Seven years ago John Collins was charged with aggravated battery of a police officer, a felony in Illinois. He was sent to a Cook County jail and bond was set at $75,000, which he could not pay. The jail was overcrowded, so Collins slept on the floor. He remained there for 385 days, during which time he missed the birth of his first child, a baby boy. His fiancé brought his infant son to visit but he was not allowed to hold him, separated by a pane of glass. Sometimes, those visits were canceled “when the jail was put on lock-down for stabbings and murders.” Eventually, his fiancé left him, saying his time in the jail had changed him — he wasn’t the same person anymore.
Today Collins is a free man, acquitted of all charges, and the Chicago Police owe him $1 million. His seven-year odyssey may have finally ended this week, when a jury unanimously found the two officers involved guilty of malicious prosecution for fabricating the case against him.
Court documents and interviews reveal a remarkable story of a barber who blew the whistle on two veteran police officers and was vindicated. But the details of Collins’ case also underscore just how difficult it is for an ordinary citizen to prove misconduct by the police. Innocence, of course, is helpful. But luck is essential….
Several members of the jury, speaking with Collins’ lawyers after the trial, admitted that — despite the weight of the evidence favoring Collins — they still struggled mightily with the idea that police officers might not tell the truth. Which raises the larger question: What happens to people who are victims of police misconduct when there aren’t three disinterested witnesses to the event? Collins’ redemption is the exception that proves the rule. In many disputes between alleged criminals and the police, the police will win regardless of the facts.
According to data compiled by the CATO Institute, from April 2009 to December 2010 there were “8,300 credible reports involving allegations of police misconduct” but only 3,238 resulted in criminal charges. The conviction rate for law enforcement officers who were charged is just 37 percent, compared to a 70 percent conviction rate among members of the general public charged criminally. The CATO report notes that “prosecuting police misconduct in the US is very problematic with conviction rates, incarceration rates, and the amount of time law enforcement officers spend behind bars for criminal misconduct are all far lower than what happens when ordinary citizens face criminal charges.”