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.
It all started on January 3, 2006, when two Chicago police officers claim they saw Collins drinking from what they suspected was a bottle of alcohol in the street. The officers, Michael Garza and Jeffrey Mayer, pulled over to investigate. At the 2007 criminal trial, Garza and Mayer describe Collins that day as angry, uncooperative, violent, drunk, and nearly constantly shouting expletives. They soon arrested him at gunpoint for drinking from an open container, handcuffed him, and put him in the back seat of their police cruiser.
At that point, according to Garza and Mayer’s testimony, Collins continued cursing and began spitting at them from the backseat. Eventually, according to the officers, Collins started banging his head against the metal and glass barrier separating the front and back of the police car. Mayer claims they pulled over because they were worried he was “going to hurt himself” and Garza opened the back door to get him out.
That’s when Garza and Mayer claim that Collins, who was handcuffed, committed felony assault.
Garza said that when he leaned into the vehicle, Collins started headbutting and spitting on him. He then got Mayer’s help to remove Collins from the police car, lifting him, they said, by his biceps. Once Collins was out of the car he charged at them and continued to try to kick them. At that point, Mayer conducted an “emergency takedown,” which involved several “open handed strikes” to subdue him. Even on the ground, according to the officers’ testimony, Collins continued to try to kick them.
Reading through the direct testimony of the officers it is hard to imagine how Collins avoided being convicted, much less awarded a large sum for malicious prosecution. But Collins caught an enormous break — there were three independent witnesses to the altercation. And what they saw diverged greatly from the police officers’ account.
Patricia Watkins lives in a townhouse directly across from where the police car pulled over. She testified that, from her front window, she saw Garza get out of the driver’s seat, open the back door and immediately start punching the person in back, “bending down, punching, like it was a punching bag.” She testified Garza continued to punch the person in the back seat for at least two minutes. Watkins testified that, while Garza was administering the beating, Mayer was urging him to “get back in” the vehicle. Watkins said that eventually Collins was able to get out of the car and Garza started to kick him. She then disputed every key element of the police officers’ story:
Two other women, Lidya Taylor and Johnita Powell, also witnessed the entire incident and gave nearly identical accounts. Powell testified that Collins was pulled out of the car by his hair. She called 911 and told them “the cops are out here beating someone up.”
Collins had something else working in his favor. Many of the critical details in the two officers’ testimony, particularly their account of their initial stop of Collins, were not reflected anywhere in the police report.
Collins was acquitted of the criminal charges against him in 2007, more than a year after his arrest.
Later, Collins filed a civil case against the officers for malicious prosecution. Defying stereotypes, a 12-person jury of 10 whites, an Asian-American and an African-American found in favor of Collins. They awarded him $1 million — $100,000 for emotional distress and $900,000 for the loss of a normal life.
Sara Garber, one of Collins’ attorneys, said the jury was swayed by the independent witnesses — who didn’t know Collins — and the discrepancies between the police officers’ testimony and the official police records of the incident. His ex-fiancé, who has since moved to Texas, testified about the impact the time in jail had on his life. And Collins also testified on his own behalf about the impact the ordeal had on his life.
Despite the evidence impeaching the police officers’ version of the events, the City of Chicago seemed fairly confident the jury would rule against Collins. According to Collins’ lead attorney, Lawrence Jackowiak, the city “refused reasonable attempts at settlement.” A week before the trial, they offered Collins a settlement of $100,000. As the trial commenced, they lowered their offer to $36,000 and then withdrew it completely shortly before the verdict was delivered. The city is now considering an appeal.
After the verdict, Collins said that he sued because “I just wanted people to know that the police did wrong,” adding “It was frustrating, I was very sad, but I was just focused on justice.” Since being released, Collins, now 42, has returned to work full-time as a barber — he was certified shortly before his arrest. He’s moved outside of Chicago to get some distance between him and the incident that tore his life apart. He is still separated from his son, who lives in Texas with his mother, but Collins’ barber station is adorned with a bunch of pictures.
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.”
Even in Collins’ case complete accountability remains elusive. The police officers involved never faced criminal charges — only the civil law suit. According to Garber, Garza and Mayer also faced no internal discipline from the Chicago Police. They remain on the job to this day, patrolling the same neighborhood where they stopped John Collins.