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Deal Considered With Fired Officers

Fatal police shooting in 1998 divided Riverside. The possibility of a settlement is still a matter of controversy.

January 06, 2003|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

RIVERSIDE — The criminal investigations have run their course, the grieving family has received a $3-million settlement and the Police Department has adopted state-mandated reforms.

Civic leaders say it is finally time for Riverside to move on from the racially divisive tragedy of Tyisha Miller, the young black woman shot to death by four white police officers in December 1998.

Moving on may entail a concession that few could have foreseen in the turbulent aftermath of Miller's death. The city is considering paying settlements to the former officers, who were fired for their conduct in the shooting.

The four have been cleared of any criminal wrongdoing, most recently by the U.S. Justice Department. They are pressing numerous lawsuits and disability claims against the city, demanding reinstatement with back pay or, at minimum, immediate pensions.

All are in their late 20s or early 30s.

The city continues to fight them in court filings, but it is also in settlement talks with their lawyers.

The City Council already has offered two of the former officers, Wayne Stewart and Michael Alagna, $2,000 a month, tax-free, for life.

"It's so bizarre," said school teacher Bill Peterson, 47, who was eating a pizza lunch in an outdoor mall across from Riverside's historic Mission Inn. "The city needed to fire the cops to keep the lid on.... But maybe it's time to make them whole and let them get on with their lives."

There is disagreement about that. To many people here, especially African Americans, the Miller shooting was Riverside's Rodney G. King scandal and O.J. Simpson case rolled into one.

Black activists wanted the officers tried for murder. They led weekly demonstrations in the months after the shooting.

The Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton flew in to join the protests. And when the city fired the officers in 1999 and paid the $3 million to Miller's family the following year, the assignment of blame was apparent.

Now, some say, giving money to the former officers would leave the impression that they were victims as well.

"They shouldn't get any money," said Howard Smith, 48, a black security guard in Rubidoux, the neighborhood where Miller lived. He was watching a Stater Bros. parking lot. "People are still too upset. They want to see justice served. Those cops should just go away."

Preacher and body shop owner Bernell Butler, Miller's second cousin, served as the family spokesman after the shooting. "Why should the city give these guys any money for killing this girl?" he said outside his Rubidoux shop. Inside, Miller's high school prom photograph hung on a wall.

"The cops belong in jail," Butler said, his eyes tearing.

The matter of a possible settlement with the former officers is plainly sensitive at City Hall. Several calls to Mayor Ron Loveridge and City Council members went unreturned. Police Chief Russ Leach also did not respond to requests for interviews.

City Atty. Gregory Priamos would not discuss the legal disputes in detail. "We're talking," he said, referring to the settlement negotiations.

On Dec. 28, 1998, shortly after 2 a.m., Stewart, Alagna, Paul Bugar and Daniel Hotard fired 24 rounds at Miller, hitting her with half of them. They had found her sleeping in a locked car at a gas station, a handgun in her lap. After failing to rouse her by shaking the car and shouting, they decided to break a window to grab the gun.

Miller, 19, woke with a start as the glass shattered. The officers shot her because, they said later, she appeared to be going for her gun.

The officers were fired on grounds that they had employed dangerous tactics. Their sergeant also was fired.

Last month, the U.S. Justice Department declined to prosecute the former officers, citing a lack of evidence that they had behaved criminally. Similar conclusions had been reached earlier by the Riverside County district attorney and California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer.

Lockyer's office did order the Police Department to impose a range of reforms to improve the training and supervision of officers. The measures are spelled out in a consent decree.

The Police Department's labor union embraced the decree, but its leadership is convinced that the fired officers got railroaded.

"They didn't do anything wrong," said Patrick McCartney, president of the Riverside Police Officers' Assn. After the firings, many of the association's members shaved their heads in a show of support for the four.

The former officers declined through their attorneys to be interviewed. Their lawsuits allege that they were fired because of their race.

"The city gives medals of valor" for "the same kind of thing these guys did," said Bill Hadden, an attorney for Stewart and Alagna.

Hadden's clients rejected the pension offers because the terms would have classified them as psychologically disabled. "These guys are not psychologically disabled," Hadden said.

The city has denied pension applications by Bugar and Hotard, who were probationary employees.

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