85 Shots

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

Steven "Butter" Miller, age 30, awoke on Sunday, July 8, thinking that someone ought to make him breakfast. He called his little sister, Tae, and said, "Make me some pancakes." Tae said no, so he called his boy Scotch. "Make me some breakfast," he said this time. Scotch put his girl, Lainey, on the phone, and Lainey told Butter to come on over. Butter said he would stop at P-mart on the way, pick up some sausages.

Lifting up his 6-foot, 200-pound frame, Butter adorned himself with a bright yellow T-shirt — even on a lazy Sunday, he liked to be noticed — and hopped into a gray Mustang he'd borrowed. Butter had been borrowing cars a lot lately, sometimes to try to strike up business deals. Ever since his last birthday, he'd been assaulted by the thought that he needed to make some moves. Sometimes it seemed all he'd done in life was accumulate nicknames: first "Butter Bean," during his early childhood in South Philadelphia, when his mother was swept up in the crack epidemic; then "Butter" when it became apparent he had the ability to make girls melt. For efficiency's sake, his boys shortened "Butter" to "Bud." And then there was "Shame," a play on the name of his favorite boxer, Shane Mosley, which he had bestowed on himself. It was his rap name.

Rap. Rap was to Butter what Butter was to certain women: something they loved, and couldn't leave, even when it did them wrong. He'd been the first kid in his crew to tote a big boom box, blasting Naughty by Nature, and when he began rapping, he found it suited him: He was an emotional man, and it was a manly way to express emotion. At the same time, it often seemed that the love Bud had for rap was less than mutual. He was growing tired of the sting of rejection and, even worse, the numbness of being ignored by record companies. In the intro to his song "My Bio," he spoke over the track: "We went from nobodies, to somebodies." But it was just a hip-hop cliché. It wasn't true.

Rap also conjured thoughts of Butter's other great frustration: the street. In his teens, Bud had been seduced by the fast life. He'd sold drugs and packed guns. He'd been locked up as a result, both as a juvenile and an adult, and had gotten himself shot, so that his left hand hung limp and his boys busted on him that it needed Viagra. Nowadays, he was gravitating more toward the straight life. But his arrest record extended as late as November 2006, when he was accused of carjacking (he beat the charge), and when he rapped, he embraced the gangsta tradition, speaking proudly of, and even exaggerating, his ghetto pedigree. It was a complex relationship between Bud and the street.

Scotch and Lainey lived with their two kids in a small row home on a quiet street in Upper Darby. Scotch, aka Daniel Williams, was Bud's boy from back in South Philly. They'd grown up playing video games together, and were now rapping partners — the two primary members of the group DLK (Down Low Killaz). Scotch the Down Low Killa held a steady job in medical billing. He was four years Bud's junior, but had already managed to secure a modest, comfortable life as a backup to his dreams of stardom.

"Where's Shorts at?" Bud said as he came in the door, using his nickname for Lainey. He wanted to be sure she was working on breakfast.

The three soon settled in for cheese eggs, waffles and sausage — turkey sausage, because Bud was Muslim. He sat at the head of the table, and, as usual, played a leading role in conversation. He talked about the dilemma of liking a girl your friend used to date; he spoke hypothetically, but was actually thinking of a specific ex-girlfriend of Scotch's. This was probably why his friends sometimes called him "Hidden Agendas." But he didn't think Scotch knew what was going on.

In the middle of breakfast, Bud had a strange moment. He rose from the table to get something from the kitchen, and when he returned, he thought his plate was missing.

"Where's my plate?" he asked, thinking someone was clowning him.

Scotch, looking confused, gestured to the table where Bud had been sitting. "It's right there, cat-daddy," he said. Bud saw that it was. He sat back down.

After breakfast, at Bud's insistent prodding, Scotch went down to the basement to burn a couple of CDs for industry contacts in Atlanta. Bud sat down on the living room couch and confided in Lainey that he was thinking of a specific girl — and that he thought he might be in love with her. Lainey smiled, both at Bud's charm and at his dramatic tendencies.

A little later in the day, Cece came over. Cece, an attractive young woman, was a neighbor of Scotch and Lainey's, and an old friend of the crew. Because she worked long hours in her medical billing job, racking up overtime, they rarely saw her. Bud in particular had not seen her in a long time. She'd recently given birth, and had her new child with her. Bud took the baby into his arms.

"Seeing you like this makes me want to have another baby," he told Cece.

They chatted for a while, and Bud told Cece she worked too damn much.

"Life's too short to work hard," he said.

After 3 p.m., he headed back to South Philly, to his sister Tae's house.

Sometimes Bud felt jealous of Scotch's life in Upper Darby. Bud lived in a run-down house in Point Breeze, on a hectic block of Taney Street, which, earlier in the year, had a police car planted on it to quell the constant violence. Bud didn't like the drama or the police, and he'd recently signed up for a GED course, and drawn up a résumé, with the intention of getting out of South Philly.

But he wasn't thrilled about the idea of dialing back his musical ambitions. Bud was the kind of guy who liked to walk down the street, and if he saw his sister looking stressed about rent, hand her some bills. He enjoyed both children and the process of making children — he already had six, by three women — and he believed in taking care of them. His grandmother, Miss Audrey, who raised him, was sick, and his father, who didn't raise him, had recently moved into Bud's house. In short, Bud needed to be big time. He'd already promised his family that when he made it, he'd take care of all of them.

Tae was just getting ready for a nap when Bud arrived. She had two fans trained on her. Bud took one and turned it on himself.

"You don't need it," he said. "I was just outside."

Tae, short for LaTae, was one of Butter's six siblings. They hadn't grown up together, but were close now. Butter swung by her place nearly every day. They'd planned to go out the previous night, up on South Street, where Bud liked to shop for clothes, but Bud had called too late, and Tae had gone to bed. Now she was going to sleep again. She said she'd call him when she woke.

It was about 5:30 when Bud left Tae's and headed home. He stopped on his corner, Taney and Tasker, to bullshit with some neighbors. Then he walked south on Taney Street. His house was on his left, about halfway down; across the street, he saw his boy Tyree Bullock. Tyree, a lanky guy with an assortment of scars, was a childhood friend of Bud's. The two had played together in the Wilson Park projects, and bagged groceries for loot at Blair's when their respective families were torn apart by crack. They'd grown apart when Bud started hustling, and didn't see much of each other for a few years. But they remained cool, and when Bud moved onto Taney, they began seeing each other often. Tyree was a reminder that, whatever his future, Bud was South Philly, and South Philly was Bud.

Looking across the street, Bud called out a friendly hello. Then he went into his house.

For all intents and purposes, that was the end of Steven "Butter" Miller.

There was no great sense of mission that brought Kevin Bethel to the police force.

"I was just a young buck, then 22 years old, looking for a good job," says the Southwest Philly native. Twenty-one years later, Capt. Bethel's speech has become an amalgam of slang and pseudo-military police dialect, and he finds himself charged with the daunting task of bringing order to Philly's 17th District.

The 17th District includes the area boxed in by Washington Avenue on the north, Broad Street on the east, and Tasker Homes on the west. When, in 2005, the police department decided to try to address the murder epidemic by "flooding" troubled areas with police presence, they pioneered the program here, because of the area's disturbingly high number of shootings. One neighborhood in the district has been nicknamed "Little Beirut" by inhabitants, and Commissioner Sylvester Johnson says of the area: "If you've spent three months in the 17th, you're an experienced officer."

"We have some pockets that can be volatile at times," Bethel says diplomatically of his district. "Some of these pockets have significant drug sales. It's a challenge."

Bethel calls his policing approach "holistic," by which he means he tries to engage the community with more than handcuffs. In the year and a half he's headed the 17th, he's been pushing a Safe Corridors program to help walk kids to school, and a youth violence intervention. He holds a community meeting the second Tuesday of every month, and says he attends almost any other meeting he's invited to. There have been some successes. In 2005, there were eight shooting incidents on a single corner, Taney and Tasker. A police car was stationed down there more or less permanently, and in 2006, there was just a single shooting.

But the trouble with a policing approach that engages a community is that the police and the community don't always engage so well. Yes, there are people in the 17th who are quietly happy to see the colorful mouse ears of a squad car parked outside their window. One elderly lady on Taney Street sent Bethel a thank-you note after the violence on her block was stanched. But others, he says, "just shut us out." There is, of course, the stop-snitchin' culture working against the police — people decline to cooperate with the cops out of fear, and out of a sense that cops are outsiders. But there's a more personal tension, too. If you walk the streets of the district and talk to people, many will describe the cops as malicious aggressors who will "jump out" on you for no reason, search you without cause and generally abuse their badge. The cops are viewed as a danger.

The extreme manifestation of this, of course, is when police turn their guns on citizens — something that's been happening more and more lately. Between 1998 and 2002, there was an average of five civilian fatalities from police fire per year, citywide. In 2006, there were 22, and thus far this year there have been nine.

It's a troubling trend, and it exacerbates distrust between police and community — especially when the shootings are questionable. Bethel knows this, but thinks it's a mistake to ascribe ill motives to police who fire their weapons. As a young cop, he had to use his service weapon: He saw a man kill another man, and then chased down the killer and shot him.

"Eighteen years later and I've never used my weapon again," he says. "To think we walk out the door with the intention of killing somebody — oh, my goodness."

It was Butter, but it wasn't Butter who emerged from 615 S. Taney St. about a half-hour after leaving his sister's house. This man was shirtless and disheveled. His eyes appeared blank, empty, like a house with its lights off and three newspapers on the porch. And he was holding a gun.

He made the brief descent down his staircase and stood in front of his stoop. Those empty eyes focused on the floor, and his hands, gun included, swayed gently back and forth in front of his midsection, the way a rapper might keep pace with a slow beat. He was muttering:

"Fuck, man. Fuck them. Fuck it. I'm doing things for motherfuckers and motherfuckers stab me in my back."

Taney Street is generally crowded with people, and at 6 p.m. on a hot Sunday, it was bustling. People sat on porches, kids played in the street. But as it became evident that Butter was not Butter, and that he was holding a gun, neighbors began to retreat to their houses, to watch out their doors.

Tyree went up to his friend.

"Butter," he said, "What the fuck? What you doin'?"

Butter just kept muttering.

"I'm tired of this shit," he said.

Tyree reached out to try to take the gun, but Butter swung his arm out of the way, then turned and blocked Tyree from the weapon, using his body like a basketball player separating the ball from a defender.

"Fuck that," he said, and set out the way he came, walking up the street toward the intersection of Taney and Tasker. Tyree went after him, against the advice of two neighbors.

"I know if the cops come, they gonna kill him regardless," he told them.

In the approximately five minutes between when Butter left his house and when he stood in the intersection, cars swerving around him, 911 received 14 calls reporting a man waving a gun around on Taney Street. Now, police arrived on Tasker, a half-block from Taney in each direction — six of them, with guns drawn. They called out for Butter to drop his weapon. For four minutes, they issued orders.

But Butter wasn't there.

The last cop to arrive on the scene was a heavyset black man who came running up the 600 block of Taney, from the south end. He passed Butter's house, and saw in front of him a perfectly symmetrical cityscape: a straightaway corridor of row homes and parked cars, with a single figure in the middle.

Tyree approached the cop.

"Let me get the gun from him. You can't shoot him, something's wrong," he said.

The cop shoved him aside. He yelled once.

"Drop the damn gun!"

Maybe it was something in Butter's staggering and swaying that made the cop think Butter was aiming at him. Maybe Butter actually did. Maybe the cop just started shooting.

He got off two initial shots, both of which, witnesses said, missed Butter and sailed clear up Taney, one of them lodging in a parked car. The officers on Tasker, perhaps thinking the deranged man was firing at them, began to shoot.

When a Glock 19 is fired, there is a large sound — not really a pop, as people often say, but a BOOM. The gun emits a blue-and-yellow spark, and the muzzle kicks up slightly, but irresistibly, toward the sky. A bronze shell casing, discarded by the bullet, pops up into the air. Because the gun is a semi-automatic, the trigger has to pump back into place before being pulled again, but it gives easily, like a light switch.

The officers at Taney and Tasker did this 85 times between the seven of them — an average of about 12 shots per cop, with guns that hold 18 bullets. The two groups of cops on Tasker were essentially firing at each other, and two officers were grazed. Butter was hit between 17 and 21 times. According to some accounts, he tried to stay on his feet, and took about six bullets while standing; others say he went down after the first two. Though his gun was loaded, he'd never fired it. At some point, he was aware enough of his surroundings to try to pull his punctured body behind a telephone pole; when it was over, he lay face up on the sidewalk, his head dipping over the curb onto Tasker.

There's just a single air conditioner, a window unit, in the auditorium of South Philly's Vare Recreation Center, and its mission is futile. It's already a sweltering Wednesday, and furious residents of Point Breeze have packed the room, their anger steaming off them and further clogging the circulation. In front of the crowd, quite literally in the hot seats in their full regalia, sit several representatives of the Philadelphia Police Department, including Capt. Bethel.

This meeting was scheduled several weeks ago, to discuss, as organizer Robert Wilbow thrice reminds the attendees, "some of the things that's going on in the community." As examples, he offers auto thefts and early-morning robberies by someone on a bike. He promises to get to "the incident" on Tasker Street in due time.

Bethel, his husky frame stuffed into a starched white shirt, rises to address the audience. He tries to play by Wilbow's rules. There has been no increase in car thefts, he says — at least not reported ones. And no increase in shooting incidents, although the amount of people struck in shootings has increased. You see, "There were two factions going at it ... "

"That wasn't by procedure!" a bearded man yells suddenly. "That was not by procedure."

"We're not talking about that," someone says.

"That's what I want to talk about," the man replies.

In the three days since Butter's death, the story of his shooting has made headlines in both the Inquirer and the Daily News. The papers reported that a deranged man, high on "wet" — a combination of marijuana and embalming fluid — had walked out onto the street waving a gun, and that the cops had shot him many, many times (the News also quoted Butter's brother, Paris Young, saying Butter had recently told him he'd reached a "breaking point"). The day before the meeting, the News' front page blasted the question: "Unnecessary or Excessive?"

It's clear what the neighbors think. After the bearded man's outburst, any pretense of discussing anything but Butter's shooting evaporates. Residents come forward to denounce the police as an "occupying army" and the incident as a "modern-day execution." Some draw parallels to the cases of Amadou Diallo and Shawn Bell, two New York men whom police shot at 41 and 50 times, respectively, though neither Diallo nor Bell was armed.

While the attendees vent, Bethel and his men sit quietly, sweating big, round patches through their shirts. After a few minutes, their commissioner arrives. Sylvester Johnson begins with a comparison. A 4-year-old girl is shot, he says, and nobody comes forward. A 9-year-old boy is shot, and nobody comes forward. But "the police shoot a guy with a gun in his hand, and everybody comes forward."

It is a decidedly unpopular observation, met with grunts and mutterings. Johnson pushes on: He begins to describe Butter's death, from the police's perspective. Cops were called to the scene, he says. They negotiated with the armed man for four minutes. Then, the man "pointed the gun at the police."

"No he didn't," someone yells. It's Tae, who has been sitting in the front row, bouncing a child on her lap. She continues to shout as she stands and heads for the back. "It was excessive, no matter what you say. They shot him 85 fucking times. For nothing. What about his kids?" As she leaves the room, her voice bounces back in with her thoughts on the mayor's absence: "He too busy waiting in line for his iPhone."

Johnson tries to continue, but others are now raising their voices, and show no interest in yielding the floor. One older man actually gets up in the commissioner's face, pointing and hollering: "You're a policeman, not a fact-finder!" He has to be pulled away. The police can barely control this room, much less the neighborhood. Johnson turns, walks back to the table, and just ... gives up. For the next 20 minutes, he and his fellow officers sit demoralized, absorbing the neighborhood's angry accusations.

"I told the other people at the table to let them vent," Johnson said the next day. "That's why I sat down. They didn't want to hear what I knew, they just wanted to hear what they wanted to hear."

What the people at the meeting wanted to hear, as numerous attendees said in interviews, was for the police to "say that they were wrong." Butter's neighbors don't understand how a man who never fired his gun could have been shot at 85 times. They don't understand why he wasn't just shot in the leg. In a white neighborhood, they say, a SWAT team would have been called in, and cops would have spent three days negotiating before riddling a residential street with bullets. Not all of the cops involved were white, but to the neighbors, this proves nothing: In fact, they suspect that the minority cops were delivering a street-style "message" to Point Breeze about who's in charge.

"They sent statements," says Anthony Lawrence, a friend of Butter's. "They're our age. They know the same cultures I know. African-Americans and Latinos, they know [a] message was being sent."

Finally, the neighbors find Johnson's comparison to other shootings irrelevant. Those situations are complicated by witness intimidation. That the police shouldn't murder someone — and that's how they see it, as murder — they think is simple.

For the police, it's simple, too. They could talk about how lodging a 9mm bullet in a flailing leg from 15 yards is a feat reserved for Steven Seagal movies, and that when they shoot, they aim for center mass. They could bring up the (controversial) theory of "contagious shooting," which holds that one cop opening fire leads others to do so, and which would explain the high number of bullets. But the crux of their argument is just this: The police shot a man waving a gun around on a corner.

"People said that he only had a gun," says Johnson. "Only a gun?"

Johnson has offered that he's "concerned" about the number of shots fired, and that some officers may be retrained as a result of the incident. (An Internal Affairs investigation is ongoing; no timetable has been made public.) Even someone who thinks Butter deserved what he got has to be worried when police miss their target 65 times, and let their bullets sail off into what residents say was a bustling neighborhood. (The cops say the street was deserted.)

But it's not enough — the two sides are too far apart, too far gone in their distrust for each other. This may be what Johnson, who has been through this movie before, was acknowledging through his surrender at the meeting. And it may be why it's so striking when, after being told by Johnson to just let the neighbors vent, Bethel stands up and begins to yell.

A woman has taken the floor to tell the story of her daughter being abused by the police. She's been speaking for about 45 seconds when Bethel cuts her off.

"The issues that you're talking about took place more than a year and a half ago," he says. That was before his tenure. Bethel looks like he could punch someone, or cry, as he says that his door has always been open, that he's trying to work with people.

"I have significant violence down here," he says. "I'm sitting here trying to tell you that I'm trying to stop our kids from killing each other."

He appeals for volunteers for the Safe Corridors program (one woman asks if he'll pay her). But, while he briefly deflects people's anger from the police ("Where these guns coming from?" someone yells after Bethel's outburst), things soon return to normal. Bethel, who may well give a shit, is running headlong into the reality that it doesn't matter how many kids you walk to school when you have incidents like this one. Trust is a fragile thing.

A couple of days after the meeting, a much calmer Bethel is asked what the shooting on Taney and Tasker means for his district's relationship with the community.

"It knocks you off your stride a little," he says.

"They said he was high, and I'm gonna say I don't deny it," Tae says.

She's sitting in a dim light, at the bottom of the staircase inside 615 Taney, Butter's old house. Butter's sister Donna Smith, who Butter called "Squeak," is seated on the floor, sorting through Bud's things and putting them in big black garbage bags. His brother Paris, a tall, lanky man, is pacing back and forth, smoking cigarettes. They're trying to figure out how Bud went from their funny and fun-loving brother, to a deranged lunatic, to a mannequin, laid out in a Muslim funeral home with a green blanket pulled up to its chin to hide its wounds — all in the course of five days.

It wasn't beyond Bud to smoke a blunt now and again. But he didn't have that glassy-eyed look neighbors described when he stopped by Tae's house that Sunday. He must have smoked when he got home. His family wonders whether he knew it was laced.

"I heard that kind of high is the kind of high that make you delirious," Donna says.

"It don't make you delirious," Paris says. "It make you act out that emotion [you're feeling] to the fullest."

But what emotion? Bud was frustrated about the progress of his career, troubled by turning 30, and tired of the drama in South Philly. Normal stuff. Were his mumblings about being stabbed in the back those same feelings, just multiplied? Were they just more hip-hop clichés?

It's all very confusing, and the only thing Bud's family seems sure of is that they're unhappy with the police. For the 85 shots, of course: Donna observes that when Butter's body was picked up, "his brain fell out of his head." But also for a broader feeling of animosity. Paris walks through the house, pointing out damage he says was caused by cops ransacking the place after the shooting — holes in the wall, doors off their hinges. He stops at the front window.

"The cops said there was nobody out here," he says, staring out onto Taney Street. "There's kids out here right now, and it's raining."

Over at Scotch's house, there's a similar bewilderment about how things went so wrong so fast. Scotch, Lainey, Cece and two other friends of Butter's sit in the room where Butter ate his last meal. Scotch notes that leftovers from Sunday's breakfast are still in the fridge, and that the last call he received from Butter, after Butter left the house, is still in his phone. He looks it up.

"Three-forty-three," he says. "That's crazy. Three-forty-three."

The shooting had occurred shortly after 6.

The group laughs at Bud for thinking he could fool them with his "hypothetical" woman — he always had poorly concealed hidden agendas. They joke about him almost as if he were there.

The previous day, a few of these friends had gone to South Philly, to the meeting at Vare Recreation Center. They'd been searching for some sense that Bud's death would be treated as tragic, his life acknowledged as a thing of value. They hadn't gotten it.

"The commissioner, he's a joke," Scotch says with an anger fueled by futility. "He always talk with a smirk on his face. It's nothing funny."

He goes on.

"It wasn't the fact that he was shot. It was how it was done. They did him worse than if he was going through something with someone in the street."

Scotch has been bouncing from seat to seat in his living room, and has ended up by the staircase. He's leaning back on the banister.

"They let everyone get all fired up, and then in a week, it's 'Steven Miller who?'" he says. "Me, I'm never gonna forget. But they probably look at it like, that's one less nigga with a gun."

(doron@citypaper.net)

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