Friday, January 09, 2009

A Few Questions (and Sundry Points) about the Bellaire Police Shooting of Robert Tolan

These come from a sidebar to a comprehensive story headlined “Bellaire police under fire after shooting” by Charlotte Aguilar in the Jan. 7 edition of the weekly Bellaire Examiner. We’ve annotated them a bit and shuffled their order:
1. What was the origin of the stolen vehicle report that led police to Tolan? As we’ve noted, the Examiner’s competitor, the weekly Village News, reported this week that a Bellaire officer “mistyped one numeral” when entering into his laptop the license plate of the Nissan Xtera in which Tolan and a companion were riding. This miscue, according to the Village News, resulted in a “return” showing that the plate was for “a black Nissan that was stolen.” The newspaper offered no attribution for this explanation and characterized the officer’s mistake as “defying the law of probability,” although we believe it just meant to say that the odds against such a coincidence---alleged coincidence---would be extremely high.

2. What was the substantiation procedure for vehicle ownership? It took the Examiner 48 seconds to run the plate and determine it was the Tolans’ SUV on an online data search that requires a log-in and password. See No. 1.

3. Had Tolan and his companion been searched? Did all officers know they were unarmed? Perhaps the most important question of all, if the explanation offered for No. 1 by the Village News turns out to be true and the sequence that led to Tolan and his cousin lying face-down under police gun in the Tolan family driveway actually was triggered by a bizarre 1-in-1000 (or whatever) miscue. It leads to the following question:

4. Why was deadly force used instead of a Taser, which is standard Bellaire police issue? (Maybe they’re a little gun-shy about pulling the Taser because off all the bad publicity, but a Tasering and subsequent hectoring of the cops by Quanell X certainly would have been preferable to the bullet in the liver that Robert Tolan received.)

5. Were police following procedure in how they allegedly handled Mrs. Tolan’s protest about the ownership of the vehicle? To break it down further, why did Sgt. Jeffrey Cotton, who according to police was responding as backup to a call on a stolen vehicle, push Marian Tolan against the family’s garage door after she tried to tell the officers that the residence was the family’s home and the Nissan indeed belonged to her son? We haven’t seen any report of exactly what Mrs. Tolan said or did but wasn’t it apparent to the cops that the woman had emerged from the house, belonged there, and might have had some important information about what was happening in her front yard? (Cotton’s handling of Mrs. Tolan caused Robert Tolan to attempt to rise up from the driveway, leading the officer to fire his gun at least three times, striking Tolan once. In its public statement the Bellaire Police Department described this sequence like this: “An altercation ensued as officers attempted to detain and question these suspects [Tolan and his cousin]."

6. What was the content of the call for backup, and how many officers were at the scene at the time of the shooting?
We have a couple of questions we'd like to add:
7. Were Bellaire police under pressure because of a perceived holiday crime wave in the general area? Both weekly papers carry stories on local crime (as community papers should) and routinely identify suspects by race, a practice that we favor (journalisticaly speaking). In fact, the play story in the Examiner’s Dec. 24 issue was headlined “Be merry but wary: crime on the increase.” The paper reported that “Bellaire recorded three armed robberies last week alone” (it did not identify the suspects in these crimes by race) and quoted Bellaire police community relations officer Joe Quimby saying “crime is definitely up.” Which in a roundabout way brings us to the final question:

8. Was Tolan a victim of racial profiling, as his family and its lawyers claim? More precisely, why, as the Village News reported, did officer J.W. Edwards see fit to employ “a tactic used frequently by police,” that is, checking the plate of Tolan’s vehicle, after he spotted the 23 year old and his cousin leaving a Jack-in-the-box near the Tolan’s family home? From out here in the grandstand it looks bad for Bellaire, but whatever the answer isn’t it likely that a benign form of racial profiling might have worked to the advantage of all concerned? If we may: According to the 2000 Census, there were 131 black residents of Bellaire, or 0.8 percent of the 15,600 or so population (the number probably hasn’t changed much since the Census). We’ll buy you a six-pack if there are more than 25 African-American homeowners in the 90-percent-white city-within-a-city. The Tolans have lived in their house since 1994. Sneer at community policing if you must, but wouldn’t a longtime cop who had patrolled the streets for years and knew the community at least have it in the back of his mind that---oh yeah---a black family lives on this block, and might have taken Mrs. Tolan more seriously (or respectfully)?

Just asking. We await the answers that should be provided by an unbiased entity with subpoena power.


Robert Boyd said...

I've been reading your posts about this case with interest. The thing is, when cops (or prosecutors or forensic scientists, etc.) screw up, the punishment is usually pretty mild (compared to what would happen if a mere citizen did the same), and we only rarely get serious reforms in operations or procedures to prevent these mistakes in the future--only when the screw-up really tars a department, or when court cases start to bankrupt municipalities.

Still, keep the pressure on. Shooting a guy is not something that should ever be swept under a rug and forgotten.

Pastor Steve said...

Community Policing:

Community Policing is a valuable resource in motivating neighborhood residents to cooperate with police in reducing crime. Although it is not a cure-all, community policing can have a positive impact by establishing a volunteer police chaplain program (at little of no cost to the PD). Assigning volunteer police chaplains to specific police sectors where their respective congregations are located accomplishes three purposes. 1) Clergy are known in the community and are privy to issues in their specific neighborhood. 2) A PD has an additional and respected voice in neighborhoods. 3) Parental control of neighborhood youth is enhanced. PD chaplains’ riding with police officers sends a message to the community that the faith community is a player in reducing crime and public nuisances. Ref: Stories of the Street: Images of the Human Condition.
Volunteer Police Chaplain Steve Best