Community Survey Results Indicate Low Trust in Sangamon Police

An Illinois Innocence Project staff member shares her insight in a recent survey that found Sangamon County residents’ trust in police fell 7% from 2019.

When asked “How much trust do you have in the police in your area to keep you and your family safe?” 54% of respondents said they trust the police. The result is a 14 % difference from 2013, when 68% of respondents reported trust in the police in the Sangamon County Citizen Survey  conducted every two years.

“I’m surprised that more than half of the people said they trust the police,” said Christine Ferree, Program Director of Case Evaluations for the Illinois Innocence Project (IIP), regarding the survey.

Earlier this month, students posted small flags on the lawn near the Colonnade to represent the 2,840 people released from prison after serving years for crimes they did not commit.

The display, organized by the IIP, was created to observe Wrongful Conviction Day. Illinois has the second highest number of wrongful convictions at 359, behind Texas which has 399, according to The National Registry of Exonerations from the University of Michigan Law School.

In addition to the high number of wrongfully convicted, Ferree said that Illinois’ claim to be the only state in the country with a torture commission, also certainly leads to the low confidence in police. The Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission was established in 2009 to evaluate the high cases of police torture from Chicago during the ’80s and ‘90s, she said.

Undergraduate students on campus, under supervision of staff, research and investigate claims of innocence as part of the organization’s process for accepting clients for legal representation, according to IIP’s website.

She said one of the main causes of wrongful convictions is false confessions. It was this scenario that Jennifer McMullan experienced when she was 19 years old, Ferree said.

McMullan was “intimidated and coerced into providing a false confession after nearly 15 hours of interrogation by multiple male law enforcement officers,” according to UIS News. Under the legal representation of IIP, she was released in June after serving 19 years in prison.

IIP also advocates for reform in the criminal justice system and hosts a class four times a year on wrongful conviction awareness at the University of Illinois Police Training Institute, she said.

Students can support the mission of IIP as either a volunteer or as credit for a class titled “Conviction of the Innocent” which is taught by IIP lawyers.

The UIS Interim Police Chief Ross Owens said he was disheartened by the low rate in trust of police found in the survey result.

“It’s been a struggle in policing for a long time,” said Owens, who oversees the safety of over 4,000 students plus faculty, staff and administration who work at the Springfield campus.

Earlier this month the police department, in partnership with the Diversity Center and Necessary Steps – a support program for first-generation students – hosted a “Pastry with Police” event on campus aimed to build trust amongst students and the police.

UIS Police Sgt. Justin Evans talked through several scenarios in which students may confront when stopped by the police.

Sierra Roberts, a senior at UIS, said the event was helpful for students to get their questions answered and wishes more campus groups were involved. One student asked about what can happen if one is found to have had a physical fight with a roommate or a student. Evans responded that relationships of that nature, which includes intimate relationships, are considered domestic and are mandatory arrests.

When asked about her thoughts on the police presence on campus, Roberts said, “I do think they [UIS Police] are genuinely here to protect us.”

Roberts added that police relations with the community must be more than pulling over students during a traffic stop. During previous Black Lives Matter actions, she said having police show support for the various student organizations hosting events would have been appreciated.

The Sangamon County Citizen Survey seeks to understand residents’ opinions on quality of life and issues concerning the county, according to the survey report. Researchers mailed out 10,000 questionnaires to households throughout the county and from June 4 to July 9, 2021 received 643 responses via mail and 83 online. College students represented a small percentage of respondents since the survey was conducted over the summer when students are not on campus, said the survey director Alan J. Simmons.

The margin of sampling error for the survey is 4%, according to the survey report.

The project was funded by United Way of Central Illinois, the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln, and the UIS Center for State Policy and Leadership.