Out of Character

root - Posted on 01 February 2000

Mentally disabled homeless resident of San Diego shot by Police

by Kaponda

The voice that traveled through his consciousness was silenced by a lethal 9-millimeter weapon. Ever fastened to the distant memories of William Anthony Miller are the final words that prevailed in his hearing before the stream of bullets ended the final chapter of his life. Lying mortally wounded on Skyline Boulevard, William Anthony Miller became another victim whose blood could be traced to the guns of the San Diego Police Department.

The ghastly incident occurred not too far from the San Diego Mental Health Institute. On February 15, 2000, a mentally challenged San Diegan had been acting out on Skyline Boulevard by waving a three-foot palm frond at passersby. One of the passersby, a cyclist, had been struck on the head by the branch. In the shadows were employees of a restaurant who were familiar with the congenial nature of Mr. Miller. According to an account given by Norma Rossi of the San Diego Coalition on Homelessness, the restaurant's employees observed Mr. Miller's behavior and immediately recognized him to be "out of character."

The stainless steel baton marked the latest instrument of crime-fighting weapons used by the San Diego Police. It complemented the 9-millimeter gun and pepper spray each policeman can use in dire situations. This morning was different, however. In addition to the usual display of weapons, also present were multiple squad cars, police dogs and helicopters flying overhead.

A witness, a criminal law professor who was interviewed after the incident, was quoted as saying, "A palm branch was an inadequate weapon." Another witness, Reverend Glenn Ellison, director of Interfaith Shelter Network, speaking at a City Council meeting, stated, "It was obvious to anyone that he was mentally retarded."

In the backdrop of the County Health Mental Institute and encompassed by squad cars, dogs and helicopters, the police barked a command to Mr. Miller to drop the palm frond.

What did Mr. Miller hear? Was it the vicious barks of the canine dog behind him lurching towards him, or was it the howling of the police to get him to stand-down? The answer was delivered into needless obscurity. After six minutes of unsuccessful efforts by the police to reason with an "obviously" mentally challenged person, Mr. Miller was put down by a hail of gun fire.

On Tuesday, February 22, 2000, San Diego City Council met concerning the use of deadly force by the San Diego Police Department, and to discuss accountability and police procedures. The meeting primarily was called by the City Council in an effort to clean up the appearance of the San Diego Police Department. The San Diego Police Department has a lethal-force policy which states, "No officer shall discharge a firearm in performance of duty except when the officer has a reasonable belief that a subject poses an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or others." Had Mr. Miller posed an imminent threat or bodily harm to any officer's life? According to the testimonies of many witnesses, including the criminal law professor and the Reverend, there was grave concern over the role that the policemen played in the death of William Anthony Miller.

In the last 10 years, only two policemen have died in the line of duty in San Diego. This statistic suggests the immense respect that the residents of San Diego show toward their finest. However, In the last 12 months, five homeless people have died from aggressive police tactics. Conversely, this statistic suggests the immense disrespect the San Diego Police shows toward their homeless and mentally disabled. The San Diego City Council proposed two recommendations:

1) More police training; and

2) Beanbag guns.

In response to Mr. Miller's death, the San Diego Committee Against Police Brutality held a protest at the new, $13 million police station on 5th and Imperial, located in a poor, ethnically diverse neighborhood.

Among other concerns of people located in this neighborhood is, how can the City of San Diego construct a $13 million building for the police and not allocate money for half-way or residential homes where homeless and mentally disabled people can receive care and medication? The only family shelter in San Diego, St. Vincent DePaul, recently loss funding and with the governmental dismantling of Mckinney, the mentally disabled were thrown out in the streets without a place to stay.

The San Diego Internal Affairs Division is currently investigating the death of William Anthony Miller. It will pass its findings to the Citizen's Police Review Board, which oversees police activity but cannot change the findings of Internal Affairs. If the Board is dissatisfied with the findings, its only recourse is to take the matter to the City Manager, the proverbial bureaucratic loop.

The death of Mr. Miller has broken the silence in the community of San Diego over the conduct of policemen. No one will ever know which voice dominated the ears of Mr. Miller during those last moments of his ill-fated demise. However, his death has produced a voice for homeless and mentally disabled people that has resonated throughout the state.


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