The Callowness of Assumed Guilt

The only lights in the room were a desk lamp pointed downward on the long table in front of my chair and an even smaller lamp over someone’s–I couldn’t see his face–notepad. I couldn’t see anyone else in the room but I knew they could see me in the reflected glare before me. At any one time, there were at least two men sitting far down at the other end, sometimes three, sometimes four. A door to the hallway would open and close, briefly letting in more light as cops, uniformed and plain-clothed, entered and left. They questioned me for hours, most of the night. My story was picked apart, small inconsistencies harped on, men yelling at me for “lying.”

It was grueling and frightening and served no purpose. In the larger scheme of things, it was mild–but that did not make it any less exhausting or confusing.

Worst, for me, was that I had gone into the police station as a crime victim.

This was Chicago, fall of 1976. I had moved there a couple of months earlier from New York City, where I had spent a year after some time in Rhode Island, North Carolina and Wisconsin. I was a restless young man, rootless and wandering, with few belongings and long, long hair and a beard–just the type Chicago police were known to hate. I had taken an apartment near Touhy Avenue on North Sheridan in Rogers Park, cheap and not far from my new job in Lincolnwood.

The building seemed safe enough, locks on the street entrances, front and back. I settled in. The laundry room was four flights down from my apartment but I didn’t mind–the elevator was steps from my door. I got in the habit of not locking that door when I went back and forth, moving clothes from washer to dryer.

Generally, I left my wallet and checkbook on a small table right inside the door. Stupid, I know, but I didn’t have much anyone would want to steal so wasn’t too concerned with security.

One night, when I came up with my load from the dryer, I sensed something was wrong. It took me a few minutes, but I finally realized that my wallet and checkbook were gone. I searched the rest of the place in case I had left them elsewhere, and in case something else was missing. Nope.

I didn’t know what to do. It was dark, close to eight in the evening. This was in the days before 911, so I dialed “0” and asked the operator to get me the police. She asked what precinct and that stumped me. I hadn’t a clue. She said she couldn’t help me unless I could tell her at least that, so I hung up and opened the phone book. Chicago, I saw, has lots of precincts, listed by number and with address. However, I hardly knew the streets I traveled, let alone the thousands of others. I had little way of telling which was mine.

Finally, I decided on one and dialed the number. It rang. And rang. And rang. Eventually, I gave up and hung up.

Almost immediately, the phone rang. It was the police, but from another precinct. Relieved, I said I had been trying to reach them. They cut me off and said come down, now. “Where?” I asked. They told me; it was near Wrigley Field and I recognized the street name. I collected my car and drove there, relieved and expecting to get my things back.

When I walked into the station–an old building, just what one would expect were one watching film noire–and told them who I was, I was directed to a man with a grim stare who led me into the darkened room, sat me down, turned on the lamp in front of me and closed the door.

“We know you were involved. This was attempted fraud,” a voice from somewhere. I hadn’t noticed anyone else in the dim room when the door was open. Now, I couldn’t see. “We know you gave your checkbook to ‘Fred Jones’ [I don’t remember the actual name] so that he could write a check at Jewel Foods that you would then deny.”

“What?” Someone opened the door enough to slip out, but I still couldn’t see who had spoken.

“You think you can get away with this? You’re mistaken.” I am certain I looked like a half-wit, sitting there in the only light with my mouth completely open in surprise. “You’re just a small-time hustler. If your boss hadn’t been working late, you might have gotten away with it. But you just aren’t too smart.”

My boss? How did he get into this? Was this going to affect my job? As if he could read my thoughts, the voice continued, “The security guard at Jewel, when Jones gave your work ID, called the number on it and asked that you be described. When it didn’t match, the guard called us.”

Not only was I confused, but now I was scared. My life was too close to the edge; I couldn’t afford to those that job.

“You had better cooperate with us, answering honestly. We have your pal in custody and he talked. We’ll know when you’re lying.”

I nodded, unable to speak.

“Where did you meet Jones?”

“I didn’t.”

“Come on. We know you did.”

“That’s not true.”

“Then why are you so nervous?”

I simply looked into the darkness, baffled and frightened.

“It was at your apartment, wasn’t it? At about six. You gave him your wallet and checkbook and told him to bring back half the money and then you would call the police.”

“I don’t know who he is. I never saw him. I never gave anyone my stuff.”

“Don’t lie to me!” He snarled. Another person came into the room.

“I’m not lying.”

“We’ll see about that.” This, from another voice. “Jones tried to cash your check at about seven. It was close to nine when we tracked you down. Why didn’t you call us in the meantime?” This voice sounded more reasonable, less mean than the other.

“I tried. And besides, I didn’t know anything was missing, not right away.”

“Lock him up. Give him a few hours to think about telling the truth.” First voice, again, still angry.

“Look,” second voice, “let’s go through your story as you claim it, minute by minute. Now, all I want you to do is answer questions. I’ll ask.”

“OK.”

“You say you never met Jones. We know otherwise but, for the sake of argument, let’s hear your side of it.” He paused. “When did you first notice your wallet and checkbook were missing?”

“When I came up with my laundry from the dryer. About eight.”

“Why didn’t you call the police?”

“I tried, but… ”

“Like hell you did,” the other voice. “How difficult is it to call the police? We’re the ones who called you.”

“Let him speak for a moment,” the second voice spoke to the first. “We’ll have time to pick apart his story, if need be. Now, let’s go back to the beginning. What time did you say you got home from work? Were you with Jones?”

This went on for three hours or more. It was well after midnight when they let me go, getting on to two in the morning. I was exhausted and sick. They told me they still didn’t believe me and that I had better show up in court for Jones’ appearance at nine that morning, or they would put out a warrant for my arrest. When I asked for my things back, they laughed and told me they were evidence. I am sure they laughed even more once I was out of sight.

At eight, I called work. My boss was understanding and gave me the day off. Jones did not have an attorney so, when his case was called in the late afternoon, he was assigned one and the case was continued. I saw, when he stood, why the Jewel Foods security guard had called the police so quickly: Jones looked nothing like me. I wasn’t called to the stand or asked to do anything. I don’t think anyone knew I was there. Or cared.

A month later, I was back for the new trial date–but Jones was not and a warrant for his arrest was issued. No one noticed me, again, or spoke to me. Afterwards, again, I asked for my stuff back. This time I was told it had been destroyed as unclaimed.

What happened to me happens to thousands of people every day in America and at our borders–and it has for years. I was lucky. As a white male, though disreputable in the eyes of the Chicago cops, I was treated fairly kindly. No one handcuffed me (though they threatened to) and no one touched me. But the assumption through it all was that I was guilty of something, so didn’t need to be treated with any respect or consideration.

The police had decided, probably simply on my appearance (if I had shown up clean shaven, with short hair and with a shirt an tie, none of this would have happened) that I was a criminal. They didn’t care about the truth of the matter. Their rationale: If I hadn’t done this, I had done something else–so deserved whatever I got.

I am reminded of this attitude by Donald Trump’s tweet the other day, the one in which he wrote, “Hiring many thousands of judges, and going through a long and complicated legal process, is not the way to go – will always be disfunctional. People must simply be stopped at the Border and told they cannot come into the U.S. illegally. Children brought back to their country.” Those people are assumed to be criminals.

All I lost from a similar assumption was time, a day’s pay, and my wallet and checkbook. What these, probably also innocent people could lose might include their lives.

Pointedly, in Trump’s tweet, there should be no justice for them.

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