The Housing Project Plagued by Police Corruption
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The Backstory | The Backstory | Episode 9
The Housing Project Plagued by Police Corruption
In the mid-aughts, the police sergeant Ronald Watts knew how to exploit the lawlessness of the Ida B. Wells Homes. The Exoneration Project believes that he and his officers wrongly arrested hundreds of people.
Read the story.
Released on 05/18/2018
(chimes ring)
(tense music)
I think when you're going through life
knowing every time you walk out
of your apartment building that
you might be able to be arrested
for something that you did not do.
It's so profoundly un-American
that you could be arrested for anything
at any time, that a cop could put drugs on you,
could then get on the witness stand in a courthouse
and say that you were guilty when you were not.
(tense music)
You know, last fall, last November
15 men in Chicago came to the courthouse
and were exonerated altogether.
(static crackling)
They are men who all served time
for crimes they say the didn't commit.
Now the county's top prosecutor agrees with them.
Because of crooked police investigations.
(static crackling)
It was believed to be the first
mass exoneration in Cook County history.
[Interviewer] Let's talk about
some of the main characters in the story,
starting with Ronald Watts.
Who is he and what kind of a person is he?
Ronald Watts was a sergeant
in the Chicago Police Department.
Their job was to root out the drug trafficking
and the drug dealing going on
in the Ida B. Wells Homes.
What they were actually doing,
in fact, what he was actually doing
is running his own sort of criminal enterprise.
Shaking down drug dealers,
shaking down other residents of the projects
and demanding money from them, bribes.
He was planting drugs, heroin, cocaine,
on residents and hauling them to the precinct
and then off to jail.
When I would ask some of the men
who had been arrested by him
how they would describe him,
some of them would talk about Training Day,
about the corrupt detective.
All right, I'm puttin' cases on all you bitches!
You think you can do this shit?
I'm the police!
I run shit here!
You just live here!
The story takes place primarily
in a housing project on the south side of Chicago
that no longer exists, but it was called
the Ida B. Wells Homes.
And it was opened in 1941,
it was the first housing project in Chicago
that was built specifically for African-Americans,
it was segregated housing.
And at the time it was a place
of tremendous promise.
It really embodied the aspirations
of the entire neighborhood.
(soft music)
And then over the decades,
the Chicago Housing Authority
neglected their buildings.
The place became incredibly run down.
You have graffiti, you have gunshots,
you have, you know, open-air drug dealing.
So it's a very, very challenging place to grow up.
You know, I think of all the folks
that were affected by this corruption.
It seemed to me that Ben and Clarissa Baker
paid the very highest price.
Ben and Clarissa are couple who
met in 1990 in night school on the south side of Chicago.
He grew up in the Ida B. Wells Homes
and she grew up about a half a mile away.
She came from a middle class family.
Her father was a private detective.
And they became a couple and they had three boys.
And she ultimately moves into the Ida B. Wells.
They really trace their troubles
with Sergeant Watts back to 2004.
The sergeant asking him for money and he refused.
Ultimately at the end of 2005,
they're driving down the street together
into the Ida B. Wells, into the parking lot
by their building, and a police officer
comes up behind them and another beside them.
And here is Sergeant Watts and one of his officers
demanding their keys,
demanding that they get out of the car
and searching the whole car.
They see Sergeant Watts put his hand
inside the door and as they remember,
he pulls out his hand and he says, I got it.
Clarissa tells me that she saw something
come out of his sleeve.
And fast-forward several months,
Ben now has two pending drug cases.
He goes on trial in Chicago and ultimately
is convicted despite testifying in his own defense,
despite his lawyer telling the whole story about the bribes
and the corruption going on in Ida B. Wells.
And he's sentenced ultimately to 14 years in prison.
And it rips the family apart.
From what Clarissa has told me
it sounds like it was so deeply traumatic, what happened.
And here she is a single mom
with three kids to raise by herself.
Because she had been convicted in this case with Ben,
she's now a convicted felon.
Which of course means it's much harder
to find decent paying job.
You can't get Section 8 which is a federal rental subsidy.
So life just becomes infinitely harder.
[Interviewer] How was Officer Watts finally exposed?
In 2012, when Ben Baker was in prison
and had been in prison for some six years,
one night he's on the cell block, it's nighttime,
folks are getting ready to go to sleep
and somebody telling him,
Turn the TV on, turn the TV on!
He turns it on and there is Sergeant Watts
sprinting down the street
on the news with one of his officers.
As it turns out, Sergeant Watts has been arrested.
This is in early 2012.
He and one of his officers were arrested
for what was called theft of government funds.
So even after Sergeant Watts went to prison,
he was sentenced to 22 months,
Ben Baker was still in prison.
You know, in 2015 at the same time
that there was a lawyer Joshua Tepfer
at the Exoneration Project in Chicago
putting together a petition
trying to get Ben Baker out of prison,
folks were protesting in the streets
the murder of Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer.
The videotape had never been released
so it was only through the efforts
of folks in Chicago pushing very hard
to get a judge to order the release
of that tape that it was out.
And once folks saw the way this teenager
had died at the hands of a police shooting,
they took to the streets.
16 shots! 16 shots!
And that rage and frustration
really changed the tone, I think,
of the conversation around criminal justice
and helped bring in a new state's attorney.
Woman named Kim Fox who ultimately
is the person who made the decision
about the mass exoneration.
(tense music)
You know, we've been talking in the media
for many years now about wrongful convictions
and DNA exonerations.
It's only recently that we've
begun to talk about mass exonerations,
which would be a group of people
being exonerated all together.
It's happened in Philadelphia,
it's happened in Massachusetts,
which has recently had the exoneration
of some 20,000 people after it was shown
that a chemist in the police lab
was really faking lab results
and they had to sort of wipe away
all of those convictions.
I think what was striking to me
about this story is the length of time
the corruption went on and the fact that
so many people didn't stop it.
So many different agencies, whether it's the FBI,
Internal Affairs of the police department.
What Clarissa said it to me,
Everybody knew but nobody did anything.
I mean I think that's a society
we have to be asking ourselves
who do we believe?
And I think that's a very, very important
aspect of this story.
(tense music)
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