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World & Nation

Police used taser on Texas city councilman as he was kneeling on ground

Jonathan Miller

Blood stains the shirt of Prairie View, Texas, City Councilman Jonathan Miller where he was shocked by a Taser in an encounter with police. The photo was taken by City Councilwoman Marie Herndon after Miller’s release from jail on Friday.

(Marie Herndon)

Prairie View City Councilman Jonathan Miller was kneeling on the ground when the taser struck his back, electric shocks that made him scream in pain as his muscles tensed and then went into spasms.

“I just stiffened up, started shaking, almost convulsing,” the 26-year-old Miller said Tuesday in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

Officers arrested Miller, 26, on suspicion of interfering with a public servant and resisting arrest, then drove Miller to the same jail where Sandra Bland was found dead in her cell three months ago, one of several high-profile cases this year that have fueled a national debate about racial profiling and police use of force.

“I didn’t go to sleep until very early in the morning,” Miller, who is black, said of the incident on Oct. 8. “I didn’t know what could happen.”

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Jonathan Miller

This image from a video provided by witness Brandon Woodson shows a police encounter with Prairie View City Councilman Jonathan Miller on Oct. 8, 2015.

(Brandon Woodson )

Miller’s arrest has outraged some of his council colleagues, and Prairie View Mayor Frank Jackson has called a special council meeting with the police chief on Thursday. Miller said he would be there. 

Most of the elected officials in this historically black college town are African American, including the mayor, police chief, city council and all but one member of the small police force. 

Police Chief Larry Johnson told The Times on Tuesday that it was too early to determine whether officers used excessive force in arresting Miller, but, “if we made mistakes, we will correct them.”

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At least one council member has demanded that police release all dashboard and body camera footage so they can judge for themselves whether Miller’s arrest was warranted. Johnson said they have released the videos on YouTube, including body camera videos from the two officers involved and three dash camera videos on Tuesday.

“This is not a department that goes around violating people’s rights,” Johnson said outside City Hall after meeting with prosecutors. “We put all the videos out there so people can see we have nothing to hide. I welcome the scrutiny.”

Johnson said he was limited in what he could discuss because of the ongoing investigation and was not sure he would attend Thursday’s council meeting. 

A spokesman for the Waller County district attorney’s office said Tuesday that prosecutors were still working with police and that no charges had been filed against Miller. 

 

Jonathan Miller

An image from a video made by witness Brandon Woodson shows an encounter between Prairie View City Councilman Jonathan Miller and police, who used a stun gun on Miller when he intervened as officers questioned his friends. 

(Brandon Woodson )

Miller spoke briefly when he was released from jail Friday without bond, and after an impromptu news conference called by the mayor and police chief Monday. But he has waited to tell his story, he said, because he wanted people to watch the videos and judge for themselves.

“Once they see the video, I think people realize this didn’t have to happen,” he said.

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Video footage of Sandra Bland’s July traffic stop and authorities’ narrative of the incident helped fuel debate about the circumstances of her arrest and the police tactics involved. Bland, 28, who was black, argued with officers, was arrested and jailed. Days later, she was found dead in her cell, in what was later ruled a suicide. Her family has filed a wrongful-death suit against state and county law enforcement.

In one of the newly released videos of Miller, which does not include audio, he can be seen stepping back as a police officer steps toward him, ordering him to retreat from his friends, one of whom stands with his hands up during the interaction, eventually recording video of police actions with his phone.

Miller’s arrest came at the end of a busy day. He had been gearing up for homecoming weekend at Prairie View A&M University, his alma mater, about 50 miles northwest of Houston. Miller had spent weeks organizing a clean-up in his subdivision, and several friends -- fellow members of his Omega Psi Phi fraternity -- had returned to town to help.

They finished at about 7:30 p.m. A half-hour later, three of the men, all engineers, all African American, were standing outside Miller’s house when police rolled up.

Miller was inside, saw the officers and emerged to meet them. He knew both officers -- an African American woman and white man -- from City Council meetings. He had greeted them, shaken their hands, and recently voted to give them a raise. He considered their relationship “cordial.”

“I wanted to help,” he said, to talk to the officers he knew because, “I figured that would lessen the tension.”

Miller is an elementary and middle-school teacher who majored in education. The son of a retired school principal turned school board member, also a Prairie View graduate, he had never been arrested, never been jailed.

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He said he was not thinking about Bland’s highly publicized arrest last July. 

These were local officers who knew him, he said.

 

But Officer Michael Kelley didn’t want to talk.

“He just kept pushing me to move here, move there -- it wouldn’t suffice,” Miller said.

Instead, Kelley ushered him away.

Miller drew back, telling the officer not to touch him.

Kelley kept telling him to step further back. Miller wasn’t sure where he was supposed to go.

“When they asked me to put my hands behind my back, I was shocked and confused,” Miller said.

The officers accused him of interfering and resisting.

“How was I interfering if I moved away?” Miller said, “Where I was standing I was in no physical way of anybody.”

In the video, Office Penny Goodie can be heard telling Kelley not to use his taser on the councilman, then, after changing her mind, telling Miller that he was about to be shocked with the stun gun.

Miller, who was on his knees with his back turned, said he didn’t know what was coming.

“I don’t think I was given sufficient warning,” he said, noting he was already kneeling and “in compliance.” The zap of the taser and Miller’s pained yelp can be heard on one of the videos.

Miller said he was treated well at the jail, where officials told him his case had “gone viral” on social media. Miller called his brother — who had already seen the social media outpouring — to reassure him he was safe.

When he walked out of jail Friday morning, Miller was not surprised to see an outraged crowd waiting. Some snapped photos of his bloodied back, with the two Taser scars.

Then Miller went home to regroup. Scores of emails and messages awaited him from supporters across the country he knew him from his work with various community groups.

Miller has two other jobs, in retail and as a substitute teacher, but took time off this week to focus on his case.

“I am curious to see the videos with my fellow council members,” he said, and to hear from the police chief.

“I want to see why they think this was warranted,” Miller said.

Miller hopes police watch the videos critically, looking for ways to improve, the way he watched videos of himself during his teacher training.

“It gives them the opportunity to check themselves,” he said, and to ask: “Are we being peace officers, or just officers?”

Miller said he doesn’t believe police are the enemy, but that they used excessive force. He said that the clash was a result of poor police training, not racial profiling, and that police chiefs across the country should be alarmed.

“The use of excessive force, deadly force, needs to really be looked at and dissected to turn them into relationship-building opportunities rather than, ‘You do what I say or else,’ ” Miller said, “We’re people, just like them. Without that badge, we’re still people.”

The councilman has no intention of leaving Prairie View. Elected last May, he feels his unpaid office is “a gift.”

“What I came here to do was help this community, serve this community,” he said, “And that’s what I’m going to do.”

Twitter: @mollyhf

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