Jury selection begins in Bellaire police officer's assault trial
by Brian Rogers / The Houston Chronicle
Posted on May 4, 2010 at 10:39 AM
HOUSTON—Jury selection began Tuesday in the aggravated assault trial of Bellaire Police Sgt. Jeff Cotton, accused of shooting Robert Tolan in his parents’ driveway.
Cotton, 40, is charged with aggravated assault by a public servant. His attorney said the 10-year veteran officer is looking forward to having all of the evidence about the shooting come out.
"Sgt. Cotton acted as a reasonable police officer would have acted under the circumstances," lawyer Paul Aman said.
Prosecutors declined to comment Monday.
The shooting sparked complaints of racial profiling against Cotton and the Bellaire Police Department. Cotton is white, Tolan is black. Cotton has denied Tolan’s race affected his actions, and his lawyer said the officer fired when he thought his life was in danger.
A consultant hired by the city to compile its annual report to the state on racial profiling later issued a report, concluding there was not enough information in department statistics about arrests and traffic stops to indicate whether Bellaire officers conducted racial profiling. The Houston NAACP blasted the report as flawed.
The son of former major league player Bobby Tolan, Robert Tolan played baseball for Bellaire High School and was pursuing a professional baseball career at the time of the shooting.
After getting off work at a restaurant on Dec. 31, 2008, Tolan, then 23, and his cousin were stopped as he parked in his parents’ driveway about 2 a.m. Another officer had dispatchers look up the license plates on Tolan’s sport utility vehicle, but got wrong information, leading him to believe the vehicle was stolen.
Several officers approached Tolan and his cousin, who were ordered to the ground. As Tolan’s family came out to explain the situation, Tolan’s mother was pushed against a wall, representatives for Tolan’s family have said. When Tolan rose to protest, Cotton fired several times, striking Tolan once in the chest, Tolan’s attorney Geoffrey Berg said.
"He’s got good days and bad days," Berg said of Tolan. "He’s got a bullet that’s going to be in his body indefinitely."
Berg said he expects Tolan to testify at Cotton’s trial.
Berg is representing Tolan and his family in a lawsuit seeking damages from Cotton, another officer, the police chief, mayor and other Bellaire officials. The lawsuit alleges a culture of racism among Bellaire police and says police "engage in unconstitutional racial profiling and discrimination as a matter of policy."
Berg said the lawsuit has been on hold as the family waits to see what happens in Cotton’s case.
Cotton, free on $20,000 bond, remains on administrative leave with pay pending the outcome of the case, Bellaire police officials said.
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