Samaria Rice (center), the mother of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who was fatally shot by police last year while carrying what turned out to be a toy gun, speaks during a news conference at the Olivet Baptist Church in Cleveland on Dec. 8, 2014. Reuters

Families who have lost loved ones in fatal encounters with police officers said their pain and grief resurfaces each time it appears another officer won’t face justice for using lethal force on innocent U.S. citizens. The families of Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and John Crawford asked attendees of the National Action Network’s convention in New York City on Wednesday to keep the pressure on elected officials for reforms in policing and the criminal justice system. They said changes were needed to keep more fathers and mothers, wives, fiancées and surviving children from experiencing the same unending sorrow.

“Continue to fight, because we’re in a war out here,” said Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir, a 12-year-old boy who was shot and killed as he played with a toy gun in a Cleveland park in November. Before a white police officer shot her son without much warning, Rice, like the other panelists speaking about police brutality, said she had not imagined having to speak out publicly on the issues. “I’m just a mom,” she said.

Network Of Support

For years, the families of police brutality victims have been part of a network of people who support each other through the national spotlight and scrutiny of their cases. Most of the families on Wednesday’s panel had been introduced through the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights leader who founded NAN.

Victims with older cases said periods of solitude and the feeling that people have forgotten their loved one are the most difficult. “I have my Sean Bell moments and they can be intense,” said William Bell, father of Sean, the unarmed 23-year-old who was shot 50 times by five New York Police Department officers on the day of his wedding in 2006. The family received a multimillion-dollar settlement from the city in a wrongful death lawsuit, but the officers involved were acquitted of manslaughter and reckless endangerment. “Sometimes I go in the bathroom and shed tears,” William Bell said. His wife, Valerie Bell, said the lack of support for a now-defunct community center in their son’s name stung almost as much as the loss.

Nicole Paultre Bell -- Sean Bell’s fiancée, who legally took the name Bell as a tribute after he was killed -- said she struggles to remain strong for the two daughters she had with Bell. “For many years, I could not sleep in the bedroom that Sean and I shared.” She said the public often remembers the parents and spouses, but quickly forgets others who are harmed by the death, such as young children.

'She Shouldn't Know'

Esaw Garner, widow of Eric Garner, the 43-year-old killed in a choke hold by an NYPD officer last July, said the case has had a searing impact on their entire family. “I have a 3-year-old granddaughter who, whenever she sees Rev. Sharpton on the TV, lifts her hands in the air and chants, ‘Hands up, don’t shoot,’" Esaw Garner said. "While it might be cute, she should be citing her A-to-Zs. She shouldn’t know that [chant.]”

Leslie McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, last August, which sparked nationwide protests and civil unrest, said she has relied on her faith to cope with her grief. “God has always been with me, but now he has become a guide,” she said.

The families called for a series of criminal justice reforms, including the appointment of a special prosecutor in police-involved killings. “We’ve got to continue to take action,” said John Crawford Jr., father of John Crawford III, the 22-year-old who was killed last year by police inside a Walmart store in Dayton, Ohio, while holding an unwrapped toy BB gun that was sold at the store.

“Police find the ambiguities in the law and they abuse it,” Crawford said, encouraging the audience to seek more diversity among prosecutors and defense attorneys. “We’ve got to cut the head off the snake.”