Wayne Anderson and posted on YouTube. In episode one, a man with a thick country accent explains the game’s purpose, as an upbeat country theme song blares in the background: simply put, the department has “too many warrants.” In order to pick and choose which ones to enforce, the department created a board with 24 numbered mugshots and Anderson selects a corresponding numbered ball from a spinning wheel. The lucky person’s photograph, birth date, alleged offense, and home address are then plastered on the screen for all to see.

“Girl, you might as well cowgirl up,” Anderson tells the first winner. “Come on in. Kiss your boyfriend goodbye. Give your mama a big hug. ‘Cause if you don’t, we’re gonna come and get ya.”

According to the Herald Courierthe sheriff’s department has over 17,000 warrants — 7,572 of which are active. Anderson considers Busted Bingo an “innovative way” to inform the public and fulfill his statutory duty to serve the warrants.

The first episode of Busted Bingo has amassed more than 38,800 views, and garnered some positive audience feedback. But the game has also sparked outrage among many viewers who consider it unprofessional, reductive, and harmful.

“People do bad things, but making light of their humanity due to those usually small infractions, is far worse,” said one critic on YouTube. “Go arrest who you need to, to keep the community safe, but this kind of trivialization of American justice is just f***ing gross,” said another.

But Anderson is undeterred by the negative comments. “I know some people didn’t like it,” he said. “No matter what you do in this job, you’re always going to have critics. I think it’s going to work out really good.”

In fact, there is no end in sight for the game. The sheriff’s department intends to serve all 24 warrants and then start from scratch.

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