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Tyisha Miller's Killers reinstated by arbitrator

by reprint from Press Enterprise Sunday, Jan. 20, 2002 at 12:46 AM

Over three years after the tragic shooting of Tyisha Miller by Riverside Police Department officers, an independent arbitrator has ruled that officers Michael Alagna and Wayne Stewart should never have been fired and every attempt should be made to repair their damaged reputations...

Officers should be reinstated, arbitrator says

TYISHA MILLER: Riverside has other options. The lawyer for the two men still dislikes the ruling.




RIVERSIDE - An arbitrator has found that two of the Riverside police officers who fatally shot Tyisha Miller in 1998 were wrongly fired and should be reinstated for at least six months.

The terminations of Mike Alagna and Wayne Stewart constituted "an abuse of administrative discretion" by then Police Chief Jerry Carroll, according to arbitrator Robert D. Steinberg of Culver City.

Tyisha Miller was fatally shot by Riverside police officers on Dec. 28, 1998.

The officers made some mistakes, but they were minor, correctable with better training and were "understandable" given the events that led up to the killing of the 19-year-old black woman, Steinberg wrote.

Miller's death, which put Riverside in the national spotlight, sparked allegations of racism within the force and precipitated long-term change in the department, including a court-stipulated reform agreement with the state attorney general's office.

Steinberg said the shooting was not racially motivated and the officers believed Miller would have died had they not tried to help her.

"They acted in accordance with their training and experience, and they did not deserve to have their careers and reputations ruined merely because of an adverse result," he wrote in the findings.

But Steinberg's findings, obtained by The Press-Enterprise, are far from a clear victory for the former officers, who have contested their firings for more than two years.

Although the findings spell out why Steinberg believes the decision to fire the officers was wrong, his ruling still allows the city to terminate the officers on or after April 30.

The decision is "the most incomprehensively stupid disposition of a disciplinary action that I have ever seen," said Santa Monica attorney Bill Hadden, who represents Alagna and Stewart.

City Councilman Ameal Moore, who has opposed any possibility that the officers might return to duty, said he remains confident in the decision to fire them, and the reasons Carroll gave in doing so.

"My position certainly has not changed and will not change," Moore said. "I am not for them coming back to the force, at all, period, under any circumstances. I do not believe in rewarding people for bad behavior."

Hadden contends that the facts of the case and the arbitrator's ruling that the officers did nothing substantially wrong and were unjustly fired are inconsistent with his remedy.

"It's obviously an attempt by the arbitrator to offer some kind of political solution to what is an employee discipline case. He's got no right to do that," Hadden said.

Steinberg's final report was issued Dec. 31, after the officers' attorney had appealed an earlier finding that, although the firings were wrong, the city did not have to take the former officers back.

Hadden said Steinberg's jurisdiction already had expired when he made the second ruling.

The decision is the latest twist in a saga that began when Alagna, Stewart and two other officers, Dan Hotard and Paul Bugar, shot Miller, a Rubidoux resident, on Dec. 28, 1998.

Community reaction

The arbitrator's ruling likely will not settle the case. The city or the officers can appeal Steinberg's decision in Superior Court. Hadden said: "Absent some immediate action by the city to bring them back to work, we will be in court very shortly."

City officials declined to discuss the arbitrator's findings, which are scheduled for discussion by the City Council in a Feb. 5 closed session.

Richard Roth, the attorney representing the city in the arbitration, is on military duty and could not be reached. Carroll, the former chief who fired the officers, also could not be reached for comment by phone or at his home.

The Rev. Bernell Butler, who acted as spokesman for Tyisha Miller's family, said the family had not heard anything.

"We'll look for the worst and hope for the best, and try to deal with whichever way it goes," Butler said. "I hope they do not get their jobs back because it would send the wrong message to police officers."

The president of the Riverside Police Officers' Association called the decision a "partial victory" for Alagna and Stewart but said it is unclear what will happen next.

"I think it's still up in the air right now. I don't feel 110 percent confident that it's been resolved," Officer Pat McCarthy said.

Arbitration findings

On Oct. 31, Steinberg ruled that the officers deserve back pay and, if they are not returned to duty, 8 1/2 months of pay as damages. He said the firing of the officers "was not for just cause and was an abuse of administrative discretion." He also found that Alagna deserved a written reprimand for standing in front of Miller's idling car when he could have been hurt or killed.

Steinberg's amended ruling on Dec. 31 determined that:

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