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Internal ‘Investigations’ Usually Mean No Straight Answers

Black America Web.com, News Analysis, Gregory P. Kane Posted: Jan 15, 2009

On July 26, 2006, two inmates at a Maryland penitentiary fatally stabbed corrections Officer David McGuinn. On Dec. 31, 2008, Sgt. Jeff Cotton of the Bellaire, Texas police department shot and wounded 23-year-old Robbie Tolan.

Two incidents over two years and thousands of miles apart. But they do have something in common: Public officials promised to “investigate” both. Loosely translated, that means Robbie Tolan’s family had best be prepared to never get a straight answer from the Bellaire Police Department.

First, let’s get the obligatory particulars out of the way: Yes, Robbie Tolan is black. He’s the son of former major leaguer Bobby Tolan, who played for those glorious St. Louis Cardinals teams of the middle and late 1960s.

Bellaire is a predominantly white suburb southwest of Houston. And yes, Cotton – I’m restraining myself from calling the guy “Johnny Ringo” – is white and a 10-year veteran of the force.

According to news reports, Robbie Tolan and his cousin had just returned to the Tolan household around 2 a.m. after making a late-night run to a Jack in the Box fast food restaurant. Ringo – pardon me, I mean Cotton – and the other officer stopped the Nissan Xterra Robbie Tolan was driving in the Tolans’ driveway. The reason? Cotton and the other officer claimed they thought the vehicle was stolen.

Marian Tolan, Robbie Tolan’s mother, came out of the house to explain to the officers that the vehicle was hers, not stolen. This was after the officers ordered both men to lie flat on the ground. The Tolan side of the story goes that when officers slammed Marian Tolan up against the garage door, Robbie Tolan raised up from the ground. That’s when Cotton shot him.

Bellaire cops don’t agree with that version, of course. But that’s about all they’re saying. Here’s what little they have said about the incident, taken from a CNN.com news story.

“Bellaire police officials are no longer talking publicly about the case. The department’s assistant chief says they’re INVESTIGATING how the officers on the scene mistakenly determined that the SUV Tolan and his cousin were driving had been stolen.”

The emphasis on the word “investigating” is mine, not CNN.com’s. I’d heard the word before, right after McGuinn was killed, and I was trying to get straight answers from anyone in Maryland’s Department of Corrections.

McGuinn was an honest, by-the-book C.O. who, I learned, was praised by his fellow corrections officers and inmates alike. But some inmates had a problem with his being a stickler for the rules. Some inmates – and attorneys for the men accused of murdering McGuinn – said corrupt corrections officers had a problem with McGuinn too.

There was supposedly an inmate hit list with McGuinn’s name on it. He was temporarily reassigned from the housing units and then put back inside. He was doing cell checks – alone – when he was stabbed.

Suspicious, no? I and another Baltimore Sun reporter thought so. We asked questions about that hit list and why McGuinn was reassigned back into the housing units where his life was in danger. You can probably guess the answer we got: It was "under investigation.”

I interviewed a former corrections officer a few days after the incident. I still remember what he told me.

“They’ll be ‘investigating’ the next six months,” he said. “That way, they don’t have to come up with no answers.”

When public officials tell us something is “under investigation,” that’s their lingo meaning, in plain, simple, everyday English, “We’re not going to answer that question. Ever.”

What sort of “investigation” is needed to determine why Cotton and his cohort thought the SUV was stolen? There is either a 911 call reporting it stolen or there isn’t. That doesn’t require an investigation, just a simple record check.

And if there was no call, then Cotton and the other officer must have stopped the SUV because they had a reasonable suspicion that it was stolen. How can the honchos in the Bellaire Police Department determine what that reasonable suspicion was?

Hey, how about ASKING the two officers involved? That doesn’t take an investigation either.

There have been charges of racial profiling leveled against the Bellaire Police Department. Bellaire officials have expressed righteous indignation in denying them. But when an unarmed black man is stopped for driving a vehicle that isn’t stolen and then is shot by a white cop, there is a lot of explaining to do.

And what do public officials do when they don’t want to explain something? Why, “investigate” it, of course.

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