Police Shooting Victim Robbie Tolan: 'I Have An Obligation to Speak' Out for Others Who Can't

In the early morning hours of Dec. 31, 2008, Robbie Tolan, a Major League Baseball prospect and the son of former MLB player Bobby Tolan, was shot in his driveway in Bellaire, Texas by police officer Jeffrey Cotton. Tolan was unarmed. He and his cousin Anthony Cooper were stopped under suspicion of stealing a car after another officer had incorrectly entered Tolan's license plate into their database and mistakenly assumed his car was stolen. Tolan survived but a bullet remains lodged in his liver. His story is told in the Say Their Name podcast, a documentary podcast series created by DCP Entertainment. The project tells the stories of seven unarmed Black people who were assaulted or killed by police in the United States. Out of those profiled, Robbie Tolan is the only man who survived. Here is his story. 

I remember it like it was slow motion. Because I remember seeing him draw his gun and I was like, "He's not going to shoot me." And then the gun went off. The cop who shot me, Officer Cotton, he wasn't even there 30 seconds.

I had survivor's remorse as well, especially because there were two other Black men shot and killed who died within that same 24 hours. One was Oscar Grant in Oakland — his story is told in the movie Fruitvale Station. And then there was Adolph Grimes. He was shot and killed in New Orleans. They both had kids. I didn't have any kids and I'm thinking, "Well, why was it me?" Police killings of unarmed Black men just started to snowball after that. Then it would just bring me back to that night.

It was Dec. 30, 2008, the off-season for me. I was working at Pappadeaux restaurant as a waiter and trying to get ready for spring training coming up. We were going to have our little family New Year's Eve party, so I stopped and got a couple of bottles of champagne. I got my cousin Anthony and we went to meet some friends, hung out for a little bit and then came home right at about 2 a.m.

We were getting our stuff out of the car and Anthony couldn't find his wallet. We lived in a cul-de-sac. The police car had zoomed past me, made a U-turn in the cul-de-sac and then parked behind a car on the left side. He cut his lights off, so it was just the dimmers.

We got to the front porch and I was getting my keys out. And then we heard, "Get on the ground." When the first officer saw us walking, he drove up and put his car nose to nose with mine. "We got a report of a stolen car." I said,  "No, that's my car. This is my house. I have my ID. I could show you."

I saw my parents [Marian and Bobby Tolan] about to come outside, and I thought, "Okay, well, they're about to come outside and fix all of this, so I'm going to go ahead and get down."

We didn't know, but that officer had called for backup. So by that time, the backup officer [Cotton] came and told my mom to get against the wall. My mom said, "You guys have made a big mistake." And the cop grabbed her so hard that she had bruises on her arm, and he kind of threw her up against the garage door. I lost it. I hopped up and said, "Get your f—ing hands off my mom."

He pulled his gun. I remember this pressure, and I fell back against the garage door and collapsed. I was laying on the ground and I put my hand up under my shirt and it was dripping in blood. My mom started praying. They kept telling her to be quiet.

The first person who came over to me was that cop who shot me. And he said, "What were you reaching for?" I couldn't say anything — the bullet had collapsed my lung. I didn't have anything to reach for.

I was scared to death in the ambulance and the OR. I thought that was it. I woke up in the OR to someone squeezing on my leg and squeezing my hand. Then I saw it was my parents. That was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen.

When I saw police officers [after that], there was definitely a heightened sense of awareness. I remember I was pulled over a few months after I was shot. When the guy came to the window, I had my license ready to go. He was like, "Hey man, I recognized the car and ran the plate. And just wanted to say all of us aren't bad. That's real messed up what happened." Not to mention I have family members who are police officers. I always get asked, "Do you hate cops?" Absolutely not. Like everything else, there are good ones and bad ones. Unfortunately, the bad ones gives us a very jaded view of police and ruin it for the ones who are actually out there with good intentions and good hearts.

Cotton was indicted by a Harris County grand jury for aggravated assault by a public servant but acquitted at trial in May 2010. His defense attorney argued that Cotton had felt his life was in danger.

I know what history would teach us about police officers and indicting police officers in Texas, but we were expecting something. But instead, we got nothing. Cotton didn’t even get a slap on the wrist. It was like being shot all over again. I lost my baseball career. After the trial, he got his old job back and we were left to pick up the pieces as a family.

Shortly after, the Tolans filed a civil suit against Cotton and the town of Bellaire. Though their petition was denied due to qualified immunity, a series of appeals eventually led them to the United States Supreme Court. On April 5, 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in their favor, ordering the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider the case, stating that the lower court had failed to take into account the evidence supporting Tolan's claim of excessive force. 

Tolan v. Cotton set a precedent. If a judge or jury reasonably believes that a police officer was in fear for his life, he's granted qualified immunity. Tolan v. Cotton makes it harder for judges to grant qualified immunity. Tolan v. Cotton has been cited in and helped over 5,000 cases in the last six years. What happened in my case was the judge granted Cotton qualified immunity based solely on the evidence that he had submitted. But Tolan v. Cotton states that the judge must review the evidence brought forth by the petitioner of the lawsuit before qualified immunity can be granted.

But by Sept. 2015, even with a revived civil suit, Robbie was emotionally worn out and told his mom he no longer wanted to pursue their case in court. Eventually they received approximately $110,000 from the city of Bellaire. (The agreement stated that Cotton and the town of Bellaire had "consistently denied liability" but that the municipality was paying "in compromise and settlement of a disputed claim to avoid further litigation and disruption of public service.") Tolan's family said they had spent well over $400,000, and even sold their house, to pay their legal and medical bills.

I was tired of fighting. This process was so long. It was a seven-year fight for justice. I was shot at 23, settled at 30 and I hadn't been anywhere. I had no money. I had no job. I had no life. It was a dark seven years. My mom wanted to fight. This was her fight just as much as it was mine. I said, "Well, what if [the judge] throws it out again? Then we'll go back to the Supreme Court so now you're talking about another seven years."

Tolan graduated from Prairie View A&M University in 2019 with a degree in criminal justice. His mother Marian continues to be an advocate for change, using her experience fighting for justice to help the families of other shooting victims, including Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Danny Ray Thomas.

I wrote a book, No Justice: One White Police Officer, One Black Family. That was my something to move on to. I may not have the name or the platform or the support that some of these other families have had, but I have a Supreme Court case. If you believe in anything, you know that wasn't us by ourselves.

I want to continue to share my story. I recently met with a group of police officers in York, Pennsylvania. They were putting forward a good faith effort to change that narrative and that distrust with Black and brown communities and the police. I want to continue to do that. It would speak volumes to have a person like me involved in community and police relations. I want to continue to speak for those who can't speak for themselves.

I think there needs to be police reform and policy changes. Your two roles as a police officer are first public service and then law enforcement. Community relations is a big one that will go to change the narrative, but it's going to take a lot of work.

Most of these stories are told posthumously. But here you have someone who has survived and is here to share his story. I have an obligation to those who have lost their lives, to those who cannot speak for themselves. I owe it to them to continue to share my story. My voice is their voice.

DCP Entertainment, which produces the Say Their Name Podcast, is helping to raise money to support the families they've highlighted through a GoFundMe page. One hundred percent of the proceeds go to the families. 

To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:

  • Campaign Zero works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.
  • ColorofChange.org works to make the government more responsive to racial disparities.
  • National Cares Mentoring Movement provides social and academic support to help Black youth succeed in college and beyond.

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