The mysterious death of Tyisha Miller

Did racism kill Tyisha Miller? Black leaders in Riverside, Calif., insist a police shooting victim would be alive if she were white. But would she?

Published February 8, 1999 5:41PM (EST)

Downtown is sleepy this gray morning. It's a national holiday and the courthouse is still, the streets nearly deserted. Then a throng of marchers rounds a bend, approaching City Hall Plaza from 14th Street. Hundreds of people, old and young, black, white and brown, swarm the sidewalk, walking and talking in pairs and in clusters. From a distance, it looks like a scene that Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday is being celebrated today, would smile upon.

As the train of bodies comes closer, the signs come into focus -- "Stop the Killing Now," "Innocent teen murdered in cold blood," "A call for 911 ends in death" -- and so does the anger. Riverside leaders like to boast of their city's racial harmony -- Riverside was an arrival point for black Los Angeles residents who began fleeing that city after the Watts riots in the 1960s, the first city in the country to voluntarily integrate its schools, the first to name a high school after King. But to the chanting marchers, none of that history seems to matter. Not since the early morning hours of Dec. 28, when a 19-year-old black woman named Tyisha Miller was riddled with bullets by four police officers as she sat in her aunt's car at a gas station on a well-traveled intersection.

Coming on top of several other recent racially charged incidents, the case has left this predominantly working-class city of 250,000 one hour east of Los Angeles stunned and enraged. Three weeks after King's birthday, the protests continue. Now national leaders are getting involved: On Feb. 16, the Rev. Jesse Jackson is scheduled to speak at a vigil commemorating Miller's killing.

What exactly happened that night? So far, key facts remain fuzzy. Until they were subpoenaed by a county grand jury last week, friends of Miller's who reportedly witnessed the killing refused to talk to the police or the press (although they have talked to lawyers, who have passed on some of their accounts to the media). Their testimony before the grand jury is secret. With so little information and such strong emotions, speculation and suspicion abound. But many in Riverside's black community feel they already know enough to conclude that the killing was just another example of what they see as the police racism that lies beneath the surface of what the National Civic League dubbed this "All-American City."

"We don't need a police department that is an assassin squad," bellows the Rev. Bernell Butler, a tall, handsome man in his 30s. From a stage set up in City Hall Plaza, Butler's piercing voice is so powerful he doesn't use a megaphone. He and his brother DeWayne, cousins of Tyisha Miller, have been acting as Miller family spokesmen, expressing their rage and calling for justice at small local rallies and on national talk shows like "Leeza." "They didn't give her any benefit of the doubt," Butler says. "They didn't ask any questions."

The police and others are asking plenty of questions now, in the wake of Miller's death and the protest it has spawned. Why was she waiting at the gas station? Why did she have a gun? Could the police have handled their approach differently? What provoked them to shoot her? Why didn't her friends who saw the killing come forward voluntarily?

Above all, of course, the question lingers: What role did race play in her death? Or, to ask that question a different way: If she were white, would Tyisha Miller be alive today?

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Tyisha Miller lived in Rubidoux, a poor, racially mixed, unincorporated area across the Santa Ana River from Riverside. Riverside and Rubidoux are part of the "Inland Empire," the stretch of land and dusty desert hills east of Los Angeles that includes San Bernardino and Riverside counties. A handsome stone bridge connects the stately Victorian homes of downtown Riverside to Rubidoux's main thoroughfare, Mission Boulevard, which is lined with storefront skeletons, gas stations and small groceries. Off the avenue, small homes, most in various states of disrepair, line the bumpy streets. Rubidoux has the look and feel of the dusty encampments seen in Depression-era photographs. Mobile homes abound and every few blocks there are empty lots littered with debris, where farm animals -- pigs, goats and even cows -- graze indiscriminately. It was in Rubidoux that Tyisha Miller grew up.

Friends describe Miller as an athletic, church-going young woman with a ready smile who planned on attending college or entering the military. Her mother is disabled and her father absent, so she lived with her aunt, who friends say was strict but loving. She liked to drink and party with friends. On Dec. 27, the day before she died, she borrowed her aunt's car, went out with some girlfriends and never came home again.

Tyisha Miller's last hours, as reported by the local newspaper, the Riverside Press-Enterprise, went something like this:

Miller and five girlfriends went to a nearby mall at about 4 p.m., stayed for a few hours and then headed for an amusement park. There, they went on a water ride, filled out job applications for the ride, then went to a city park, where they "talked and wrestled on the grass." Some of the girlfriends say they had been drinking, but others deny it. An autopsy found that Miller had been drinking that day -- the alcohol level in her bloodstream was .13, one and a half times the legal limit for driving -- and had recently smoked marijuana.

According to the Press-Enterprise, Miller was paged by her aunt several times during the day but delayed returning the calls. A friend quoted in the paper said Miller didn't call her aunt sooner because she knew "she was being naughty" and she didn't want to return the car.

At about 12:30 a.m., Miller dropped off all but one of her friends, a 15-year-old girl nicknamed Bug. While heading home to Rubidoux, the car got a flat tire and they stopped at a convenience store. There, according to what friends told lawyers, a white man the young women didn't know replaced the flat with a spare. But the air pump at the convenience store didn't work, so they drove to a gas station, less than a mile away, followed by the man. When they realized the spare tire would not hold air, Miller began calling friends for help. Bug hitched a ride to Rubidoux with the man, while Miller waited with the car for her friends to arrive.

About an hour later, one of Miller's cousins and a friend arrived at the gas station and found Miller locked in her car, with her seat back, music playing on the radio and a .380 semiautomatic pistol in her lap. She didn't respond to knocks on her window. The cousin and friend thought Miller was foaming at the mouth. They called 911 and reported Tyisha was in distress, and that she had a gun. They then called her aunt's house to get keys to the car.

Because the 911 call reported that Miller had a gun, a police car as well as an ambulance was dispatched. The police arrived approximately two minutes later. They tried to rouse Miller by banging on the windows and eventually breaking them. At this point, police accounts diverge. Two of the officers say Miller reached for her pistol; two said they weren't sure whether she reached for it or not. The four officers -- all white -- fired about 27 shots, hitting Miller at least a dozen times. The Riverside police have not released tapes or transcripts of the 911 call or of the radio communication among the officers -- a fact that has been singled out by critics, who point out that they had no problem releasing the autopsy report showing that Miller was legally drunk.

Miller's family has hired Dr. Michael Baden, a pathologist who took part in the O.J. Simpson trial and in probes of the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., to perform an independent autopsy. In preliminary findings, Baden told the Miller family that Tyisha was reclining and her hand was by her side -- proof, her relatives say, that she did not reach for a gun. The Millers' lawyers, one of whom is famed Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran, did not return phone calls seeking comment for this article. No charges against the police have yet been filed.

Police department spokesman Chris Manning said he could not corroborate the chain of events because no one involved had agreed to be interviewed by police, even though he had made five public, published requests for them to come forward. "Either they have not gotten the word, or they are not wishing to be interviewed," said Manning. Indeed, several of the young women complained after they were subpoenaed before the grand jury. Manning would not comment further on the case, citing his department's ongoing internal investigation. The Riverside County district attorney's office, the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles and the FBI are also all investigating the case.

Many questions persist about the events of that evening. The key ones involve guns. Why did the police, who were responding to an emergency call, wind up shooting the victim? And why did Miller have a gun? The weapon on her lap was registered to a woman who has never heard of Tyisha Miller, Manning said. It has been speculated that it was stolen.

But critics of the police say these questions are beside the point. Miller's family and friends insist she was no gangbanger, no gun-toter. "[The police] use the gun as a catch-all," Bernell Butler says when I ask him about Tyisha's pistol. "We have a right to bear arms. The cops didn't know if it was loaded, if it was fake -- they didn't even know if she was law enforcement!"

If the Riverside police were talking, they'd probably be saying one thing: Tyisha Miller had a gun. Policemen are trained to respond in a split second to anyone who confronts them with a gun -- their lives depend on it. A reasonable reconstruction of the tragic events of that night might be that the officers simply reacted in self-defense when Miller, startled awake out of a drunken sleep by the shattering of the car windows and assuming she was being attacked, either reached for her gun or made some other fast movement, triggering the fatal fusillade of bullets. No racism need be invoked to explain this scenario -- unless one assumes that police are quicker on the trigger in cases involving blacks.

Another reasonable reconstruction might be that the officers, aggressively aware that Miller had a gun, improperly went into full our-lives-are-in-danger hair-trigger mode before they even approached the car, dealing with the situation as if they were interrupting a crime in progress rather than trying to wake up a young woman sleeping one off in a car with a gun on her lap for self-protection. Under this account, it's easily conceivable that a skittish policeman, mistaking the shattering glass for a movement by Miller, simply opened fire on the sleeping woman, and that the rest of the officers immediately followed suit. Race might play a role in such a scenario, or it might not: Police, as pointed out above, don't like people of any race who have guns.

But even if race was not a factor in the killing of Tyisha Miller, the police don't exactly come off looking good. Why, one might ask, did they approach a car that they knew contained an ill, armed person so aggressively? Why did they shatter the windows while standing next to the car? Wasn't what happened only too predictable? Couldn't they have found another way?

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The Tyisha Miller killing alarmed white Riverside as well as black. I talked to several white leaders at the Martin Luther King Day march, all of whom deplored Miller's killing, but who also defended their city. "This is a tragic situation," said Daniel Hantman, the head of the Riverside Chamber of Commerce, "but it brings about cooperation." Ron Loveridge, Riverside's white, silver-haired mayor, explained that he was setting up a special committee to review use of force by the police. Loveridge, wearing khaki pants and a Martin Luther King Jr. T-shirt over a plaid work shirt, looked exhausted. "The press comes here because you want a good story," he said. "But what I hope you understand is this is a good and decent community." Loveridge went on to mention that Riverside was the first city in the country to voluntarily desegregate its schools, and the only city in California to have a high school named after King.

What the mayor didn't mention was that some white parents protested naming the school after King, not because he was black, they said, but because they wanted the name to reflect local culture. At a hearing to debate the matter, some white parents voiced the additional concern that the name would unfairly brand their children as students of a black, inner-city school, a disadvantage when their transcripts reached college admissions officers. (The School Board unanimously voted to name the school after King anyway.)

The high school naming flap was just one of several controversial incidents that belie the city's image of racial harmony.

In November 1995, a black gunman broke into a Riverside halfway house with the intention of killing Sgt. Stacey Koon, one of the officers involved in the Rodney King beating. Koon was on furlough at the time; the gunman killed a hostage before being shot and killed by police.

In April 1996, two Riverside County sheriff's deputies were videotaped beating two illegal immigrants with batons after a high-speed chase.

In October, an eccentric black man shot and wounded the mayor, two City Council members and two police officers because he was angry that the city had cut funding for an after-school chess program he led for black youth. The man was the author of a 57-page treatise on discrimination that he had sent to city officials, community leaders and President Clinton.

After the march, I hitched a ride back to my car with Robert Williams and his family. The Williams' knew Tyisha, are good friends with one of her aunts and on this day, three weeks after her death, they say they are just as stunned as they were when they first heard.

Like a lot of other blacks in Riverside County, the Williamses left the Watts district of Los Angeles in the early 1980s and headed east to Riverside, hoping for safer streets and better schools for their children. "I lived in Watts during the riots," says Williams, 65. "Our houses and stores were burned and you know what we were left with? Nothing."

The Inland Empire has experienced a population surge in the past 20 years -- an 81 percent increase between 1983 and 1993. Its black population has kept pace: In 1980, the black population was 6.9 percent; in 1990 it had climbed to 7.4 percent. The percentage of Latinos has increased dramatically, from 16 percent in 1980 to 26 percent in 1990, while the white population has declined. Riverside is a magnet for low- to middle-income families, many from Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego, because housing is affordable and there is less congestion. Interestingly, the income disparity between blacks and whites is less in Riverside County than in Los Angeles and Orange counties, says Michael Bazdarich of the Inland Empire Economic Forecasting Center at UC-Riverside.

Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow with the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy, paints a gloomier picture. "Riverside is a city with urban problems but without urban advantages," he says. "In the past 20 years there has been a movement of blacks out of the inner city [in Los Angeles]. More affluent blacks moved to the San Fernando Valley and the Hollywood Hills. Middle-class blacks went to the Marino Valley. And poor blacks went to San Bernardino and Riverside." Kotkin says it's a mistake to imagine that the social problems that plague South Central don't migrate into outlying cities: "The problem is, you can take the kid out of the ghetto, but you can't take the ghetto out of the kid."

Robert Williams wouldn't endorse Kotkin's formulation. A deacon at Vine Life Christian Fellowship, he thinks the problem in Riverside is the police department, not black kids. When asked about their perception of the department, the Williamses look at each other with an anguished grimace. Two of their sons have had run-ins with police here, they explain. One of them was beaten to a pulp by police for no reason other than his skin color, they claim, and the other, well, he's dead.

"The police told us they found him unconscious in an alley in San Bernardino," Mrs. Williams says. "I think they killed him." The Williamses wanted to get legal help for both of their sons, they wanted to press charges against the police, but they were discouraged by the cost and cynical about their chances of winning. The ironic thing, says Mr. Williams, is that one of the reasons they left Watts was to get away from the brutality -- of the streets, and of the cops.

He steers the conversation back to Miller. "She was killed on a well-lit corner of Riverside. She got someplace safe. She locked her car. She did everything you'd want your child to do." He points to the two teenage girls in the front seat. One is black; the other, the Williamses' foster child, is white. "Do I need to teach them different things about the police?"

Many black activists think so. Rev. Paul Munford of New Joy Baptist Church is one of many religious leaders who believe racism was responsible for Tyisha Miller's death. Riverside's black churches have been buzzing with activity since the killing, hosting meetings, rallies, prayer circles. Clergy and civil rights leaders from all over Southern California are using the case as an opportunity to highlight yet again their belief that blacks and whites live in two different Americas.

"They would have taken more time to apprehend an animal," says Munford, leaning back in a chair behind a large desk in the church office. It was in the large, amphitheater-style sanctuary in his church that 800 people attended Miller's funeral. "I didn't realize how bad things were until this happened and people in my congregation and in the community started telling me about all their negative encounters with the Riverside police."

I ask Munford, who has been designated a Miller family spokesman, if he knew Tyisha. He says he didn't, but adds that he knows one of her uncles and two of her cousins who are connected to New Joy. I ask him if he knows Bug, Tyisha's friend who was the last one with her on the night of the shooting. He says he doesn't. Does he know where I might find her? "No."

Several of the people I interviewed became frustrated with my questions about details, and especially about witnesses. For my part, I found their failure to urge Tyisha's cousin and friend to come forward baffling. Eyewitnesses in a police killing are a civil rights litigator's dream come true. While the two young women would presumably cooperate in a civil case against the police, for now, Miller's supporters were trying their case in the press. And their case -- that this was a cold-blooded, racially inspired murder -- would have been much more convincing if those who saw it testified to that effect.

But the details of the case don't matter much to Munford. "Tyisha Miller was in a no-win situation. There was nothing she could have done to save her life because the officers probably thought she was a black man and that means danger. [Chris Manning of the Riverside police says that the officers knew that it was a woman in distress.] White officers need to know that every black person in distress is not a threat to their safety." Munford barely takes a breath before continuing: "Too many white officers think they have to keep the black folks straight. They want to make the black community a police state. If they could incarcerate every black man, I think they would."

There is silence for a few moments before I ask Munford the obvious question: Does he think Tyisha was killed just because she was black? "Yes," he answers right away. "If it was you sitting in that car, you wouldn't be dead."

I ask Munford if he has ever heard of David Bruner. Like most of Riverside, he has not.

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Two weeks before Miller was killed, David Bruner, a 35-year-old white man, was driving at rush hour on I-15 in Riverside. He was on his way home to the house he shared with his parents after a day of delivering wood, an odd job he did on his days off as a mechanic. Mark Boyer, a sergeant for the Riverside police, says that a police car with two officers began chasing Bruner when he crossed a double line on a residential street before he got onto the freeway and began swerving and hitting other cars. Bruner eventually stopped on the freeway, drove his truck into a guardrail on the median strip and then backed toward them. Boyer says the two officers felt their lives were in danger. They shot Bruner several times while he was still in the car, killing him. Bruner did not have a weapon.

Leon and Patricia Bruner live in a split-level home on a cul-de-sac a couple of blocks away from an expansive orange grove, the crop that Riverside used to be famous for. The houses in the Bruners' neighborhood are well kept, good-sized and more modern than the charming Victorians that surround downtown.

The officer who informed the Bruners that their son was dead said that he had tried to "elude the police," that he revved his motor and threatened the officers and that he was driving erratically without his lights on. The officer left without offering any further information, and without expressing any sympathy. A few days later, still reeling from the shock of David's death, Leon Bruner called the coroner's office to see if he could obtain a copy of the coroner's report as well as David's autopsy and toxicology report. He was told that he would have to send a check for $25 for each report before they could be sent.

"I told him it was too bad my son wasn't black, because then I would be able to read the details of his death in the newspaper," Leon says, only half joking.

As of Friday, the Press-Enterprise had run more than 40 stories about Tyisha Miller and only one about David Bruner. In fact, almost no one I spoke to, except for those in law enforcement, had ever heard of Bruner.

"Maybe the police are having a hard time accounting for his death," Leon suggests. "Maybe they are trying to sweep this whole thing under the rug. For something like this to happen to a long-standing citizen, well, they probably don't know what to do."

The officers involved in the shooting were put on paid administrative leave briefly before returning to work.

Like Tyisha Miller, David Bruner had been drinking on the day he died. But without the toxicology reports, the Bruners have no way of knowing if he was drunk. At the time of his death, Bruner was on probation for his involvement with a methamphetamine lab. "They wrote about his arrest in the newspaper as if the fact that he had a record made it OK that he was killed," Leon Bruner says. Tyisha Miller's family and civil rights groups made the same charge when the police released Miller's toxicology reports. David Bruner's parents and friends insist that he was decent and gentle and they can't imagine his getting belligerent. "He loved to fish, he loved his nieces and nephews," his father says, his voice getting softer.

"He was always scared of police," adds Patricia Bruner, who is in her early 70s and suffers from Parkinson's disease. She recalls how the family grew up in the same neighborhood as a policeman, who always yelled at David for riding his bike in the hills behind the man's house. "David thought every time you see the police you fled. Maybe he just snapped." The Bruners recently filed a wrongful death suit against the Riverside Police Department.

The Bruners' bewilderment is palpable as I sit with them in their living room, the walls lined with photographs of children and grandchildren. This is not the kind of tragedy that is supposed to happen to them. Leon, who recently survived lung cancer, is pale and stooped, with small narrowed eyes. A professor emeritus in the physics department at UC-Riverside, he and his wife are church-going, law-abiding citizens who, until their son's death, held the police in high esteem. "There are some beautiful policemen in our church," Patricia offers.

It's striking that none of the people protesting Miller's death have invoked the Bruner case in their crusade against police brutality. I asked the minister of a predominantly white Universalist Unitarian church, Rev. Cynthia Cain, who had been actively protesting Miller's death, if she had heard of the Bruner case. She sympathized with the Bruner family when I talked about the case, but quickly brought the conversation back to Miller. "Everyone chooses a calling in ministry," she said. "And anti-racism is what has called me." Perhaps Jesse Jackson, who has recently expanded his appeal to the white poor by visiting Appalachia, will make the connections between the Bruner and Miller killings, and between black and white Riverside. But then the case wouldn't be so much about race as about trigger-happy policemen.

I ask the Bruners if they've been contacted by, or have themselves contacted, anyone protesting Tyisha Miller's death. If perhaps by banding together they might be able to make a stronger case against the police.

"I don't think we fit their agenda," Leon Bruner says.

His wife considers the question for a moment. "But it might be worthwhile for them to know they are not the only ones."

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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