CHICAGO (CBS) — Hours after insisting that Chicago Police officers who worked under disgraced Sgt. Ronald Watts were entitled to due process rights “like any citizen in this country,” Supt. Eddie Johnson changed course to take six officers and a sergeant off the street.

Johnson had taken the stage for a City Club speech Thursday afternoon touting good-news crime statistics and efforts to rebuild community trust — a message he had to deliver only about two hours after a judge wiped out the convictions of 15 men whose cases were tainted by police misconduct.

Asked why CPD hadn’t moved to fire any of the nearly dozen officers involved in Watts’ cases since he pleaded guilty in 2013 — some of whom were accused of filing false reports or lying on the stand by the men exonerated Thursday — the superintendent said the department was taking a “hard look” at the officers. Watts was sentenced to 22 months in prison for stealing money from a drug courier who was working as an FBI informant.

“We’re looking at it very hard. And once I get enough information, that may be what happens,” Johnson said. “But right now, we are looking at it.

“They have due process and rights just like any citizen in this country. If the day comes where they are convicted of something, they won’t be on the job,” Johnson said. “But we just can’t arbitrarily take the job away from people.”

The beleaguered department, in the midst of efforts to overhaul its image, made a swift about-face by Thursday night, when a police spokesman said that six officers and a sergeant who worked under Watts had been placed on desk duty pending the outcome of an internal investigation into possible wrongdoing.

Johnson admitted the department’s reputation was hurt by news that Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx would drop 18 cases against 15 men from South Side neighborhoods Watts patrolled, who claimed they were framed by Watts and other officers.

“We may have bad actors just like in any profession: the media, education, clergy, doesn’t matter,” Johnson said. “It’s my job when we identify bad actors to hold them accountable.”

Josh Tepfer, the attorney representing the 15 men exonerated, said there are ample records to review, dating back to when the FBI indicted Watts and fellow officer Kallatt Mohammed in 2012, and from four other cases in which convictions were overturned based on evidence Watts and his crew planted drugs and falsified arrest reports.

Tepfer filed a 78-page petition two months ago outlining misconduct allegations dating back to the early 2000s, including four cases in which judges threw out convictions after ruling it was likely the defendants had been framed by Watts and other members of his tactical team. All told, Watts’ team may have tainted some 500 convictions, Tepfer said.

Seven officers — six of whom still appear to be on the CPD payroll — signed off on reports in those cases, and another four officers have been mentioned in other questionable cases, the filing states. At least one of the exonerated men, Leonard Gipson, said that officers on Watts crew still harass him to this day.

The Watts case also has haunted top brass in the department. Last year, CPD officers Daniel Echeverria and Shannon Spalding received a $2 million payout to settle a whistleblower lawsuit, in which they claimed their careers suffered and supervisors called them “rats” for working with the FBI on Watts’ case after an internal CPD investigation of Watts went nowhere.

The city admitted no wrongdoing as part of the settlement, which was reached after a federal judge ruled that Mayor Rahm Emanuel might have to testify.

None of the supervisors named in the case were disciplined or even investigated by the department, Spalding said. Thursday’s exonerations were a step in the right direction, but Spalding said the department had yet to deal with the full scope of the Watts case.

“You have 15 people freed from wrongful convictions. Why don’t you take a look at whose names are on those false reports and strip those f—ing officers?” Spalding said to the Sun-Times.

Police Board chair Lori Lightfoot said the city could be on the hook for “astronomical” payouts to exonerees, and urged the city to take action against officers involved in the frame-ups.

“Any of those officers who remain on the job must be quickly brought to justice through criminal prosecution and/or disciplinary action. And the taxpayers should not be further insulted by having to foot the pensions of these officers who have clearly acknowledged being involved in criminal conduct in the course of their jobs as Chicago Police officers.”

Martin Preib, spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police, decried Foxx for vacating the felony convictions Thursday.

“The FOP believes the Foxx administration is politicizing her office,” he wrote in an email. “She seems more interested in letting people out of jail than protecting public safety.”

(Source: Sun-Times Media Wire © Chicago Sun-Times 2016. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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