North Texas Daily

University quiet in wake of McMillan death

University quiet in wake of McMillan death

Kristen Watson | Visuals Editor

University quiet in wake of McMillan death
January 30
03:13 2016

Dalton LaFerney | @daltonlaferney

Tiffany Ditto | @TiffanyDitto


In the wake of Ryan McMillan’s death after being shot by UNT police, there have been no university-sanctioned candle-lit vigils. The university’s public response came in the form of an email from UNT president Neal Smatresk. Family members said the university and police are not answering their questions. That will have to wait until authorities release the official police account of what happened the morning of Dec. 13, 2015.

The university’s official stance has been to defer questions to the Texas Rangers. School officials said they do not want to interfere with the Ranger investigation. And the university’s legal team is actively concealing information regarding the police department’s use of force policies.

In response to a request for information under the Freedom of Information Act, UNT’s legal counsel appealed to the Texas Attorney General’s Office for permission to withhold those policies, a standard practice for large organizations during an investigation.

The results of an investigation like this could dramatically alter the public’s perception of the event and UNT itself, and responding prematurely has the potential to muddy the already-unclear waters.

Authorities did, however, release police camera footage of the shooting to the public. It was done so when the Rangers learned other video footage, taken by witnesses, could have been released ahead of the official investigation’s closure, according to one person close to the investigation.

Denton resident Antonio Guiterrez witnessed the shooting of McMillan as he was headed toward Fry Street. He immediately began recording video in the aftermath. When vocal about obtaining footage, Guiterrez said police rushed him and friends off the scene and told him not to post the video online without giving a reason why.

“It just happened,” Guiterrez said. “ I kind of wish we never saw it.”

UNT police chief Ed Reynolds has been available to individuals asking questions, but maintains that he cannot offer any specifics. He falls in line with the UNT administration when he tells people to talk to the Texas Rangers. But place a call to the public information officer for the Rangers, Lonnie Haschel of the Texas Department of Public Safety, and you’ll find nothing still.

Police investigators are notoriously tight-lipped on officer-involved shooting investigations, and Haschel said to expect the Rangers not to reveal anything until the inquiry, which has no definite timeline, is completed.

One family member said McMillan’s wallet and keys were missing. New light could be shed on this case when the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office releases its autopsy results, expected to be available by Friday, Feb. 12, officials said.

When asked, UNT and Police Department spokeswoman Margarita Venegas could not offer insights into the university’s plan of action following McMillan’s Dec. 13 shooting death—one day after his 21st birthday. Venegas would not elaborate on who has been involved at the Hurley Administration Building, but said there are private plans in the works.

Smatresk said these are unusual circumstances.

“We were called in by the Denton Police Department for a disturbance, so this wasn’t an action on our campus by campus police,” Smatresk said, although the Denton police officially handled the vandalism inside U-Centre; UNT police encountered McMillan.

In many ways, this is uncharted territory for the university. There has never been a case of a UNT police officer shooting and killing a student, faculty or staff member, administrators said. But there have been allegations against the UNT police for abuse of authority. In 2003, for example, UNT alumnus Gus Elliott accused the campus police of brutality when officers slammed his head on the trunk of his car. Elliott suffered damage to his teeth, but after multiple appeals, the UNT police were found not guilty of brutality, Denton attorney Richard Gladden said.

None of that is to say university leaders are unaware or avoidant of the issues pertaining to the McMillan case — they just can’t talk about it, officials say. But Smatresk recently spoke about some of the aspects of the shooting and what it means for the university community. He acknowledged how vague the response has been, but nonetheless addressed the tragic nature of McMillan’s death.

“It’s sad,” Smatresk said. “It’s sad the people that were around the student didn’t help him to manage what was clearly an acute situation or episode, because by all accounts he was a good kid.”

Smatresk raised concerns about the ability of members in the community to stage an intervention when a person needs it, but says there are no specific plans or programs to educate the community in the near future.

“I’m open to suggestions,” Smatresk said. “If someone can say, ‘Here’s really what we need to do to help mitigate this,’ I’m all in, and I think all of us are.” 

Smatresk said it is routine for UNT staff to deal with interventions and student crises, but questions if everyone really knows how to help or whether previous training is sufficient.

“How do people know [to intervene]?” Smatresk said. “Do they know who to call? We need to get this word out there that we can support them and each other.”

Smatresk said he has not explored the university’s options about safety, but said talks could begin soon, though he did not offer specific plans.

“Are we doing anything specific?” Smatresk said. “The answer is those incidents were very specific but discussions about safety, on and off campus, will definitely be had.”

Director of training at the Denton Police Academy Vernell Dooley said police academies across the state teach the 21-foot rule. This is a rule of thumb for officers interacting with suspects armed with sharp-edged objects.

“It’s called a reactionary gap,” Dooley said. “Studies have shown that within a 21-foot distance my action to counteract would not be quick enough if someone was coming at me with a knife.”

According to the 21-foot rule, when a threatening person is within 21 feet of an officer with a sharp-edged weapon and is advancing toward the officer, the officer would not have enough time for their brain to signal their hands to fire their weapon before they are injured.

“It’s something that’s referenced in the use of force training,” Dooley said. “All officers [in Texas] go through this peace officer training course.”

Dooley also said the only officers that can apply to not take the use-of-force class must be officers from another state seeking a job here. These officers can apply for a waiver from the course, but must still be able to pass the peace officer test as mandated by the state of Texas.

Dooley described the 21-foot rule as a “tool” to be mindful of, but said that officers are not taught that force is the only option for every situation.

Some students have conveyed their safety concerns—both about Denton crime and police policy in general—following McMillan’s death. Political science senior Hope Myers, who lives at U Centre, is critical of Cpl. Stephen Bean’s decision to shoot 21-year-old McMillan.

“I wish police would just disarm them instead of shooting to kill,” Myers said.

Communication studies senior Ranae Fithian was critical of UNT’s response, the e-Blast sent by Smatresk. She didn’t like the wording of the email and she noted how the community rallied together after the death of UNT student Sara Mutschlechner over the break.

“It seemed like it blamed the cops,” Fithian said. “If someone’s coming at me with an axe, I’m going to shoot them. It’s a self-defense kind of thing. But then again, [the situation] was sad.”

Staff writers Adalberto Toledo and Chelsea Watkins contributed to this report.

Featured Image: A small cross was put out near the spot Ryan McMillan was shot. Kristen Watson | Visuals Editor

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  1. Keith
    Keith January 28, 08:21

    Would it be possible to get this clarification put into the article: The 21-foot Rule is for an officer facing a sharp-edge attacker when the officer (1) has his/her handgun HOLSTERED and SNAPPED IN and (2) the possible attacker has his/her weapon already RAISED IN A THREATENING manner.

    In videos released by the police to forestall any that might be released by citizens (as you imply in your article), the officer appears to have had his weapon out and leveled at Ryan MacMillan from the moment of exiting the squad car. Ryan MacMillan does keep slowly advancing on the officer and does keep screaming, “Just Shoot me!!!” However, MacMillan never raises the weapon and only leans over in order to yell. This leaning-into-the-yell has been interpreted by many comments here and at DRC–in earlier articles–as a clear justification for seeing real threat of harm. Was it?

    I quote at length from the website (2005 article) on the misinterpretation of the rule:

    “Unfortunately, some officers and apparently some trainers as well have ‘streamlined’ the 21-Foot Rule in a way that gravely distorts its meaning and exposes them to highly undesirable legal consequences,” Lewinski says. Namely, they have come to believe that the Rule means that a subject brandishing an edged weapon when positioned at any distance less than 21 feet from an officer can justifiably be shot.

    For example, an article on the 21-Foot Rule in a highly respected LE magazine states in its opening sentence that “a suspect armed with an edged weapon and within twenty-one feet of a police officer presents a deadly threat.” The “common knowledge” that “deadly force against him is justified” has long been “accepted in police and court circles,” the article continues.

    Statements like that, Lewinski says, “have led officers to believe that no matter what position they’re in, even with their gun on target and their finger on the trigger, they are in extreme danger at 21 feet. They believe they don’t have a chance of surviving unless they preempt the suspect by shooting.

    “However widespread that contaminated interpretation may be, it is NOT accurate. A suspect with a knife within 21 feet of an officer is POTENTIALLY a deadly threat. He does warrant getting your gun out and ready. But he cannot be considered an actual threat justifying deadly force until he takes the first overt action in furtherance of intention–like starting to rush or lunge toward the officer with intent to do harm. Even then there may be factors besides distance that influence a force decision.

    “So long as a subject is stationary or moving around but not advancing or giving any indication he’s about to charge, it clearly is not legally justified to use lethal force against him. Officers who do shoot in those circumstances may find themselves subject to disciplinary action, civil suits or even criminal charges.”

    Reply to this comment
    • LC
      LC February 08, 22:11

      Could not agree more with the above comment- or have stated it so well!
      Thank you for educating the masses who are so opinionated & unaware of the situation!

      Reply to this comment

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