A whistleblower lawsuit on behalf of two Chicago police officers has been filed in federal court. The suit alleges the officers faced retaliation after they discovered one of their fellow officers, Sergeant Ron Watts, was “robbing drug couriers and manufacturing a case against at least one confidential informant” at the Ida B. Wells public housing complex.
The lawsuit claims police officers and the City of Chicago violated Shannon Spalding and Daniel Echeverria’s First Amendment and equal protection rights. It alleges they engaged in conspiracy against Echeverria and Spalding and that retaliation they experienced in the police department was “part of a custom, policy and practice espoused by the City of Chicago.” And, the Illinois Whistleblower Protection Act was violated.
According to the lawsuit filed, the two officers notified Sergeant Roderick Watson of the criminal conduct they had witnessed in 2006. Watson told them “we’re not going to go here.” There would be no investigation.
In April 2007, Echeverria and Spalding made the decision to contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). They met with Special Agent “P.S.”, the agent assigned to the Bureau’s public corruption unit from April 2007 to August 2008. They discussed intelligence on Watts. And, in August 2008, they met with the FBI to share intelligence again and were recruited to work on “Operation Brass Tax” and report criminal conduct by officers, like Sgt. Watt, to the FBI.
The two officers were assured their identities would remain “confidential” while they worked for the FBI.
In August 2010, Commander James O’ Grady received paperwork seeking approval for a “confidential informant.” He learned the application came from Echeverria and Spalding and refused to approve the application. That same month he participated in a meeting with another commander, Nicholas Roti, where the identities of the two officers were discussed. O’Grady and Roti both said they would not be letting Echeverria or Spalding work for any units under their command.
Sergeant James Padar told the two officers “in the presence of another witness” O’Grady had said, “You are not to work with those [Internal Affairs Department] rats, you are not to assist them and they are not to get any overtime.”
Chicago Police Chief Juan Rivera disclosed the identities of Echeverria and Spalding to Deputy Chief Ernie Brown, a friend of Watts, in December. Rivera told the two officers Brown had told everyone, including O’Grady. Both of them should expect to be on the “receiving end” of “severe retaliation.”
The lawsuit further indicates in April 2011 Deputy Superintendent Beatrice Cuello sought to confirm whether the two officers were working on some kind of an undercover investigation. Deputy Chief of Police Debra Kirby denied knowing there was any investigation going on, not wanting to be connected to the “controversial investigation.” This led to Cuello kicking the two officers out of their unit, Unit 543, because she thought they were lying about their involvement in the Watts investigation. The two officers were put on police academy unit.
At the police academy, in May, they were made to give instructions on “in-car cameras,” even though they had never used those in their careers. Also, between May and July, they had to report every day to the academy and spend time in “a small room without phones or radios.” They were essentially put on “house arrest.” This was for investigating fellow officers.
By September 2011, Echeverria and Spalding tried to file a complaint of retaliation. Police commander Adrian Stanley did not want to have anything to do with this. Despite a general order in the department requiring them to report retaliation, they were encouraged not to make their treatment an issue. On September 14, they were told by Stanley to just leave it alone.
On September 20, they complained to Rivera and insisted an investigation be started. Echeverria said, “Since no one at CPD will do anything, we need to take this to an outside agency.” To which Rivera replied, “Look, everyone is against you so you don’t want to piss me off.”
Less than a month later, on October 4, Pascua said, “Fuck them from narcotics…I’m a lawyer and know how to put a case together…I’m gonna work on getting them fucking launched.”
As “Operation Brass Tax” continued to investigate corruption, two Sergeants of the Internal Affairs Division approached both Echeverria and Spalding in November 2011 to say, “Sometimes you have to turn a blind eye,” to misconduct. And before the Christmas party, Sergeant Tom Chester of IAD suggested Spalding not attend because O’Grady was considering confronting her.
Sergeant Watts and another officer, Kallat Mohammed, were both finally indicted by the United States Attorney on February 12, 2012. It was a result of the two officers’ work, but, when it was time to return to normal duties they were ordered by Roti to not return to the narcotics unit or “any other division of Organized Crime.”
Spalding began to experience “severe anxiety attacks” because of the “hostile work environment” Both were given new assignments and made to sit “idly for eight hours a day until March 16, 2012.” Then, they were detailed to “Fugitive Apprehension” under supervision of the US Marshall’s Task Force Team. They were made to go after “unknown turnstile jumpers” or people who were drunk in public.
Lieutenant Robert Cesario had them removed from the US Marshall’s Task Force on June 20. Cesario said they were not making enough arrests or bringing enough “priority cases.” He said they had “brought this baggage” on themselves. Sergeant Maurice Barnes then told the two officers he didn’t want to tell “your daughter you’re coming home in a box because the team won’t help you on the street.”
The two officers were put on a “night fugitive apprehension team. They worked from 4 pm to 12:30 am. And then, on August 17, Spalding was “barred” from entering Chicago Police Headquarters at Homan Square, where her locker was located.
Echeverria told reporters after the lawsuit was filed, “I almost feel punished for doing the right thing.” Spalding said, “This is what will happen to you if you go against sworn personnel…If you don’t want a code of silence, you don’t treat officers like this. … It’s cost us everything. My career is over. … Nobody wants to work with me anymore.”
Spalding had worked for the department for sixteen years. Echeverria had worked for thirteen years.
The Chicago Tribune noted in their coverage of this story, “Sgt. Ronald Watts and Officer Kallatt Mohammed. Mohammed pleaded guilty to extorting payoffs from heroin and crack dealers and was sentenced last week to 18 months in prison. Watts has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.” And, as the Tribune mentioned, officers are also being questioned at another federal trial on the “code of silence culture inside the department and whether it discourages officers from reporting wayward colleagues.” The trial “involves allegations that officers tried to protect Officer Anthony Abbate after he brutally assaulted a female bartender while he was off-duty and drunk.”
This lawsuit exposes corruption at the core of the Chicago Police Department. It shows what happens to people who have concern for ethics inside of an institution, who understand the double standard of investigating crime while engaging in crime should not be part of regular department operations. It draws attention to an aspect of the War on Drugs, where officers steal money from drug dealers and those who don’t go along with this conduct are treated as if they’re the ones in the department doing something wrong. And, of course, Chicago is probably not unique. This story could happen in almost any police department in the country, especially departments in major US cities.
If one compares this to officers in the New York Police Department who are penalized if they do not meet their quotas and carry out stop-and-frisks of Latinos or African-Americans, it is not hard to understand how law enforcement becomes so totally corrupt. There are clear consequences to those who display a sense of decency or morality. People who believe in rules and following the law as police officers will be made an example if their loyalty to rules or the law get in the way of colleagues.
Finally, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago City Council recently passed an ordinance expanding whistleblower protections to include citizens. He said he believes people should be able to call in corruption and not be worried. He said the city should change its “culture of corruption into a culture of serving the public.” In that case, this case should not even go to court. Emanuel should be seeing to it that the two officers receive whatever compensation or settlement they seek. Otherwise, it will be incredibly clear how hollow and self-serving his statements on whistleblower protections happen to be.