By Mary Shelton
Even though it has been nearly five years since the shooting death of Tyisha Miller, Riverside residents still showed how close it was to their hearts when they appeared enmass first at an organizing meeting and then at a city council meeting to protest against a judges ruling to reinstate one of her killers, former Riverside Police Department officer Wayne Stewart.
Over 30 people appeared at a 1 p.m. session of City Council on May 6 to tell its members to do the right thing by not allowing Stewart to return to work, before the council discussed the case behind closed doors.
Pastor Jesse Wilson, president of the Tyisha Miller Steering Committee, said that the city should not reinstate Stewart and instead should appeal the ruling at the California State Court of Appeals.
This would be a terrible time to send a signal that we are not convinced this officer needs to be removed from the force, said Wilson.
Speaker after speaker walked up to the podium to voice their agreement with Wilson and to push the city to continue to fight Stewarts efforts to return to the police force.
Joan Miller, Tyisha Millers grandmother, said that the family had already suffered through the shooting and believed Stewarts reinstatement would continue to add to their pain as well as that of the city.
Weve been slapped in the face by the murder and the blowing out of the brains in the back of her head, she said. We dont want to be slapped again by you not choosing to appeal the ruling of this judge.
That judge was Charles E. Stafford, based in Indio, who was assigned the case after all the Riverside County Superior Court judges in Riverside recused themselves. He decided that Stewart should return to the force with full back pay from the four years he was sidelined.
Several speakers implored the council not to be beholden to the Riverside Police Department or the Police Officers Association but to all of Riversides residents.
Jim Martin, who ran for city council in 1999, said that the council needed to represent the wishes of everyone by not returning a bad apple to the force.
Pastor Robert Edwards, from the Kansas Avenue Seventh Day Aventist Church criticized the citys earlier decision to settle with former officer Michael Alagna by giving him $50,000 of his annual salary tax-free for a life, not life, but a life.
One woman spoke in support of reinstating Stewart back on the force, and told the council how her son was spending 20 years in prison after being convicted of a hate crime involving an attack on a Black man in Temecula several years ago. She said that the officer had made a mistake and should be allowed to return to work. She added that the Black community was engaging in blackmail against the city by demonstrating against the killing of Miller.
Its been five years. Get over it, she said.
One speaker also addressed earlier comments made by Councilman Ed Adkison that the city had already spent too much money on the case by saying that the city has spent even more money fighting two other cases, both involving racial discrimination against African-American city employees to avoid settling them.
A lawsuit filed by Rommel Dunbar and 16 other Black city employees in U.S. District Court in 1997 has been fought by the city every step of the way despite the evidence, resulting in the expenditure of thousands of dollars as has a 1999 law suit filed by Black police officer Roger Sutton in the county civil courts.
The decision to speak out against the reinstatement at the city council meeting arose from a community meeting held the previous evening at the Kansas Ave Seventh Day Adventist Church in the Eastside which attracted over 50 people, all united in their opposition to the reinstatement of Stewart.
Wilson said that the community was outraged at any chance that Stewart might return to policing the streets of Riverside.
"The anger is as fresh today as it was five years ago," he said as many people nodded their heads in agreement. "Her blood is screaming from the ground."
Woodie Rucker Hughes, president of Riverside's chapter of the NAACP, agreed and said the community must do whatever it takes -- protests, civil disobedience or pursuing legal channels -- to keep Stewart and the other officers off the force.
"Whatever it takes," she said, "With his return, we will be afraid for our own lives."
SCLC Riverside Chapter president Rev. James Baylark said that only a collective effort can prevail, and joined others who condemned the judge's ruling to reinstate Stewart.
"We do not support murder in the streets," he said, "We do not put murderers back on the streets."
Stewart's return would send an already troubled police department many steps backward in its efforts to reform under the consent decree that the city of Riverside signed with State Attorney General Bill Lockyer in March 2001. More than one person suggested that a community delegation should meet with Lockyer to discuss this issue, arguing that Stewart's reinstatement might be in violation of the decree.
The ruling brought back memories of the tragic shooting and Stewarts conduct during and afterwards.
On Dec. 28, 1998, Stewart and three other officers shot Miller 12 times in the back or the back of her head after responding to a medical distress call. At first the officers alleged that she fired her gun at them, but the gun was determined to be inoperable.
After the shooting, Stewart and officer Michael Alagna hi-fived and all the officers including their sergeant, Gregory Preece laughed, joked, made racial remarks and reinacted the shooting, according to former officer Rene Rodriguez and Miller's family members. According to Rodriguez, Stewart continued joking at the General Investigation Bureau while the officers were being interviewed about the shooting. When Stewart asked if he could get more time off after the shooting, another officer told him it depended on his emotional state.
"I'll try to act real distraught," Stewart then said sarcastically.
Many speakers expressed concern on how Riverside's city government was returning to its past roots of the 1950s, rather than moving forward embracing a new millennium.
Tanya Humphries said that more African-Americans need to get involved in the political process and that the city council elections this fall were crucial because if more "angry wealthy white men got elected, it would be like returning to the 1950s. She said that they, like current council members Ed Adkison and Frank Schiavone who voiced their opposition to appealing the judge's ruling, won't understand why people are so upset because it is not real to them.
The Riverside Police Officer's Association had endorsed and financially supported both Adkison and Schiavone during previous elections and recently announced its support for Art Gage who is running for the Third Ward council seat this fall. Humphries and others said how important it was for people to register and vote because elected officials at the local levels play a larger role in people's lives than those at the state and national level.
The city council had not released a decision on how it is planning to handle the Stewart case by press time.
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