SAN FRANCISCO, CA / ACCESSWIRE / June 29, 2020 / In late spring, 1999, Bill Lockyer - then-Attorney General of California - launched a civil investigation of the Riverside Police Department following the death of Tyisha Miller.
Tyisha Miller was shot to death by four Riverside Police Officers while seated in her car. The police responded to a 911 call from a local gas station about an unconscious woman in a locked car with a handgun in her lap. They broke the glass to get to her, which is when the police claim she reached for her gun.
The police fired 23 shots, hitting Tyisha Miller 12 times. She was 19 years old.
Bill Lockyer Reflects On How the Tyisha Miller Shooting Sparked Change
On December 28, 1998, Tyisha Miller and her friend Taneisha Holley got a flat tire. Tyisha waited with the car while Taneisha went back to Rubidoux, where they lived, for help. When she returned with friends Antonette Joiner and Chilean King, Tyisha was unconscious, shaking, and drooling. The car was locked, so her companions called the police for help.
In their original report, the police reported that Tyisha had fired first, but later they retracted that statement and said they could not be sure if she had fired at all. Later, the state Department of Justice determined that the weapon could not be fired because a pin inside the gun had slipped - but it could not be determined how or when it became defunct.
People poured into the streets and protested for months afterward. Weekly marches kept the pressure on the city and demanded change.
"Her death was a tragedy," says former Attorney General Bill Lockyer. "For her family and friends, and for the community of Riverside. While we ultimately decided there was not enough evidence to pursue criminal charges, Ms. Miller's death led to unprecedented police reforms in the city of Riverside."
And indeed, a civil investigation of the Riverside Police Department was launched in response to community outcry and allegations of derogatory racial comments, an atmosphere of racial insensitivity, and racial hostility within the Riverside Police Department.
Bill Lockyer released this statement upon the commencement of the investigation:
"I take these kinds of allegations very seriously. Racial bias and intolerance are unacceptable anywhere, but especially in a professional police organization. Our law enforcement officers must demonstrate the highest standards of integrity, fairness, and justice by serving all the people in our communities. That is why I have initiated an investigation into these allegations to determine whether there have been any violations of California law, including civil rights violations."
Then-District Attorney Grover Trask and Riverside Police Chief Gerald Carroll assisted in the civil investigation. "We came together to work for the good of our citizens," says Bill Lockyer. "When something like this happens, you have to take firm and immediate action to restore the public's faith and confidence in their law enforcers. Every citizen should be served equally and be allowed to feel equally safe in their own city."
Ramifications and Reforms: Bill Lockyer Discusses the Fallout of the Miller Case
As a result of the civil investigation, on March 5, 2001, the Office of the Attorney General filed a complaint and stipulated judgment in People of the State of California, etc. v. City of Riverside. "The investigation took nearly two years," remembers Bill Lockyer. "It felt slow, but we wanted to be sure we were thorough. We wanted to be sure we were developing a true solution. We wanted to prevent this kind of tragedy from occurring ever again."
This stipulated judgment is believed to be the first consent decree to reform a local police department ever secured by a state attorney general under state law.
The judgment remained in effect for five years and required the Riverside Police Department to implement reforms in training, supervision, and accountability. The City of Riverside was also required to pay for consultant fees to assist then-Attorney General Bill Lockyer in monitoring compliance with the judgment's terms.
"The reforms included use-of-force training and purchasing less-lethal weapons," recalls Bill Lockyer. "Police were assigned to monitor specific neighborhoods and build trust with their communities. And we created a citizen oversight commission - the Community Police Review Commission - that reviews officer-involved death cases and citizen complaints."
The Community Police Review Commission is appointed by City Council members. The city's charter requires the committee to review any case in which someone is killed by a police officer, and it has the power to investigate citizen complaints - up to and including subpoena power.
"That committee still meets today," says Bill Lockyer. "It's one of the things I'm most proud of - that we were able to put justice back in the hands of the people in some way. Checks and balances are what our justice system is built upon. We needed more accountability and transparency in our police departments then. In light of the past several years, I'd say we need it now, more than ever."
On March 2, 2006, then-Attorney General Bill Lockyer concluded that the Riverside Police Department had fulfilled the conditions of the judgment, and received formal approval from the court for the judgment's dissolution. More than $22 million in legal settlements and department reforms were made during the five-year period of the consent decree.
Over 20 Years Later, We Still Have a Long Way to Go, Says Bill Lockyer
In a 2018 interview, then-Police Chief Sergio Diaz said the Riverside Police Department changed permanently after the Miller shooting. Independent review became a part of the culture, the ratio of supervisors to officers was increased, less-lethal weapons were acquired and distributed, and graveyard shifts were only assigned to more experienced officers (two of the four cops involved in Tyisha Miller's death had been on the force less than a year).
And, most importantly, officers were trained to take more time and keep more distance from potential threats. But officers still face violent altercations weekly - and Bill Lockyer worries that more is needed to de-escalate rising tensions between police officers and the communities that they serve.
"The police chief and many others said after the fact that this was the best thing to ever happen to the Riverside Police Department; it really professionalized the force," says Lockyer. "I think it makes sense to have some external review, whether federal or state, as a way to check local politics and pressures that can stand in the way of reform."
But even with these precedents being set, state oversight isn't an easy fix. The California attorney general has had the authority to intervene in local policing for 19 years (since the 2001 investigation was launched), but it has only been used a handful of times to date. Most recently, then-state attorney general and current U.S. Senator Kamala Harris launched investigations in December of 2016 into the Kern County Sheriff's Office and the Bakersfield Police Department for potential civil rights violations in response to community complaints and allegations of excessive force.
"What happened to George Floyd is a travesty," says Bill Lockyer. "The loss of his life was absolutely preventable and his death highlighted everything that's wrong with the law enforcement institution. Reforms must be made. What we did in response to Tyisha Miller's case set a precedent - but it's just the beginning, the bare minimum of the reforms that need to be implemented across the country to keep this from happening again."
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SOURCE: Bill Lockyer
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