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On this episode of the Police Accountability Report we examine the case of Shali Tilson, who died after he was jailed during a mental health crisis. But a leaked video shows he was denied water and medical treatment by GA prison authorities for a week–mistreatment his family says was criminal.

Story Transcript

TAYA GRAHAM: Hello, my name is Taya Graham, and welcome to the Police Accountability Report.

Remember, the Police Accountability Report has a single purpose: holding police accountable. To do so, we not only report police misconduct, but examine the political power structure that bolsters it. I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct or brutality, please share it with us and we might be able to investigate. Please reach out to us. You can email us tips privately at and share your evidence of police misconduct. You can also message us @policeaccountabilityreport on Facebook or Instagram, or @eyesonpolice on Twitter. Or, of course, you can message me directly @tayasbaltimore on Twitter or Facebook, and please like and comment. I do read your comments and I do appreciate them.

Today we’re going to focus on an aspect of our criminal justice system that highlights not just how destructive bad policing is, but how it feeds into a larger system of unfettered cruelty. To make this point, we’re going to share a video so shocking, so utterly alarming, we feel it reveals an unspoken truism about law enforcement in this country: that it’s not predicated upon the notion of solely administering justice, but instead designed to inflict pain upon the innocent. A key factor driving the unspoken imperative is the country’s massive prison industrial complex.

But before we show you the video, we have to report on yet another controversial police killing that just occurred. A shooting so disturbing it calls into question all the platitudes and lip service paid to police reform over the past several years. Atiana Jefferson was in her Fort Worth home playing video games with her eight-year-old nephew when a neighbor called police on a nonemergency line for a wellness check. Police Officer Aaron Dean arrived on the scene, and after circling the house, without looking in the door or announcing his presence, this happened:

AARON DEAN: Put your hands up. Show me your hands!

TAYA GRAHAM: Jefferson died shortly after she was shot. Police initially tried to justify the shooting, saying the officer was responding to a perceived threat. Then they release this, a picture of a gun in her home. Yes, you heard me correctly. In a state where person can carry a gun in public without a permit, police tried to sully Jefferson’s reputation and question her right to bear arms in her own domicile.
Stephen, how has the community reacted to this attempt to sully the victim?

STEPHEN JANIS: I’ll tell you, what you bring up is really interesting. They went right to the police playbook after the shooting where they try to, number one, sully the victim and justify it in retrospect, where they said, “This police officer had a perceived threat.” The only problem, as we’re showing on the screen right now, is the bodycam video, which show the officer basically not announcing himself, not saying who he was, giving her two seconds to respond, and that playbook fell apart. It’s interesting they would even trot it out. You would think they would know at that point, and understand after watching the bodycam footage, how terrible the shooting was, but they still tried to sully her. They released this photo, and when the police commissioner was questioned about that, saying, “Why did you do that?” he had no explanation. Well, I’ll tell you why they do it.

What we’re seeing here is the playbook and the imperative of policing over the past 50-100 years. The first thing they do is try to place a gun or something proximate to the person to sully their character. The problem is it didn’t work. The community immediately was in an uproar, and once the bodycam footage came out, it was all over. But the community is used to this, and with the Amber Guyger case looming over this, I think people respond immediately and said, “Hey, no way are you going to do this to this young woman. You’re not going to sully her name and you’re not going to justify the shooting.”

TAYA GRAHAM: Right. And it’s really common practice to try to dirty up the reputation of the victim. In relation to the Amber Guyger case, didn’t they try to say that Botham maybe had some marijuana in his home as a way–

STEPHEN JANIS: They tried to say he had marijuana. They say he got up from the couch and was approaching her in a menacing manner, both which he was not, was proved, and toxicology totally ruled that out.

TAYA GRAHAM: Totally false.

STEPHEN JANIS: The trajectory of the bullets showed that he was in a sitting position, maybe getting up from the couch, but not running towards her.

TAYA GRAHAM: Or perhaps even cowering from this person standing there holding a gun on him.

STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah. It seems like they’re running out of this playbook. It’s not going to work anymore.

TAYA GRAHAM: Exactly. It’s worth noting that Jefferson’s eight-year-old nephew was in the home when the shooting occurred. It’s also worth noting she had moved home to take care of her sick mother, and another important fact is that since June, Fort Worth Police have shot six people, three of them African American, all of whom died.

Which brings us to our next story, another tale of inexplicably cruelty and unexplained indifference. First, it’s important to remember that there are almost 2.3 million people incarcerated in our prison system right now, more than any other nation on the planet. In fact, while the US has just 5% of the world’s population, we house 25% of the world’s inmates, but that number doesn’t paint a full picture of just how omnivorous our penal system is. At any given time, there are over half a million people sitting in jail awaiting trial, people who spend months behind bars without ever having been convicted of a crime.

But worse yet, sometimes pretrial confinement is in itself a death sentence, which is why today we’re going to focus on a case that shows how an unwarranted arrest and bad policing can lead to even worse consequences than the loss of freedom. By the chain of cruelty created by corrupt policing is often unending, one injustice compounded by another, all courtesy of an inhumane American addiction to incarceration. Now, Stephen, we just covered a case where a man was in jail and he died there. What happened?

STEPHEN JANIS: The important principle here that you’re bringing up is that even an arrest for a minor crime can lead to death because prison is so dangerous and because we have such a terrible cash bail system, keeps many people incarcerated.

TAYA GRAHAM: Now, on the Police Accountability Report, we don’t just tell, we show, and unfortunately what we have to show you is cruel and barbaric. To do so, we will show you how authorities allowed 22-year-old Shali Tilson to die in prison. Shali Tilson is a young man who had a history of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Last year in March, the Rockdale, Georgia resident was consumed by a mental health crisis, which led to his arrest, but it’s during his confinement where the story really begins. There he was unwatched and ignored as he pleaded for help. He was denied water and mental health care.

In fact, his conditions were so dire, he was placed on suicide watch, all decisions made by prison staffers that we wouldn’t even know about, had a Good Samaritan not leaked the video of his death to the family. The video shows that the staff ignored suicide protocols even while denying him basic necessities. They denied him water for days. The lights were left on for 24 hours. Ultimately, Tilson died of blood clots in his lungs due to dehydration.

Now, I have to give a trigger warning. The portion of the video we’re going to show you is disturbing, and I urge you now to fast forward for about 30 seconds if you don’t think you can watch. But what you’re going to see here is what his family says was a torturous death. To explain what we’ll be seeing, we have a prerecorded interview with the family’s attorney, Mawuli Davis of the Davis Bozeman Law Firm, and he brought with him Shali’s mother, Tynesha Tilson, and his father, Vladimir Joseph Tilson.
I know this must be incredibly difficult to talk about and we appreciate you speaking with us today.


TAYA GRAHAM: First, let me direct the first question to your attorney, Mr. Davis. Can you walk us through what we saw in this video? We saw that he was placed in a locked room with only a grate in the floor with no access to water. What are we really seeing in this video?

MAWULI DAVIS: You’re seeing, and what the world is seeing, is torture. This is the most inhumane treatment that you can possibly imagine. He was placed in this room, supposedly on suicide watch, without any bedding, without a bed. The lights are on 24 hours a day.

TYNESHA TILSON: Shali had a plan. He was going to school to be a paralegal–a Paralegal IV, to be exact. He also started his business, Urban Perspective, while he was a full-time student in college, and he also had a job at the Providence, Rhode Island State House as a tour guide, all while in college. Shali came back to Georgia to help take care of his father after his father had a stroke.

TAYA GRAHAM: Oh wow. It sounds like he was an incredibly compassionate young man with a really bright future. Something that surprised me about this was, and maybe your attorney, Mr. Davis, can answer this, the Rockdale County Police Department have refused to give you the video of his last days in the jail cell. How did the family get the video?

MAWULI DAVIS: Because the case was still under, at the time… under a criminal investigation, they would not release anything. We have since, now that they have presented this presentment to the special grand jury, we now have an open records request that we’re waiting to be filled so that we can get everything that they have as a part of it. But we didn’t have any of the video, a Good Samaritan, someone came forward, and say, “Hey, we have the video of at least what was recorded.”

Keep in mind, three days of video was deleted, so the only thing that we have is eight hours of the last eight hours of his life. So there are three days of video that was completely deleted, and they said it just was an error or mistake. Just totally illogical. But I did want to bring it back to Mr. Joseph. Mr. Joseph had a very close relationship with Shali, and I would like for him to just tell the world a little bit about his relationship with Shali.

TAYA GRAHAM: Absolutely. Please go ahead, Mr. Joseph.

VLADIMIR JOSEPH: Well, Shali and I would… I was helping him start his business, Urban Perspective, and…


MAWULI DAVIS: It’s been really hard. As a father, I just have struggled with what Mr. Joseph is going through with seeing and knowing what his son went through. We can’t imagine for a young man who was as loving and caring as Shali to have to endure what he endured. Then, for no one to be held criminally responsible is a slap in the face of the family.

TAYA GRAHAM: Now, doesn’t the family have a right to know how their loved one died in custody? Isn’t there some sort of legal obligation of being kept safe when you’re in police custody?

MAWULI DAVIS: Yeah, they actually, both mom and dad, went to the jail before he passed. They were asking to see him, and they said that he was segregated, he was in the hole, so to speak. But again, I think it’s important for people to understand he was placed on suicide watch, and the report says that no one can explain why he was put on suicide watch. No one ever said that he said he was suicidal. No one said that he was having any suicidal ideation, nothing. But somehow, he was placed on suicide watch, and it’s our position he was place on suicide watch because he was having this mental health crises and it felt like he was difficult, so they just wanted to kind of shove him away.

They just put them away, out of way, out of sight, out of mind, and they left him. That resulted in him dying of dehydration, which is absolutely unheard of, of someone dying of dehydration in the United States. This is unprecedented.

TAYA GRAHAM: It’s the absolute definition of torture. Mr. and Mrs. Tilson, I know a grand jury reviewed this case, but who is being charged? Who is being held responsible for your son’s death, and is anyone going to be held accountable?

TYNESHA TILSON: No one at this moment. I also wanted to add to this, that’s really upset my family and I, in the autopsy, Shali also had two brain injuries. He had a bruise on his brain, and his brain was also bleeding. This still has never been explained to us, why Shali had those two head injuries, those brain injuries, and why are all of these marks on his body, his ankle, his stomach, his… I can’t think of all of the marks. We still have never seen the pictures.

VLADIMIR JOSEPH: His face was totally disfigured when we did see pictures.

TYNESHA TILSON: Yes. When we saw the picture of him at the GBI.

MAWULI DAVIS: Again, this goes back to he had… While he was in custody for these short nine days, there were six uses of force against him. Then they put him in this cell and they leave him there; and he had no contact, no communication with the outside world. They’re just sliding food through a slot, and that’s the extent of the care. This is really unheard of, unfathomable to think that any human being would call themselves a deputy, a sworn officer, see him in that condition, not do anything about it, yet is not being held responsible for, at the very least, reckless conduct or recklessly disregarding his human and basic needs. They had to know that leaving him there for seven days, that that would only further his mental health condition and deteriorate him physically.

TAYA GRAHAM: Mr. Davis, I have a question. As an attorney, in your professional opinion, how many laws do you think were broken by these law enforcement officers in their treatment of Shali? Weren’t these actually human rights violations?

MAWULI DAVIS: It’s important that we are at a point now that we have a civil lawsuit going, but we also intend on taking this to the United Nations because we do believe his human rights were violated. We believe that this is in fact torture, that everyone who saw him… there were three different shifts for seven days who saw him naked, without bedding, in this condition, and they did nothing. We think that every person who saw him in this condition should be held accountable for these human rights violations that led to his ultimate death. Every day he went through this was a day of torture, and they have no explanation as to why he was even in the, quote-unquote, suicide watch.

The other thing that we know is that when they discover him, one of the officers, a Deputy Lang, goes back into what was the log, and logs in that he had been checked on every 15 minutes, which he knew wasn’t true, but he went back and he falsified that document. That’s a violation of his oath of office, tampering with an official government record. These are all things that we think can be brought forward as charges, at least against him. So, as we stated, while the grand jury has made their determination, the fight for justice for Shali will continue, both in court and out of court.

TAYA GRAHAM: Mr. and Mrs. Tilson, you were speaking to the press and there was another woman who came there, who was speaking to you, and she said that Jamie Henry died in that same jail just 76 days after Shali did. Can you tell me a little bit about what’s happening in this jail and what happened to Jamie Henry? Didn’t she also ask for medical help and was ignored as well?

TYNESHA TILSON: Yes, she did, but we’ll have our attorney answer questions on Jamie Henry.


MAWULI DAVIS: We represent the family of Jamie Henry as well. Jamie Henry came into the jail under different circumstances as Shali, but she was able to say she needed medical attention because she had been struggling with drug addiction and she knew she was coming down off of the drug. She communicated that. She’s, again, placed in a cell where she ultimately dies in the same jail. I think it’s important for your listeners and viewers to get access to this 84-page grand jury presentment, and if you just read it, there are several pages of all the things that the jail was not doing, all the changes that have to be made at the jail.

I’ve said it and I say it again, while they say that there was no need to indict anyone, the very presentment, the report itself, is an indictment against Sheriff Eric Levett. He is the first African American sheriff in Rockdale County, but his performance, his leadership–everything associated with his running of a jail where you have the most vulnerable among us–should result in his termination, in resigning; some way of ending his reign over that jail. With all that was laid out in that report, there’s no reason that he should be able to continue in the capacity as the sheriff. It’s just not safe. It’s not safe for the citizens of Rockdale County and those who pass through Rockdale County.

TAYA GRAHAM: Now, Mr. and Mrs. Tilson, you had to watch your son call for help and receive cruelty in return. What do you want to see done? What do you want to see changed?

VLADIMIR JOSEPH: Well, we want the Sheriff’s Department to be held accountable and brought to justice. Shali was so decomposed that we couldn’t even give him a proper burial. That’s just inhuman treatment.

TAYA GRAHAM: I’m so sorry. Mr. Davis, how can this family possibly be made whole after seeing their loved one tortured to death? How is that even possible?

MAWULI DAVIS: There are things that happen in this world that change us forever. What happened to Shali has changed his family, has changed me, has changed anyone who cares about humanity. It’s changed us, so there is no way, there is no resolution that can make them whole. The only thing that can give them any sense of justice is if the people responsible are actually brought to justice and held accountable. We intend on doing everything in our power, in addition to working with those community organizers around the country who have committed to coming to Rockdale County and continuing to raise up Shali’s name.

We believe Shali is an example of all the things that are wrong with the criminal injustice system in America: from the treatment; from the fact that he received a $6,000 bond for a disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor, that he should’ve been given a signature bond immediately; from the fact that when he comes into the jail he is clearly having a mental health crises, and that during that mental health crises, instead of getting him medical attention, they sent him into a torture chamber and they leave him there. All of these things should be connected with Shali’s name, and his name should be lifted up across the country, continually, as a rally cry for those of us who know that this system must change, and must change radically, in order for people’s humanity to be protected.

TAYA GRAHAM: Mr. and Mrs. Tilson, I know that the people watching right now are going to be horrified by what happened to your son. What can we do as the public to help you or to help prevent this kind of cruel and needless death from happening again? How can we help as the public? What can we do for you?

TYNESHA TILSON: Help spread the word of Shali’s story. What we’ve gone through and what we continue to go through, we still don’t even know all of the details behind Shali’s death, and we don’t want another family to experience what we’re experiencing 18 months later. Shali didn’t ask to be mentally ill. He didn’t ask for a mental illness. He needed help, not to be put in jail. He was put in jail, he was beat, he was tortured, he was kept from us. We never talked to Shali while he was in the jail, we never got to visit with Shali while Shali was in jail. We never saw my son again. I was the last one to see him, 3:00 AM in the morning, and that was the last time I saw my son.

TAYA GRAHAM: I’m so sorry, Mrs. Tilson. I’m so very sorry.
Is there anything that you wanted to add before I closed out the interview? Anything that you wanted to say about Shali? Or attorney Davis, is there anything that you wanted to add before we end our interview?

MAWULI DAVIS: We want people to follow the hashtags #JusticeForShali, #JusticeForShaliTilson. People to, again, just be prepared to galvanize and come together as a community, to not allow this to go without the people rising. We talk quite often about the limitations of the law in the American judicial system, and even as an attorney, I readily admit, as an activist organizer and revolutionary attorney, I readily admit this system is very limited as it relates to justice, particularly for black, brown and poor people.

We try to level the playing field through our advocacy, but we need the people. We need everyday folk to come out, support the movement, the struggle, the demand for justice. The only way this changes is if the people rise up and say, “No more,” that elected officials cannot stand with their hands crossed saying, “We did all we could do” when we see a video proving otherwise.

TAYA GRAHAM: Well, I just want to thank you and the family for coming forward. I can assure you we will keep lifting Shali’s name up, and we will keep exposing these kind of abuses that occur in our jails and our prison systems until the people responsible for them are held accountable. We can promise you that.


MAWULI DAVIS: Thank you so much.

VLADIMIR JOSEPH: Thank you. Thank you.

TAYA GRAHAM: Stephen, after looking at the death of this young man, I don’t even know what to say. Is there any part of our justice system that isn’t broken?

STEPHEN JANIS: Well, as Michelle Alexander pointed out, the author of The New Jim Crow, we have a historic prison system. Never in the history of civilization has a society incarcerated so many people, built so many facilities to incarcerate people. There’s no way that a system that large, that well-funded, that ubiquitous, could not be corrupting. Confining a person, denying their civil liberties, and then profiting of it is going to corrupt a society, and I think there’s no way we can look at it any way other than it is corrupt.

TAYA GRAHAM: I understand what we just watched is painful, but we can’t look away. The images of a young man dying under the supervision of the state is emblematic of a deeper cruelty embedded in the system. A system that, in the light of what we just witnessed, seems designed to harm, not to heal. In some sense, it speaks to a deeper psychological crisis in our country. Is it a coincidence that at a time when the country’s income inequality is most extreme, we have the largest prison system the world has ever seen? Have our political elites become nothing more than rapacious jail keepers passing tax cuts for the rich while selling ankle bracelets to the poor? What does the treatment of Shali Tilson say about the political imperative that drives all the aforementioned injustices? Is it just a profit motive or racism, or is it something even more insidious: the notion that our bodies and our psyches did not belong to us, but to the state?

Now, before we go, we wanted to end the show on a positive development. One of our viewers, Nick Petit, was standing on his porch in Columbus, Ohio in April when he captured this on camera: a SWAT team member slapping the face of a teen. After Petit called out the officers for their inappropriate behavior, the police attacked. Two officers threw Petit to the ground and dislocated his shoulder. Petit was arrested and charged with misconduct during an emergency, but we followed up on the charges, filing public information requests for the body camera footage of the arresting officers and calling the Columbus City Attorney asking why he was pursuing charges. But today we have good news. And to share that with us, Nick has agreed to join us. Nick, thank you so much for joining us today.

NICK PETTIT: Hi. Thanks for having me.

TAYA GRAHAM: Nick, why don’t you tell us about some of the new developments in the case?

NICK PETTIT: Okay. Well, I was on my way to my trial date on October 7th, and my public defender who was representing me, he called me on the way there, I’d say maybe 10 minutes from the courthouse, and said I didn’t have to come in. I was kind of curious as to why, and he went on to explain to me that the prosecutor on my case filed a motion to dismiss in the hour before trial started. This is the second prosecutor on the case, the original prosecutor decided to back out, I don’t know exactly why, but they threw my case out and they said that it was due to insufficient evidence.

TAYA GRAHAM: Oh, that’s terrific news. We’re really happy for you, Nick. Congratulations.

NICK PETTIT: Thank you.

TAYA GRAHAM: So, this is the end of the case for you. What are you going to do next?

NICK PETTIT: Now, since everything’s been taken care of and I know that the officers that were involved in arresting me and assaulting the minor haven’t really had any disciplinary actions, I think that I’m going to contact the ACLU. I’ve been in touch with them here and there throughout the case. I’m contacting them to see what we, me and the young man’s family, can do about holding the police accountable for what’s happened.

TAYA GRAHAM: That’s excellent news. I’m so happy to hear that. Do you think some of the media pressure and attention you got helped in your case?

NICK PETTIT: Oh yes, definitely. It’s one of those things. With me, I do have a background that’s not the greatest, so if I hadn’t had the exposure that came with me sharing my video, honestly, I think I probably would have sat in jail longer. I may have gotten more charges than what they originally charged me with. I could’ve gotten a bunch of fines, which unfortunately is a thing that happens nowadays. It’s getting a little bit out of hand, so I want to thank you guys for definitely checking into it and exposing what happened.

TAYA GRAHAM: We’re happy to do it.

NICK PETTIT: Oh, no problem. The few people who helped out, I wanted to thank them too, but I’ll do that in person.

STEPHEN JANIS: Well, oddly the prosecutor never got back to us. We called him multiple, multiple times and never heard back.

TAYA GRAHAM: Right, but I’m sure he got the message.


TAYA GRAHAM: So, Nick, all this happened just from one act of standing up for someone who was being bullied. Are you surprised by people’s reaction to your story?

NICK PETTIT: Honestly, yes. I did not think that people would care as much as they did. It’s one of those things where, in the past, I’ve seen stuff like this happen to people where they were trying to do the right thing and they go to jail, and nobody stands up for them. Everybody’s like, “Oh, what? No, you should have just listened to what the police said, even though it’s unlawful and unconstitutional.” They end up getting their record smudged and it’s unfortunate. Maybe now, hopefully, my story and the exposure from it can help people to understand that we do have rights, we have the ability to stand up and do the right thing.

TAYA GRAHAM: Absolutely. Nick, I want to thank you for joining us, and I know you’re going to continue to stand up for people who are being bullied. I want you to stay in touch with us, okay? Let us know if you’re able to get any sort of accountability for the police officers who were involved in your arrest and involved in assaulting that young teen. Please keep us up to date, okay?

NICK PETTIT: Oh, I will.

TAYA GRAHAM: I want to also think the Tilson family and their attorney, Mawuli Davis, for sharing the heartbreaking story of their son’s death. We’re going to continue to uplift Shali’s name and do our best to help hold the law enforcement officers guilty of his death accountable. Of course, I want to thank my cohost, Stephen Janis, for his investigative research and his help.

I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct or brutality, please share it with us and we might be able to investigate. Please reach out to us. You can email us the tips privately and share your evidence of police misconduct. You can also message us @policeaccountabilityreport on Facebook or Instagram, or @eyesonpolice on Twitter. Of course, you can message me directly @tayasbaltimore on Twitter or Facebook, and please don’t forget to comment. I do read them. I want to thank you for joining me, and I appreciate you spending your time here with me on the Police Accountability Report.

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Host & Producer
Taya Graham is an award-winning investigative reporter who has covered U.S. politics, local government, and the criminal justice system. She is the host of TRNN's "Police Accountability Report," and producer and co-creator of the award-winning podcast "Truth and Reconciliation" on Baltimore's NPR affiliate WYPR. She has written extensively for a variety of publications including the Afro American Newspaper, the oldest black-owned publication in the country, and was a frequent contributor to Morgan State Radio at a historic HBCU. She has also produced two documentaries, including the feature-length film "The Friendliest Town." Although her reporting focuses on the criminal justice system and government accountability, she has provided on the ground coverage of presidential primaries and elections as well as local and state campaigns. Follow her on Twitter.

Host & Producer
Stephen Janis is an award winning investigative reporter turned documentary filmmaker. His first feature film, The Friendliest Town was distributed by Gravitas Ventures and won an award of distinction from The Impact Doc Film Festival, and a humanitarian award from The Indie Film Fest. He is the co-host and creator of The Police Accountability Report on The Real News Network, which has received more than 10,000,000 views on YouTube. His work as a reporter has been featured on a variety of national shows including the Netflix reboot of Unsolved Mysteries, Dead of Night on Investigation Discovery Channel, Relentless on NBC, and Sins of the City on TV One.

He has co-authored several books on policing, corruption, and the root causes of violence including Why Do We Kill: The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore and You Can’t Stop Murder: Truths about Policing in Baltimore and Beyond. He is also the co-host of the true crime podcast Land of the Unsolved. Prior to joining The Real News, Janis won three Capital Emmys for investigative series working as an investigative producer for WBFF. Follow him on Twitter.