Family members of police violence victims have a unique perspective on the redesign of public safety, while the country discusses criminal justice reform.
The Defender spoke with Marian Tolan, mother of Robbie Tolan, who in 2008 was racially profiled, pulled over and shot multiple times by City of Bellaire police. Tolan survived. Philonise Floyd’s brother, George Floyd, was not so lucky. Philonise shared his thoughts on a redesigned public safety, as did the parents of Joshua Johnson.
Joshua’s death at the hands of Harris County Sheriff’s Officer Tu Tran has not made national headlines, though radical inconsistencies between Tran’s explanation of events and facts discovered by the family demands further investigation. Yet, with few eyes on this family’s tragedy, Joshua’s parents, Wilhemina and Richard Beary, along with family spokesperson James Hudson, gladly shared their thoughts on changes needed in policing.
Family members interviewed offered 10 recommendations for changes related to police that they believe will move society closer to better public safety.
Required Body Cams
James Hudson: [The use of body cams] protects the officer and it protects the citizen. So, the question then becomes, why is it they don’t want to wear those cameras? And the answer to that is very simple. It is just common sense. Because they know that it does not benefit them to wear the camera. They rather not have it on because they want to do things they don’t want to be seen on camera. That’s just common sense. We’ve got to stop allowing these officers and the DA to tell us, ‘We didn’t have all the cameras because of XYZ.’ No. You are going to wear that camera. Just like you put on that badge, like you put on that gun, like you put on that suit, you need to put on that camera so that there will be no questions where the public is concerned. If somebody had not videoed the George Floyd thing with the knee in the neck, George Floyd would just be another name, period.
Philonise Floyd: I think body cams and dash cams need to be on at all times. Because literally, [police] cut them off. It’ll probably take 28-to-30 seconds or something like that before it [the camera] comes back on. So, they may have done something they weren’t supposes to do. My thing is, if your camera goes off, in reality, I think the same way you would prosecute someone else, I think they need to be prosecuted and given time in jail.
Marian Tolan: There has to be some consequences in place when there’s video of you telling three different stories. One of these is a lie… They need to be fired. When I say I want consequences, they need to lose their job. If they’re going on leave, it needs to be without pay. That hurts them. What incentive do they have to make a change to do better? Nothing. Right now, nothing. And so, that includes the supervisors who don’t reprimand them. There’re rules for everybody else. How can they just be the administrators of the law, but they don’t have to follow any? That doesn’t add up.
Tolan: And they cannot work in law enforcement again. Think about it. Since Donald Trump has been in office, the white supremacists have come out of the woodwork… A lot of those people are in law enforcement. So, we have got to do better doing background checks. We’ve got to, if the department covers up for them, they have to be held accountable too… Those departments need to be held accountable when they have somebody who has a bad history… because they take the responsibility. They knowingly cover it up.
Wilhemina Beary: I feel like [police] should wear cameras, vest cameras. And also, I feel like they should be accountable for what they do. I feel like the public needs to know who this officer is and they need to display [officers] pictures, their records. I feel like it shouldn’t be secretive.
Tolan: Another thing that I like to see when the police have been involved in incidents, misconduct, whether it’s racial profiling, stopping and detaining people for no reason… shootings of unarmed Black men… The first thing [police] do when there’s an incident is they run a background check on the individual. But do we have access to their background checks? Can we do background checks too?
Richard Beary: I would like to hear what’s going on. It’s like a secret thing… Seeing how all the officers [who] have done something, you hear [about] it; what’s going on. But with [Joshua’s death], this seems to be a little different, like they are hiding something. And I think it’s unfair the way it’s been done.
End Qualified Immunity
Floyd: Life is precious. And you want [officers guilty of unlawful violence] to be held accountable for anything, because [qualified] immunity is major right now. Anything that officers want to say, they can say it. You have good officers. You have bad officers. You shouldn’t have to sort them out.
Independent Review Boards
Hudson: A lot of times people say that the system is broken. But this system is not broken. This system is working exactly the way they designed it to work: to favor the police. That’s the way it is designed to work. It’s not broken for them. It works exactly the way they created it, so that whether an officer is right or wrong, the outcome is going to favor the police. That’s the way this system has been designed. And we know that because you have the police policing the police. And that’s the big problem. You need an independent group of people, an independent review when it comes to police shootings. You do not need the Harris County sheriff investigating their own officers. That does not work.
Mandatory Drug Testing
Tolan: If you were involved in a car accident, the first thing they do is do a toxicology study on you; a truck driver, a cab driver, anybody on the job involved in anything. It can be the slightest accident. It can be the slightest incident. They have to do drug testing, right? Why can’t we get drug testing on police officers?
Sue Individual Officers and Departments
Tolan: I don’t know who we have to go after, but I’m going after somebody. The department of justice are administrators of justice. Supposed to be. But Black and Brown people are not getting justice in the courtrooms of America, not just in police involved incidences. The only way we’re going to get their attention is by suing them. Now I haven’t met the attorney that’s going to take it yet. But every time I speak to the National Bar Association, anybody, I let them know this is my intention. And one day I’m going to meet somebody who has the courage. Because to fight it, it takes courage. I mean, when we went to the Supreme court, I was going all the way because I wanted to be able to look in my son’s eyes and say, I did all I could. And the only way you can do that is to do all you can.
Re-review Past No-Billed Cases
Tolan: I want some of these cases that they no-billed to be looked at again, if we’re gonna really change the system. Just like the case of Mike Brown. The officer was not even indicted. He finally was fired after five years. There is a pattern and practice. We’ve got to change the pattern and practices.
Change Way Judges Chosen to Hear Cases
Tolan: I’ve heard people say that federal judges are like, God. And I told him, please don’t say that to me because they’re not God, they’re human beings. And they make a lot of dumb mistakes. The judge that had our case, it was not a lottery. It was placed in her court… She didn’t get it accidentally. It was placed in her court for her to do what she did.
Richard Beary: I think the courts need to be changed. It’s too much for the police. It’s too much in their favor. I understand that everybody out there is not legal, but the court system is not fair towards the public. It’s just geared towards more of the police, and not everybody is honest. A lot of them are dishonest. A lot of them are out there doing dishonest things. But people are too scared to say anything about it.
DO THESE REFORMS WORK?
Body Cams: According to research, the impact of officer-worn body cams is inconclusive. Body cams cause officers to use less force at about the same rate as those cams have no impact on officers’ use of force. The biggest difference: When officers were required to have body cams on at all times, they showed the biggest reduction of force. When officers had the personal discretion to turn cameras on and off, there was little-to-no reduction. (https://www.govtech.com/biz/What-Bodycams-Do-Behavior-Accountability-and-Trust.html)
Civilian Review Boards: Though police reform advocates nationally push for civilian review boards, the most consistent complaints about them is their lack of independence and lack of subpoena power, rendering them boards that make recommendations to police departments that are rarely enacted. (The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) provides a listing of all civilian review boards in the country: https://www.nacole.org/police_oversight_by_jurisdiction_usa).
Suing Police Departments: Countless police reform advocates view suing police officers and/or entire departments as an effective way to curb illegal police violence. However, the cost of the successful lawsuits is paid by taxpayers, not the police departments. Thus, there is no direct consequence for cities having to pay out millions in settlements. (see https://abcnews.go.com/US/millions-lawsuit-settlements-hidden-cost-police-misconduct-legal/story?id=70999540)
“You are going to wear that camera. Just like you put on that badge, like you put on that gun, like you put on that suit, you need to put on that camera so that there will be no questions where the public is concerned.” – James Hudson
“I think [George] is the backbone, the staple of what’s going on right now. And I tell people all the time, Ahmaud Arbery, he was the charcoal. Breonna Taylor was the lighter fluid. And my brother, he was the flame that just set it off.” – Philonise Floyd
“The first thing [police] do when there’s an incident is they run a background check on the individual. But do we have access to their background checks? Can we do background checks too?” – Marian Tolan