The country was stunned earlier this year when three different Black men, all of them unarmed and living in different cities were shot by local police officers. In another bizarre coincidence, all of the shootings happened around New Years and resulted in the deaths of two of the men. Only one of the shooting victims survived. After spending three weeks in the hospital, that man is ready to tell his story.
Robbie Tolan had everything going for him. At only 23, he was an up-and-coming Major League Baseball star and son of former World Series outfielder, Bobby Tolan. Never having been in trouble before, he describes himself as the kind of guy who always kept his nose clean. But in the early morning hours of December 31, 2008 life changed for him.
Tolan and his cousin were confronted by a police officer and held at gunpoint in front of his Bellaire, Texas, home. In the span of just minutes, Tolan was laying with a bullet wound, shot on his own doorstep in front of his parents. The situation is currently under investigation by the Harris County D.A.’s office, to determine if there is enough evidence to take to a grand jury. The officers involved, Sergeant Jeff Cotton, who shot Tolan, has been put on administrative leave, while Officer John Edwards, who originally confronted Tolan, is back on duty. The Bellaire Police Department has refused to make any statements on this incident.
Tolan is uncertain if he’ll ever play baseball again. He had hoped to be in spring training right now, preparing for a possible run in the major leagues. Instead, he’s more concerned about his overall health and any possible future physical limitations. ESSENCE.com spoke to Tolan about what happened that morning, why he thinks it was a racially targeted attack, and the uncertainty of his future in baseball.
ESSENCE.COM: What happened that morning when you returned home?
ROBBIE TOLAN: My cousin Anthony and I went out to play pool. We came back home at about 2:00 A.M. and I parked my car on the street in front of my house. I’d say I was about 10 feet from the front door when a man flashed his flashlight in my face and pointed a gun at me. When I looked past him, I saw his patrol car parked right in front of my car. He told us to get down on the ground. I asked why, and he said because they had a report of a stolen car. I told him that there was some mistake, because that’s my car and this is my house. He keeps yelling for us to get down on the ground. At this point, I saw my parents coming through the door and I figured, okay they’ll explain everything to him, so I got down.
ESSSENCE.COM: What did your parents do?
TOLAN: My dad walks outside first and sees the officer, gun and flashlight, and he puts his hands up. He asks, “what’s the problem?” and the officer says we have a report of a stolen vehicle. He explains that I’m his son, my cousin Anthony is his nephew and this is house. The officer points the gun at my dad and orders him up against my dad’s car, which was in our driveway. My mom tried to explain that we’ve lived here for the past 15 years. They just didn’t want to hear anything that we had to say.
ESSENCE.COM: Didn’t your mom get hurt somehow?
TOLAN: When we were walking up to the house, my cousin Anthony was on the phone with another cousin of ours. When the officer said get down on the ground, Anthony told our cousin to listen in so he could hear everything that was going on. The call was dropped somehow because Anthony had to call him back. The officer saw the phone light up and told him to get off the phone. My mom went over to grab the phone from Anthony when a second officer grabbed her by the arm so hard that it resulted in bruises. Then, he pushed her against the garage door.
ESSENCE.COM: How did you end up getting shot?
TOLAN: I’m watching all of this face down from the ground. I see her being thrown up against the garage door. I got to one knee and said, ‘Get your f***ing hands off my mom!’ He let her go, pulled out his gun and shot me.
ESSENCE.COM: What did it feel like to be shot like that?
TOLAN: I’ve heard that the force behind a 45-caliber bullet (which is what I was hit with) is the equivalent to about 2,000 lbs. So imagine an elephant standing on your chest. It was a piercing, burning feeling. When I was on the ground, I was still in shock. I couldn’t believe what just happened. I lifted up my shirt and put my hand underneath only to see a handful of blood. That’s when I heard my mom say, ‘Oh my God, I can see smoke coming from his body.’
ESSENCE.COM: Did you know what was going on?
TOLAN: I never lost consciousness. Immediately after I was shot, before they even came to my aid, the officers took my dad, mom and handcuffed Anthony and put everyone in separate police cars. Then the same officer, who shot me, emptied my pockets, took my wallet and cell phone and kept asking me what were you reaching for? I just kept asking for my parents.
ESSENCE.COM: How badly were you injured?
TOLAN: I had to stay in the hospital for over three weeks. The bullet pierced my lung and is lodged in my liver. It’s not a good feeling. I don’t know what the long-term effects are going to be. You have to understand, I’ve always been the guy who stayed out of trouble. My parents would always stress, whatever you do, it will follow you no matter what. I’ve always kept that in mind and been respectful to police officers. In a million years, I would never think that I would get shot at my own doorstep in front of my parents for anything, let alone for nothing.
ESSENCE.COM: Why do you think you were stopped in the first place?
TOLAN: I really don’t like playing the race card, but that’s what it is. They stopped two Black kids for no reason at all.
ESSENCE.COM: There’s been the suggestion that the officers entered the wrong license plate number into their system. Could this have been a case of mistaken identity with your license plate?
TOLAN: I don’t buy that at all. Bellaire isn’t huge. It’s not a big city like Houston. For them to have their own police department, they have to know who lives here. My family and I have lived in Bellaire for 15 years, so how do you not know your residents if that’s the area you patrol? Plus, what are the chances of inputting one number wrong and it coming back as Nissan Xterra like mine?