The Justice Department's civil rights division said Thursday it had found insufficient evidence to prosecute four white Riverside police officers involved in the 1998 shooting death of a 19-year-old black woman who passed out in her car with a gun in her lap.
"Tyisha Miller's death was a terrible tragedy," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Gen. Gerald Boyd. "Our decision to close this investigation does not signal approval of the conduct of these officers, or indeed any official opinion concerning their conduct, but the bottom line is that our investigation, which was conducted conscientiously, has not revealed enough evidence to support federal criminal prosecution."
Boyd said any negligence, poor judgment or mistake by the officers was not enough to warrant criminal charges
Debra W. Yang, the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, met with Miller's family to convey the Justice Department's findings, a spokesman said. Some relatives and family supporters reacted with anger and disappointment.
Miller's death created an uproar among many African Americans in Riverside, exposing a deep racial divide. It also led to intervention by state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, who ordered the Police Department to adopt a sweeping reform plan designed to root out any racism.
Lockyer's office also declined to prosecute on grounds of insufficient evidence. However, the four officers were fired. Two are fighting to be reinstated.
Boyd said federal investigators reviewed the results of the local investigation and then began their own probe, interviewing witnesses to the shooting.
Miller was killed Dec. 28, 1998, when the four officers were summoned to a service station where she had locked herself in her disabled car, and then passed out while a friend had gone for help.
The officers said they tried unsuccessfully to rouse her. One then broke a side window, according to the police account, causing Miller to sit bolt upright. Fearing for their lives, they said, they opened fire. Miller did not fire her gun. Officers fired 24 times, striking her with 12 bullets.
"Our investigation did not reveal evidence disproving the officers' claim that they subsequently shot out of fear for their safety," Boyd said. "All eyewitnesses confirm that Ms. Miller had a gun in her lap and the forensic evidence corroborates the claim that she sat up -- a perceived movement toward the gun -- when one of the officers shattered the window of the locked car to gain entrance and render aid to Ms. Miller."
He said the federal investigation revealed that the first shots were fired while the officer who had shattered the window was leaning inside the car trying to reach for the gun in Miller's lap.
The fact that the officers admit firing even while their colleague was leaning into the car is strong evidence that they acted out of fear rather than with any malicious intent, Boyd said.
The Justice Department is still conducting a civil investigation into the policies and practices of the Riverside Police Department, Boyd said, including an analysis of its dealings with minorities.
Despite the decision not to prosecute, U.S. Atty. Yang said her office remains committed to prosecuting civil rights violations whenever the evidence supports criminal charges.
The mayor of Riverside, Ronald Loveridge, said Thursday night that "this is another chapter, among the last to be closed. The city has moved forward. We've increased the professionalism and community policing. There is widespread community support for the Riverside Police Department."
He also said the city respects "the legal skills and values and research that led to the Department of Justice's decision."
But the decision was criticized by some in the community who had been involved with the family or the case. It also rekindled a bitter disagreement within the community over the Miller family's decision to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit with the city for $3 million.
The Rev. Bernell Butler, a preacher and Miller's cousin, said he disagreed with the decision to settle but backed the rest of the family at the time. Now, he said, he believes the settlement is coming back to haunt Miller's relatives.
"When they settled, it gave the federal government an out to sweep this thing under the carpet. It took away the drive and motivation for justice," Butler said. "These guys murdered her with malice, prejudice and bigotry. She was murdered. And she was a good girl."
Carolyn B. Murray, a member of the Tyisha Miller Steering Committee and a professor of psychology and ethnic studies at UC Riverside, said she was disappointed with the decision, but not shocked.
"They don't prosecute white, male police officers. They just don't -- even when the evidence is overwhelming," Murray said. "That's the American way. People say we live in a democracy. It's a facade. It's a democracy for a few."
Murray agreed with those who found the government's explanations lame at best.
"They had enough evidence to try those officers, if not on the count of murder, then on manslaughter or violating her civil rights," Murray said. "The officers that were involved all told different stories about what happened. But they all agreed on one thing: The first bullet was fired from outside the car."
Larry Halstead of Highland, a friend of Miller's family and an original member of the Steering Committee, said civil rights activists worked for weeks after the shooting to persuade angry youths not to take to the streets with violence.
"We kept all that from happening," Halstead said. "And this is how you repay us. This is what I told [federal prosecutors]: 'You undermined our credibility. You treated us like a bunch of thugs.' They are sending a message that is the wrong message. They are sending a message to the citizens of the United States that cops are going to get away with this."