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Family Asks Why Police Shot Woman

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Very early Monday morning, Tyisha Miller and several friends had car trouble and pulled into an all-night gas station on Brockton Avenue in Riverside.

Two hours later, her friends had left and Riverside police officers were summoned to help. In the moments that followed, the 19-year-old was killed by a fusillade of police bullets.

How she died is no mystery. Why her death occurred is.

With Miller’s grieving family saying she was unjustly slain while in physical distress, Riverside County authorities are attempting to pinpoint what happened before the Rubidoux teenager died about 2 a.m. Monday.

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As the family prepares for Miller’s funeral, they hope to rally support from the community and civil rights activists to guarantee a fair and thorough investigation. They also want to know if race was a factor in the shooting. Miller was black; three responding officers were white and one was Latino.

“I just want justice for our baby,” said one of Miller’s uncles, the Rev. Bernell Butler.

Initially, Riverside police reported that Miller, locked in her Nissan Sentra with a .380-caliber semiautomatic handgun on her lap, was killed after she fired a shot at officers attempting, at the request of her family, to rouse her from the vehicle.

But later, police said it was unclear whether Miller--or an officer--fired the shot that touched off the hail of police gunfire.

Whether Miller fired simultaneously with an officer, or fired her gun at all, is one of the many questions surrounding the case.

Another is why the teenager was sitting armed and alone in her car, unresponsive to repeated efforts by friends, family and finally police to get her to leave the vehicle.

Family members said Miller was returning from a night out with friends when her car had a flat tire, and she drove to the station. There, they said, she called a cousin for help and then--for safety reasons--locked herself in the car to wait, with a gun on her lap. It is unclear what happened to her friends, and police have asked them to come forward.

When the cousin arrived, she found Miller unresponsive.

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“The initial call was a medical call. . . . The family told us her eyes were rolling and her mouth was foaming,” said Riverside police spokesman Sgt. Chris Manning.

When four officers and a sergeant arrived, he said, they also believed that the woman was in “medical distress.” Over the next several minutes, Manning said, the officers tried unsuccessfully to rouse Miller, mindful that she still had a gun on her lap.

“I know the officers made numerous verbal instructions to her and were banging on the car to get her attention. Their presence was being made very clear,” he said. “We don’t know if the individual was unable to respond. We don’t know what her physical state was. She may have been in dire distress. She may have been intoxicated. We don’t know.”

Unable to rouse her, the officers smashed open the driver’s side window of Miller’s car. It was then, authorities say, that she reached for the gun and the officers fired.

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But Miller’s family, including one cousin who witnessed the episode, disputed the police account and said officers hastily opened fire on a person in physical distress.

Another uncle, the Rev. Dewayne Butler, said that in a private meeting Wednesday morning with Riverside Police Chief Jerry Carroll, he was told that the teenager did not fire at the officers.

Police spokesman Manning said it was unclear how many officers fired or how many rounds they discharged--information that is part of their internal investigation.

With an autopsy scheduled for today, authorities and the family will soon learn how many times Miller was shot. And, in the coming weeks, toxicological tests will help determine what physical condition or other factors may have prevented her from being rescued from her car.

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Miller’s family said Wednesday that they were not aware of any medical history that could explain her physical distress that night. They knew her as a strong athlete. Miller’s mother, they said, is an epileptic who suffered from seizures in the past.

As family members prepared for a Saturday morning carwash to pay for Miller’s funeral, they were overcome with grief and rage.

Dewayne Butler said that in his meeting with the police chief, Carroll said he understood the family’s quest for justice but hoped the shooting would not polarize the community.

“He wanted to tone down our efforts until they deal with the situation,” Butler said.

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But when he carried that message to the house where the family gathered, it was rejected.

“We already know what the outcome will be,” said Ronald Butler, another uncle of Miller’s. “Although this was an execution, they are going to say the shooting was either justifiable or an accident.”

Hours after the slaying, the chief called a meeting with local civil rights activists. A representative from the Urban League of Riverside-San Bernardino said that group will wait for the results of law enforcement inquiries before taking any action.

Police and the Riverside County district attorney’s office are investigating the shooting.

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“Our focus is to determine whether there was any criminal action on anybody’s part, including the police,” said Michael Soccio, the county’s supervising deputy district attorney.

As those inquiries continue, authorities are asking for calm from the community. “People are frustrated . . . and I understand that,” said spokesman Manning. “But you can’t hurry these examinations.”


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