In 2006, a corrupt white cop sent an innocent black man to prison on drug charges after mistaking him for someone else—and then was sent to federal prison himself for falsifying documents.
In their experiences with the wrong side of the law, both Andrew Collins and Jameel McGee of Benton Harbor, Mich., came to the end of themselves and began walking in relationship with Jesus. And after their respective releases, both returned to their hometown, where their paths crossed again as new creations.
What has emerged over the last 11 years is a God-woven tale of true repentance and forgiveness that has resulted in a deep and lasting bond between former enemies in a town that is largely divided along racial lines. It’s all detailed in their new book, Convicted: A Crooked Cop, an Innocent Man, and an Unlikely Journey of Forgiveness and Friendship, released by WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House, in September.
Both men recently sat down with Citizen to talk about racism, reconciliation and their relationship.
C: For those who haven’t had the chance to read your book, can you describe how the two of you met the first time?
Andrew Collins: It would have been in February 2006. I was a police officer, had been working since July ʼ03. I started my career with some really high hopes and honorable intentions, but by the time I met Jameel, some things had shifted. I was “creatively articulating” reports. If there was a hole in the story, I had no problem at all bridging the gaps to make sure we got convictions. I had made some rules that I wouldn’t steal money from people or the city, and I wouldn’t plant drugs. But by the end of my career in 2008, I was doing all those things.
The day I met Jameel, I met a guy with crack cocaine who said he would turn on somebody else so he could go home. He made a phone call and said the guy was coming to this address at this time, and we rushed over and the vehicle was there just like we were told. There was one guy in the vehicle who didn’t match the description of who we were looking for, and then out of the store walks Jameel toward the vehicle, who did look like the description I’d been given. So I thought I had him and just very arrogantly said, “Where’s the dope?” And he was like, “What are you talking about?” I just thought he was my guy, and from that point on, I operated from a place that he was 100 percent guilty and it was my job to bridge the gap.
There was crack in the vehicle; Jameel just caught a ride with the wrong guy. Jameel was so angry he stopped talking to me, so it wasn’t until two days later I realized I had the wrong name. So I had to lie even further to explain it away as just a mistake on my end, confusing two people. Jameel was in jail, thinking he’d be out in no time, but then got a supplemental report with this false information in it.
Jameel McGee: I was on my way to the store. I was waiting for the weather to break to open up my brand new car-wash business.
C: Benton Harbor is pretty racially divided. What kind of views did each of you have growing up?
AC: I grew up about three hours north. We played basketball against a team that was predominantly African American, and that was pretty much the extent of my involvement with people from another culture. I got accused of being racist because I was an aggressive young officer, but the city was over 90 percent African American.
JM: It was rough. For me, that issue (of racism) is just everywhere. You felt (it) when law enforcement rolled into town. When (arrests) happened, it’d get real ugly because a lot of people don’t trust law enforcement. It’s just an untrusting atmosphere, to this day.
C: Jameel, when you were 15, you were on the verge of graduating early from high school and thinking about college. But one night some friends asked you to go for a ride, and you didn’t know they were driving a stolen car—and you were sent to jail for something you didn’t do for the first time. How did that affect you?
JM: That made it worse. I didn’t know my rights, and I was just going with the motions because I trusted law enforcement, my lawyers and what they were doing. That ended up getting me sent into prison, just believing that this would work out—and it never did. It was all fabricated to fit me after they realized I wasn’t who they were looking for. So as far as the system and law enforcement, nothing has changed.
AC: Let me just jump in here. This wound is pretty fresh for Jameel still. About a month ago, he was on his way home and had a group of kids in the car with him. A state trooper pulled him over and said he could smell marijuana coming out of his car. Jameel said he didn’t smell anything, and pulled away, and the cops threatened to break his window and pull him out of his car in front of his kids. They had a tow truck on the way to get the car, were writing a report for resisting arrest—and then they found our book in his trunk, and it all went away. We have to stop assuming that every officer is a good officer, and the department needs to talk about that.
C: What was going on in each of your lives spiritually when the bust happened in 2006?
AC: When I was 7, I gave my life to the Lord. My uncle, who is only three years older, walked me through the prayer of salvation in the back of our church on a Sunday night. I never doubted Jesus died for my sins, or the stories in the Bible—I just didn’t know how those stories translated into my life as a teen, in a dating relationship, as a cop. I had a major lordship issue.
My daughter was born when I was 23, and there was something about it that just made me think about my faith. So I started going back to church when I was a police officer, but I’d already started down the slippery slope. And it seemed like every time I went, the pastor was speaking about something I did wrong. I know now it was the Holy Spirit reaching out to try to get me to stop the nonsense—but I didn’t know then. I was too addicted to my own ego.
So I went on a three-day journey in February 2008. I got caught on a Tuesday, thought about killing myself on Wednesday, and then called the pastor and told him everything I’d done on Thursday. It was like I was getting me back by confessing. He listened patiently, and at the end of my spilling, he said, “Hooo, boy, you’re in trouble.” And then he said, “Where are you at with Jesus?” I just hung my head and started crying and said, “I don’t deserve Him.” And he said, “None of us do. That’s the beauty of grace.”
It’s been a nine-year pursuit of digging into the Word and getting to know Him, chasing after His face and not what He can do for me.
JM: I gave my life to Christ at 18, but He wasn’t the head of my life. I just accepted Christ for my mom at that time, and then for myself at 21. But I still was in control. It was Jameel’s way. Everything was black and white, so (after I was sent to prison in 2006), I said I just wasn’t going to lean on God for this one. Until three years in, when I decided to read the Bible and everything started changing.
I got to thinking about my son and what type of life I wanted for him, and what I’d be bringing to the table to try to raise him if I’m all jacked up, so I knew I had to get myself together first to be a father, to teach him not to idolize my growing up from the streets.
C: Jameel, you actually had made up your mind that you were going to beat Andrew to death the first chance you got. Why didn’t you?
JM: That was my goal—whenever I got home to do it. In those moments, I was hurting myself by holding onto (the bitterness). I was only digging myself deeper and deeper into the problem. Then I realized it was all me at this point—these are my actions, this is what I’m doing, I can’t blame anyone else for these parts, so I need to get myself together.
I got up one morning after reading the
Bible and the message of letting it all go came into my thoughts. I went for a walk in the yard and realized that my decision-making wasn’t so good. Those decisions had landed me in the place I was in that day. Had I not gotten in that car, had I just walked to the store, I would have been OK and not in this situation.
C: Andrew, you finally were busted by the feds for falsifying evidence and spent about 18 months in prison yourself. All the people you’d put behind bars, including Jameel, were let out, and you were now in. How did that change you?
AC: When I was a police officer, I thought jails and prisons were full of bad people. And then I went there. I started meeting all these guys who weren’t awful people but who’d made really dumb decisions and had some generational curses in their lives. So I’m meeting these guys who don’t have as much support as I do—and listening to them, I could see how easy it is to chase dreams in a negative manner. I started meeting really good guys who wanted better for themselves, who loved their children and missed their wives, like me.
It was also spiritual boot camp. I set up some strong disciplines in my life for being in the Word every day and seeking out people to have conversations with about the Lord. I saw some really cool ministry opportunities there and got close to some guys I’m still close to today. My grandmother even started a prison ministry off it. I’ve heard it said a grandmother’s love is the closest to Jesus you’ll ever see. I got a letter from her every day. Then she started writing to five or six guys who never got any mail, and still writes to one who is locked up.
C: Let’s talk about what happened when you both got out and your paths crossed again. You were at a community event in the city park.
AC: Jameel got out a week after I went in, and in 2011, I was at Broadway Park because our church was doing an outreach. I can see this guy coming from across the park, and he just looks angry. God had called me back to Benton Harbor because it was part of the reconciliation. Jameel held out his hand and I thought, OK, he’s going to shake my hand. He said, “Remember me?” and I said, “Jameel McGee.” And he gripped me really hard when I said his name. Suffice to say, I did not get the reconciliation I was looking for that day.
C: How many years passed before your paths crossed again?
AC: Four years later, I was working as a mentor at Jobs for Life, and that’s when we met again.
C: Jameel, you suffered an on-the-job injury and had been through quite a lot over those four years—including losing your home and living on the streets. When your job counselor paired you up with a mentor working at a coffee shop and told you it was Andrew Collins, you knew what you were about to walk into, even if no one else did. What went through your mind then? Any further thoughts of revenge?
JM: Really, nothing. I had already given it up at that point. I was ready to get everything put behind me. If this was what I had to do, then let’s do it.
My counselor said she had matched me with a mentor, and told me who it was. I was like, “No way!” But then I prayed about it, and it was clear that God was definitely lining things up for a reason. So I went across the street and met Andrew. He didn’t recognize me, but I knew who he was. He started the conversation out by saying, “I used to be a police officer in this town. Let me apologize if I’ve wronged you or your family—” and I said, “We’ve had this conversation already.”
We’ve been walking in step ever since. We prayed God would bless this relationship, that we would be able to move forward and teach others how to do this. That was in 2015.
C: What do you like about each other the most? How has your friendship changed you? How is your life better for having this man in it?
JM: It gave me a perception that people make mistakes. They’re not always the bad guy, the evil person we all assume. In that, you learn so much about a person, and if it doesn’t make you see who that person is for yourself, vs. your guesstimate, man, it’s just so real once you step into that uncomfortable space and get to know them. You get to form that bond.
AC: I would say that, just watching him go through the forgiveness process with so many people, how quick he is to let things go. He might not invite you over to play cards on Friday night, though—he’s had to say, “I’m not going to let you hurt me again.” I’ve seen him do that with his own family, because some of them completely left him when all this happened. It wasn’t until nine years later when I told the story to a local paper that they said, “Maybe you aren’t a drug dealer.”
When I have trouble forgiving someone, God just reminds me, “Hey, do you remember that thing you did to Jameel that one time?” He’s taught me how to be a better forgiver.
C: What do you feel is the ultimate source of the racial tension we’ve been experiencing in our country the last few years? How do we solve that issue?
JM: They would have to be truthful—the system, law enforcement, government officials. Then a lot of things would start changing. Myself, along with other people who look like me—all we want is the truth. If you can come to my car and fabricate a story and I end up in jail, that’s not being truthful. If I’m minding my own business and you fabricate a story and I wind up in jail, that’s not truthful. We need to be honest about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. If we were just honest about things, our relationship with law enforcement and government officials would just be totally different. If the things that happened to me happened to a white guy, then we could move forward. Right now, there’s just too much of it to act like there’s not a problem.
AC: There’s so much that needs to be reformed. As a police officer, my word had almost complete authority. There was no physical evidence that Jameel brought crack to that location, because he didn’t. It was my word and mine alone that convicted him. I don’t know how we change that, because there were many instances where it was my word (that convicted someone) and I wasn’t lying.
What do we do now to bring the races tighter? It’s not going to trickle down from Washington to us. It’s going to happen at the grassroots level when white people and black people get to together and have conversation.
C: What do you ultimately hope to accomplish with your book?
JM: Changing people’s hearts, minds, perceptions. I hope it opens the door to talking about bigger problems with law enforcement and officials so we can move on. This is something we really need to tap into. Read that book and then come to a place where you feel in your heart we can get together and make a change. It’s not going to happen by just talking about it. We have to be moving, involved.
AC: My hope is that as people read the book they allow the book to read them and follow Jameel’s example of forgiveness, or they look at me and say, “There was a lot of freedom once he started owning up to what he did.” I hope it forces them to a place where they have to make changes, and ultimately, that God will be given the glory for this. We couldn’t write this story. This just doesn’t happen aside from Jesus Christ.
For More Information: Convicted: A Crooked Cop, an Innocent Man, and an Unlikely Journey of Forgiveness and Friendship, by Jameel McGee and Andrew Collins with Mark Tabb, is available through major retailers nationwide. To book the authors for speaking engagements, visit http://ambassadorspeakers.com. In addition, Focus on the Family has some resources on racial reconciliation. To purchase the book Under Our Skin by NFL star Benjamin Watson, visit http://bit.ly/2z78B9U. Forging a Path to Racial Reconciliation, a two-part Focus on the Family radio broadcast which originally aired in October, will be available for free until Dec. 31, 2017, at http://bit.ly/2xhoGcE.