The latest piece of evidence supporting my theory of Gumbel's quiet revolution was his recent decision to cover the shooting of Robert Tolan, a black athlete in the state of Texas. Robert Tolan is the son of former Major League Baseball player Bobby Tolan. The junior Tolan was shot by police officer Jeffrey Cotton in a racially charged incident in late 2008. The story was covered this week on Gumbel's show, "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel."
The shooting of Robert Tolan was quite disturbing, no matter how you slice it. Officer Cotton and another officer, John Edwards, stopped Tolan in the driveway of his own home, suspecting that he was driving a stolen car. The officers told Tolan and his cousin to get out of the car with their faces on the ground. That's when Tolan's parents noticed what was going on and came outside.
Upon seeing her son on the ground, Mrs. Tolan began asking questions. Officer Cotton then grabbed Tolan's mother and slammed her against the garage. This move shocked the younger Tolan, who stood up and said, "Hey, that's my mother!" That's when Officer Cotton turned and shot Tolan in the chest. Tolan survived the shooting, but still has a bullet lodged in his liver, which effectively put an end to his aspirations of becoming a major league baseball player like his father.
Cotton claims that he thought Tolan was reaching for a weapon, but no weapon was found. It also turns out that the officers weren't apprehending two suspects with a stolen vehicle, because the license plate number that the officer entered into the computer was the wrong one. They shot an innocent, law-abiding black man who was simply going to his parents' house.
The city of Bellaire, Texas is right outside of Houston. According to Gumbel, the city stops African Americans 12 times more often than it stops white motorists. What's most astonishing is that the mayor of the town, Cindy Seigal, actually told Gumbel that she sees no evidence that racial profiling exists within her city. Perhaps she might want to take a statistics class so she can realize just how alarming the racial profiling statistic sounds to the rest of us.
Adding insult to injury, Sgt. Cotton was found not guilty of aggravated assault in the shooting of Robert Tolan. This has angered the family, who has filed a federal suit against the city. Personally, I was outraged when I saw the show air on HBO this week. The Tolan family is not a pack of criminals and they weren't resisting the officers. They were regular people minding their own business, being assaulted by the biggest street gang in the city, which appears to be the Bellaire Police Department. This should never have happened.
Here's the deal with the shooting of Robbie Tolan:
1) There is no way we can imagine these officers treating a white family in a nice neighborhood the way they treated the Tolans. This fundamental disrespect and irresponsible aggression that some officers comfortably show toward African Americans, even when they are not suspected a crime, is outrageous. By bringing added aggression into the situation while dealing with black people, untrained officers increase the likelihood of a confrontation. Anyone being falsely accused of a crime by a violent police officer is going to be tempted to fight back.
Tolan's mother was not under suspicion of having committed a crime, yet she was slammed against the garage and put in the back of a patrol car while her son lie on the ground with a bullet in his chest. Making matters worse, Tolan's mother had to watch helplessly as her bleeding son had his pockets searched by the very same officer who'd just shot him. This could happen to any black family in America. I'd be curious to see if police officers exhibit the same reckless, trigger-happy behavior when they come to college campuses on a Friday night, where alcohol consumption, drug possession and belligerent behavior is at an all-time high.
2) The fact that Sgt. Cotton is back on duty after this incident is unconscionable. Also, the mayor's response to the situation is reflective of the kind of denial that makes Texas a dangerous place for African Americans. This problem also exists in other parts of the country, and by allowing Sgt. Cotton to nearly take Robbie Tolan's life without consequence certainly sends an interesting message. I looked into Mayor Cindy Seigal's eyes during her conversation with Gumbel and I could see that she was defensive and not willing to concede even the slightest bit of responsibility for an officer who'd put a bullet into one of the law-abiding residents of her town. She was, however, quick to defend the police officers during a town hall meeting shortly after the incident.
3) I am the son of a cop, so I am typically quite empathetic to the plight of police when I feel they've done nothing wrong. There are not nearly as many bad cops as we'd like to believe, and there are some who truly want to do the right thing. But this situation is astonishing in the sense that the officers had no right to be at the Tolan's home that night. The officers should have had the good sense to double-check the license plate number before putting a person's life in danger. It is also difficult to imagine that the officers "just happened" to choose Tolan's car for a plate search. I believe that Robbie Tolan's license plate was checked because the officers saw two black men in a nice car and presumed that they were drug dealers. I wonder how often they check the plates of other middle and upper class residents of Bellaire, Texas.
This whole situation is an outrage.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and a Scholarship in Action Resident of the Institute for Black Public Policy. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.