Experts: Cop's shooting of unarmed man was justified

May 10, 2010 3:37:39 PM PDT
The trial of a Bellaire police officer who shot an unarmed man is nearing the end. Both sides rested Monday afternoon, but not before two defense witnesses said what Sergeant Jeff Cotton did was justified. The defense was banking on testimony from a "use of force expert" to poke holes in the prosecution's theory that Bellaire police sergeant Jeffrey Cotton was reckless. He told the jury it was his opinion that Sgt. Cotton was simply following police procedures.

J.W. Conley, a former HPD officer who's now an expert in police training and use of force, says his opinion is based on a review of all of the statements of the people involved in the incident. He told the jury he believed Cotton's decision to shoot Robert Tolan was justified. Conley formed that opinion after reviewing statements from everyone involved in the case. He explained that Cotton used several techniques to diffuse an already tense situation once he arrived at the Tolans' home.

"Safety training, communication training and crisis intervention training," said Conley.

While Tolan and his cousin were unarmed, Conley testified that police officers are trained to assume that all suspects are armed. They are also taught how to spot particular signs that would lead them to believe a suspect is dangerous. It was his opinion that Tolan's behavior in the early morning hours of December 31, 2008, fit that criteria.

"You don't have to see a handgun and you don't have to justify your actions to see and identify a threat," said Conley.

Prosecutors criticized Conley during cross-examination for not attempting to talk to Tolan and for basing his opinion strictly on statements and grand jury testimony.

During cross-examination, Conley later admitted, "Sergeant Cotton was reacting on limited information he had at that moment. He has to react to what he knows at that moment."

Cotton testified last week that he believed Tolan, who he thought was an auto theft suspect, was about to shoot him and that he acted in self-defense. As it turned out, the vehicle Tolan was driving was not stolen.

The prosecution called a rebuttal witness in HPD Officer Anthony Jones, who responded to the shooting scene at the Tolans' Bellaire home. He took the stand and testified that Cotton told him he shot Tolan because he saw him reach for his waistband and grabbed something that appeared to be shiny.

"He said he shot him because he didn't know what it was," said Jones.

Jones' testimony refutes what Cotton told the jury last week. Cotton claims he never used the word shiny to describe what he saw Tolan reaching for in his waistband.

Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, the Tolans' pastor, has been following the trial since the beginning, and says this case clearly points out the critical need for more sensitivity training for police.

"They've shared with me from day one that they want to make absolutely certain that a tragedy of this nature never occurs again," said Rev. Caldwell.

Closing arguments begin in this case on Tuesday morning.

If convicted of the charge of aggravated assault by a public servant, Cotton could spend anywhere from five years to life in prison.

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