Before Texas Killing, Officer took Unusual Path to Police Work

May 11, 2017

By Manny Fernandez and Patrick McGee
The New York Times
Thursday, August 13, 2015
Page A1

ARLINGTON, Tex. — Officer James Bradley Miller was not a typical rookie in the Police Department here. At 49, he was six years older than the chief. He discovered law enforcement relatively late in life, after struggling for decades in an array of jobs and careers.

He had been a hairdresser since 2006, and his state-issued cosmetologist license was still valid as he underwent his field training as a probationary officer. At the RazlDazl salon, where he specialized in women’s coloring and highlights, he boasted in a résumé he posted online in 2010 that he had “numerous repeat clients and standing appointments.”

He created two website-hosting companies, BlueToaster and Electric Halo, and worked in marketing at several firms, including a medical equipment company, producing corporate videos and planning product introductions.

But friends said he was dissatisfied, and the marketing-manager-turned-hairdresser began to take an interest in law enforcement, influenced in part by one of his neighbors, an Arlington police officer.

“He was kind of a guy that was searching for his direction,” said the Rev. Gary Smith, the senior pastor at Fielder Church in Arlington and a friend of Officer Miller, who used to trim the pastor’s hair at the now-closed RazlDazl. “He watched his next-door neighbor and saw the impact he made for good as a policeman and that was one of the things that drew him to that. He wanted to be a guy who did more than sell widgets. He wanted to make a difference.”

In the early morning hours last Friday, Officer Miller ventured into a fast-paced encounter with a burglary suspect in a car dealership that left the suspect, an unarmed college football player, dead. That led to Officer Miller’s dismissal from the force and put him in the center of public scrutiny, criticism and outrage.

He had his state peace-officer license a mere 19 weeks and was two hours shy of completing his field training when he shot 19-year-old Christian Taylor to death after Mr. Taylor vandalized a car and broke into the dealership. Beyond his eclectic work life, he had known both sides of the law in a way few officers ever do.

Two months before the shooting, his father-in-law, Lester Leroy Bower, who spent three decades on death row for murdering a sheriff’s deputy and three other men, was executed in the state’s death chamber in Huntsville. He had two daughters, and was represented at their weddings by a candle, according to an article in The Dallas Morning News about the Bower family. Officer Miller did not attend the execution in June, but his mother-in-law did.

The Arlington police chief, Will D. Johnson, asked the F.B.I. to participate in and review its investigation of Mr. Taylor’s killing. The special agent in charge of the Dallas F.B.I. office, Thomas M. Class Sr., said in a statement that the bureau was not involved in the local investigations. But he said that Arlington police officials were sharing information “regarding the facts of the case with our office in an effort to assist investigators in determining if a potential federal civil rights violation has occurred.”

Mr. Miller is white and Mr. Taylor was black, but Chief Johnson has said he saw nothing to suggest “there was any kind of racial bias.” The chief has been praised by African-American leaders and activists — as well as by Mr. Taylor’s relatives — for his swift decision to fire Mr. Miller and his handling of the shooting’s aftermath.

The former officer has his own supporters. His lawyer, John Snider, called the firing, “an insult to the rank and file officers who put their lives on the line every day.” Some Arlington officers circulated a picture of Chief Johnson on their cellphones with the caption: “I don’t always have an officer involved shooting … but when I do, I throw that officer to the wolves.”

Mr. Miller graduated in 1989 from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, with a bachelor’s degree in radio, television and film. He pursued a marketing career after graduation, but by 2005 he had enrolled at the Ogle School, a cosmetology program.

He graduated two months ahead of his contract date and received an award for perfect attendance, according to his online résumé. He established his own business, the Red Banana Salon, in 2006, but four years later, he and his wife, Leslea Miller, had financial troubles, and filed for bankruptcy. One week before the shooting, the couple marked a milestone in their case — an order was issued discharging them as debtors after they completed a bankruptcy repayment plan.

Mr. Miller and his wife, a hairdresser, live in a red-brick, one-story home at the end of a cul-de-sac eight miles from the car dealership. On Wednesday, the white frame of a Jeep sat on blocks in the driveway, apparently a restoration project. No one responded to knocks on the front door.

Pastor Smith said Mr. Miller had a close companion on his path to becoming a first responder: his son from a previous marriage, James Nathan Miller, a firefighter in Arlington, who graduated from the fire academy last month. Father and son would head to the gym together as they were preparing to pass their physical exams, the pastor said.

A posting on the Police Department Facebook page in July congratulated Mr. Miller for the fact that his son had just graduated from fire academy.

“This is one proud father and son moment!” it read. “A.P.D. Officer Brad Miller who just recently joined Arlington was on hand as his son James Nathan Miller was graduating from the Arlington Fire Academy. Thank you both for serving our great community! Awesome!”

Pastor Smith said he did not want to rush to judgment about Mr. Miller’s actions last Friday night. “I’m going to leave that to the courts,” he said. “He’s lost his dream. To expect of him some Superman, supernatural perfection in what he does, is unrealistic. He just found himself in a very challenging situation that the majority of us would never find ourselves in, and had to make a tough choice in a critical moment.”