A Tale of Two Police Killings

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Ph.D.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson


On February 4 Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo was riddled with bullets by four white New York Police officers as he entered his apartment building. One month earlier 19 year old Tyisha Miller was riddled with bullets by four non-black Riverside, California police officers as she sat in her car in a near comatose state. On March 31 after dozens of marches, demonstrations, and hundreds of arrests the four New York officers were indicted for second degree murder. Three days earlier on March 28 Riverside city officials claimed they needed more time to complete their investigation into the Miller shooting.

The Miller and Diallo killings ignited a firestorm of national outrage and even prompted President Clinton to anguish that he was "deeply disturbed" about police violence. But the big question is will Riverside police and city officials whitewash the Miller shooting? The parallels between the two killings are too eerily similar for this to happen.

In both cases the evidence is damning that neither Miller or Diallo were engaged in a criminal act, and posed no real threat to authorities. The Diallo shooting tossed an ugly national spotlight on police abuse of mostly blacks and Latinos in New York City. The Miller shooting tossed that same spotlight on police abuse by some police officers of blacks and Latinos in Riverside. A three year comparison by the Riverside Press-Enterprise of the practices of Riverside police with those in other California cities of similar size found:

  • A significant increase in number of police use of force incidents in 1998.AA significant increase in the number of excessive force complaints against officers

  • A near total absence of any disciplinary action by police or city officials against the officers.

  • A far higher arrest rate of blacks and Latinos even though the city is still predominantly white.

The pattern of police abuse in Riverside and New York City are mirrored in dozens of cities nationally. In its annual report on police violence in America, Amnesty International warned that more police are using chock holds, chemical sprays, and electric shocks as well as punching, beating, kicking people who pose little or no threat than ever. The nearly 12, 000 complaints of police abuse in 1996 almost matched the total number for the entire period from 1984 and 1990. To better aid law enforcement agencies and federal prosecutors track patterns of abuse, the Violent Crime and Control Act of 1994 authorized the Justice Department to collect data on the frequency and types of police abuse complaints. At the end of 1998 it still had not issued any report on the level of police misconduct in America.

Despite the soaring number of police abuse complaints officials in most U.S. cities are still just as reluctant to speak out. District Attorneys are still just as reluctant to prosecute officers guilty of misconduct. In the rare case they do juries are still just as reluctant to convict them. In the even rarer cases where they do convict them, judges are still just as reluctant to impose stiff sentences on them.

The Miller case is a classic example of how city officials jump through loops to avoid any public criticism of police. Riverside's mayor blasted Jesse Jackson for critical remarks about the police, and the city is paying $315 hourly to a public relations firm to spruce up the city's battered image. Even if the official report finds the Miller shooting "unjustified," the DA will still have to decide whether to file charges against the officers. This is hardly a given.

If Riverside officials take no action would the Feds prosecute? In March Attorney General Janet Reno told black leaders that the Justice Department has prosecuted 100 police officers for misconduct and there are 300 more cases under investigation. But these are anemic numbers when compared to the escalating level of police violence nationally. The feds claim they canít nail more rogue cops because they are hamstrung by the lack of funds and staff, victims who arenít perceived as criminals, credible witnesses, and the publicís inclination to always believe police testimony. They also claim they are pinned in by the almost impossible requirement that they prove an officer had the specific intent to kill or injure a victim in order to get a conviction. These are tough obstacles to overcome and since the Justice Department is in the business of winning cases many prosecutors donít even make an effort to prosecute police misconduct cases.

The hide-their-head-in-the-sand indifference, duck-for-cover callousness, and circle the wagons defense by many city officials of even high magnitude atrocities such as the Diallo shooting is familiar and predictable. It took a determined effort by thousands in New York to overcome this and hopefully get some justice for Diallo. The tragedy is that Tyisha Miller may not get the same.

Riverside city officials say they will release the report on the Miller shooting April 28. Let them know that she must get justice too!
Fax, or email this message "No whitewash of the Tyisha Miller shooting" to:
Riverside Mayor Ronald Loveridge
email: rloveridge@ci.riverside.ca.us
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black. email:ehutchi344@aol.com

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