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Officers Cleared in Shooting of Homeless Man

June 24, 2000|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Police were justified in using deadly force in the shooting Feb. 8 of a mentally disturbed homeless man armed only with a tree branch, Dist. Atty. Paul Pfingst concluded Friday.

But Pfingst suggested that a barking police dog might have contributed to the deadly turn taken by a tense standoff when it startled William Anthony Miller, 42, into running directly at officers. Three officers opened fire, hitting Miller seven times.

The dog's handler had positioned the dog behind Miller rather than behind the officers as suggested by Police Department policy.

"The [police] helicopter videotape shows that Mr. Miller charged the officers approximately 10 seconds after the police dog was taken out of the K-9 car," Pfingst wrote to Chief David Bejarano. " . . . Your department may wish to study whether the positioning of the dog may have hastened Mr. Miller's charge."

Although cleared of possible criminal charges, the officers could still face departmental discipline.

The shooting added to a controversy about the Police Department's use of force that began a year ago when officers fatally shot former NFL player Demetrius Dubose.

In response to the Dubose and Miller shootings, Bejarano announced in late February that the department is equipping all officers with more nonlethal weapons, such as Tasers and beanbag shotguns.

On Friday, Bejarano said the department will soon begin providing additional training to teach officers how to deal with the mentally ill who appear threatening without resorting to the use of lethal force.

"This loss of life, like every loss of life, is tragic," Bejarano said.

Police had responded to a call that Miller, who had a history of assault, had hit three customers outside a McDonald's restaurant.

Confronted by several officers, Miller refused their commands to drop a three-foot branch that he used as a walking stick.

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