The Killing of Charleena Lyles: What Should Be Done

The officers involved almost certainly won’t face any legal consequences for Charleena Lyles’ death. But the problems that led to her death are mostly recurring and institutional – and can be fixed.

UPDATE #1 6-23-17: In a classic Friday evening news dump to minimize coverage of unflattering news, SPD has released the interview transcripts from McNew and Anderson, the officers who killed Lyles. It’s bad.

They say both had batons, and Anderson also had pepper spray; and that McNew asked Anderson to use a Taser, but Anderson replied that he didn’t have one. That exchange indicates that there was time, measured in seconds, for the pair to make a decision that didn’t involve the summary execution of Charleena Lyles.

The diagrams accompanying the officers’ interview transcript are even more problematic. They indicate that McNew let Lyles get between him and the door – something that, prior to entering, the officers had specifically discussed NOT allowing Lyles to do. If that’s true, it also means that McNew – the more experienced officer, and the one with 40-hour crisis intervention training – very likely shot Lyles in the back. If she turned to face McNew at the last second, Anderson would have had to shoot her from behind.

The medical examiner’s report will, hopefully, tell us. If it doesn’t find that Lyles was shot from behind, it means either the officers’ diagram is inaccurate, or the medical examiners’ finding is inaccurate. And, again, body cameras would have recorded this critical detail.

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When Charleena Lyles was shot and killed in her home last Sunday, June 18 by two Seattle Police Department (SPD) officers, in front of three of her four children, family and community alike erupted with calls for justice.

That’s not going to happen.

SPD spokespeople say the officers opened fire during an otherwise routine visit, after Lyles had called to report a burglary, because Lyles suddenly brandished a knife at them. (Subsequent reports have claimed Lyles had two knives.) The officers’ audio recordings of the incident show the time between when the tone of the visit suddenly changed from routine to alarmed, to when Lyles was shot dead, was a mere 14 seconds.

Activists should understand that for much of the general public – read general white public – Lyles is an unsympathetic figure, in many ways a stereotype of the worst characteristics assigned to African-American mothers. She was poor, living in low-income housing; a single mother, she had four children, with a fifth on the way; she had a history of convictions and documented drug use; and had struggled recently with mental illness, but reportedly wasn’t taking her prescribed medication, fearing – quite reasonably – side effects that would harm her pregnancy.

Meanwhile, superficially, the two SPD officers involved in the shooting, Steven McNew and Jason Anderson, seemed to do everything right. McNew had completed a full 40-hour training in “crisis intervention certification,” the SPD training that makes officers go-to resources in calls that involve mental health issues. Anderson also had the shorter, eight-hour version of the CIC training, which SPD now emphasizes as part of the federal Department of Justice-mandated reform process a federal court now enforces.

Lyles’ mental health problems were a matter of record for the SPD, especially due to a June 5 incident stemming from a call from Lyles – unrelated to last weekend’s burglary call – in which Lyles’ mood suddenly shifted and she threatened responding officers with a pair of scissors. That incident ended peacefully, but with Lyles charged and later attending a hearing in mental health court.

As a result, McNew, the CIC specialist, was one of the responding officers on June 18, and he and Anderson can be heard on both their audio, their car’s dashcam, and apartment complex hallway surveillance video discussing Lyles’ history before entering her apartment. Once they did so, it was a routine, professional call until, as on June 5, the tone suddenly shifted. A few seconds later, Lyles was dead.

When confronted with a knife, police officers are ordered to shoot if they fear for their lives and the would-be assailant is within 21 feet – seven steps, the time it takes for an officer to draw his or her service weapon, remove the safety, aim, and fire. There is no known video of the shooting itself, but Lyles’ subsidized housing almost certainly left less than 21 feet between her and the officers. Depending on the distance, there may also have not been time to use a less lethal alternative – beyond which, with a knife attack, some less lethal weapons won’t help because they take too long to deploy (e.g., a spooling taser) or an assailant can still lunge forward even as the weapon is deployed (e.g., chemical agents like pepper spray).

Much of the general public, including some people who are otherwise sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement, aren’t alarmed at these details. As one progressive white acquaintance noted to me this week, “What were they [the officers] supposed to do?”

As it turns out, there was plenty that could have been done differently. Charleena Lyles did not have to die.

Balanced against these seemingly exonerating details is the visceral horror anyone with a soul feels for Lyles’ death: a diminutive, pregnant mother of four killed in front of three of her own children. Activist response has been the largest of any local incident in the #BLM era, including the 2016 shooting death of Che Taylor. Anecdotally, even many SPD officers were aghast at Lyles’ death.

That doesn’t mean there will be any legal consequences, though; absent a surprising medical examiner revelation (e.g., Lyles was shot from behind), the only evidence in the shooting itself is the audio recordings and the reports of McNew and Anderson. There is nothing to contradict their narrative of a sudden, mortal threat – and officers can’t be charged if they legitimately believe their lives to be in danger.

It’s virtually inconceivable that prosecutors could rebut that standard in the death of Charleena Lyles – let alone that a jury would then convict the officers of any charges. And because of the complexities of Lyles’ case, it also seems unlikely that Lyles’ death will spark any broad public outcry beyond the existing #BLM movement.

But that doesn’t mean Lyles should have died. And it doesn’t mean changes should not be demanded.


What They Could Have Done

Much of the activist wrath this past week has been generated by the simple, visceral reality of another black life taken by a department with a long, sordid history of racially based abuse. But the details in Lyles’ case are far from exonerating, for either McNew and Anderson or for SPD. Why did SPD’s visit to Lyles’ home on June 5 end peacefully, but the one on June 18 – when they were supposedly better prepared to deal with Lyles’ mental health struggles – didn’t? Why, of the countless interactions each day between SPD officers and mentally ill individuals, did this one end so badly?

Much activist criticism has focused on ways to disarm Lyles or de-escalate the situation without gunfire. SPD says the officers were carrying a less-lethal weapon, as required. They’ve said the officers didn’t have tasers, and no batons are visible on the officers in the outside videos. That most likely leaves pepper spray, possibly the least effective weapon for deflecting a potential knife attack in close quarters (or with children present). But it would still have been better than killing her. Why didn’t they use it?

And why was that the only apparent alternative on hand? Lyles’ history, and the risks she presented, were known and discussed in advance of the visit. SPD took the time, on a non-urgent call (the burglary was not in progress), to find an officer with 40-hour CIC training. They could also have taken the time to ensure the officers had adequate choices for defending themselves from a repeat of the June 5 incident. (Of course, we don’t know whether the officers did bring such alternatives, but simply left them in the trunk.) Why didn’t the officers have batons, a far better weapon to deflect a knife attack? For that matter, with kids present, the risks of simply physically disarming the diminutive Lyles were serious but relatively minor weighed against the alternatives – and could have been reduced further with Kevlar or other protective clothing. Officers could also have brought, or improvised, any sort of portable barrier. Lastly, and most obviously, depending on whether they thought Lyles’ children were in danger, they could have chosen to simply leave, barricading the apartment door and calling for backup. If they thought the kids were in danger, protecting the kids – not protecting themselves by leaving the children traumatized and motherless – should have been their top priority.

All of these options depend on where in the apartment the officers, the door, Lyles, and her children were. But since there’s no audio evidence of the children moving during the incident, three of those four elements were under the officers’ control at all times.

And needless to say, if this is how SPD trains its crisis intervention specialists, a hard look needs to be taken at that training. But that’s hardly the only institutional problem that has clouded Lyles’ death.

There’s no visual record of her killing because, seven years after body cameras for SPD officers were first approved, and with funding in place to equip every officer, McNew and Anderson weren’t wearing them. Many SPD officers don’t, because their union, the notoriously reactionary Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), has opposed them – as they’ve opposed virtually every reform under the DoJ consent decree. Similarly, officers are required to carry a less-lethal weapon, but they have the right, encoded in their union contract, to be able to refuse to carry any particular one. If, say, McNew didn’t have pepper spray with him because he doesn’t like using it, that’s his right, negotiated by his union and agreed to by the city.

Similarly, just because training in mental health intervention (the eight-hour training) is required doesn’t mean officers have to take it seriously. The long-running problems uncovered by the Department of Justice’s investigation – echoing decades of community complaints – paint a picture of a department whose cultural rot extended from top to bottom. Under the reign of SPD Chief Kathleen O’Toole, brought in in 2014 to help implement reforms, there have in fact been some improvements. But corrupted cultures don’t shift quickly, and SPOG in particular has been an unapologetic champion of the department’s Old Ways – and the officers and commanders, some now sidelined by O’Toole, who flourished in them.

Currently, SPOG is working on an expired contract with the city. A new contract was resoundingly rejected by SPOG members last July, and there’s been no public signs of progress on a new agreement since then. Moreover, the SPOG leaders who negotiated that contract – which basically traded a pay increase for accepting court-ordered reforms – were ousted in favor of old hard-liners. SPD’s management union, the Seattle Police Management Association (SPMA), is also negotiating a new contract, and that’s been further complicated by O’Toole’s having staffed top leadership posts with her own people rather than some with more seniority. In both cases, the unions present major impediments to implementing reforms, and the city, under Mayor Ed Murray as in past regimes, has been reluctant to seriously demand them. Moreover, any draft agreement also has to be approved by the federal court overseeing the DoJ consent decree. It’s little wonder contract negotiations are at an impasse.

The unions, especially SPOG, have also been fiercely resistant to any meaningful civilian oversight. The Office for Professional Accountability (OPA), the city’s attempt at such accountability, was grudgingly accepted by SPD during a previous wave of demands to curb SPD abuses, but only because it was set up to be toothless, dominated by law enforcement interests, and limited to reviewing, without subpoena power, previous internal SPD investigations. Under the reform process, its scope and powers have expanded a bit, but it still hasn’t proven itself a significant check on SPD abuses. Another product of the reform process, the Community Police Commission, has been more representative of community concerns, but so far the CPC has mostly been ignored under Murray in police reform discussions.

Without a civilian body with the ability to independently investigate an incident like Lyles’ death, investigation falls to an SPD internal investigation – sometimes farmed out to a different agency, like the King County Sheriff’s Office or the Washington State Patrol, if there’s an institutional conflict of interest. All on-duty killings also get a hearing at a coroner’s inquest that determines the cause and circumstances of death.

Beyond the union contracts, the impediments to legal accountability for officers are formidable. On rare occasions, a self-defense claim by an officer can be rejected, as in the highest-profile on-duty law enforcement killing in recent local history, the 2010 killing of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams by SPD officer Ian Birk. In that case, the mortal threat confronting Birk was Williams, oblivious, walking down the street carving a piece of wood with a small woodcarving knife. He never saw the officer who shot and killed him from behind.

Jurors at Williams’ inquest rejected Birk’s claim that he feared for his life. Instead, they found the shooting “unjustified,” the only instance in literally hundreds of cases since King County enacted its current inquest system 45 years ago in which a law enforcement killing hasn’t been found to be “justified.” But even then, Birk couldn’t be charged. State law not only offers the fear-for-one’s-life defense, but requires that prosecutors show the officer had personal malice directed toward his or her victim – a near-impossible legal standard not found in any other state. Birk was never charged; SPD fired him, but he was free to find work with another law enforcement agency.

McNew and Anderson won’t be charged, either. But there are still plenty of useful, achievable changes that activists should demand.

What We Want

Many of the issues raised by Charleena Lyles’ death aren’t specific to Lyles, and focusing on them rather than Lyles herself sidesteps the tendency of some people (and not a few local media outlets) to focus on passing judgment on Lyles’ life. Whatever her struggles, the symptoms publicly reported are consistent with the onset in many women in their late 20s of schizophrenia, an illness that can be compounded during pregnancy. Whatever her diagnosis, she had no control over her actions on June 5 or on June 18. She didn’t deserve to die over them, and McNew and Anderson didn’t need to kill her. And in similar future cases, there are a whole lot of institutional changes that could help. Broadly, they fall into two categories: law enforcement-related changes and social safety net changes.

1) Social Safety Net Reforms: SPD officers frequently need to deal with homelessness, substance abuse, and other social safety net issues precisely because the government resources directed to these issues are inadequate and, at times, poorly designed and implemented. Mental health is no exception, and over the past two decades there is a long roster of unfortunate incidents involving SPD officers and individuals with mental health issues. Cops shouldn’t have to be safety net first responders – but since they are, clearly the training McNew received, and what he did or didn’t learn from it, needs review. And funding for mental health treatment programs needs to be expanded dramatically.

That, in turn, is a subset of access to health care generally, now under ferocious assault by congressional Republicans – especially Medicaid and other programs helping lower-income Americans. When those changes come, at minimum state and city budgets need to make up the difference. That will take a lot of public pressure.

2) Law enforcement reforms:
Under the reform process, SPD has done remarkably to try to heal the community distrust cemented by decades of systemic abuses, often directed against poor and non-white Seattleites. SPD’s reform plan needs to get serious about such efforts.

Institutionally, there are three levels at which activists need to focus demands in the wake of Charleena Lyles’ death:

The federal court overseeing the DoJ consent decree:
The Department of Justice, under Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III and Donald Trump, no longer much cares when cops kill black people. (Or anyone else.) But the consent decree, negotiated under the Obama DoJ and now in the hands of a federal judge and court-appointed monitor, is beyond the current DoJ’s reach. And it needs to step up. Charleena Lyles’ death is directly related to the implementation of court-ordered reforms, particularly concerning use of force policies and CIC training. An internal SPD investigation and review of Lyles’ death won’t cut it, not when it involves factors the court has already found deficient within SPD. The court needs to authorize its own investigation, and the public needs to demand it.

Those union contracts: Any new agreements with SPOG or SPMA need to pass muster with the court, but city officials need to press much, much harder for contract changes that allow SPD to become more accountable and less a law unto itself. Ironically, body camera video might well provide conclusive evidence to back up the McNew/Anderson narrative of Lyles’ death – and any number of other incidents in which officers’ integrity or actions are publicly challenged. Similarly, choice of weapons, better training, meaningful civilian oversight, and any number of other reforms are stalling not just because of union resistance, but because politicians like Ed Murray have been reluctant to push harder. They need public encouragement on this score. A lot of it. And, next January, a new mayor will take office, and he or she needs pressure, too, before and after the election. (Voters should remember that the current conventional favorite in the mayoral race, Jenny Durkan, was the U.S. Attorney for Western Washington who declined to bring federal civil rights charges in the 2010 killing of John T. Williams.)

Olympia: Finally, the state law that effectively prevents prosecution of cops who kill without proper justification needs desperately to be changed. That won’t happen this legislative year, but 2018 is another matter. Lawmakers also need to be pushed hard next year on health care and mental health funding.

Meanwhile, the state legislature isn’t the only option for law enforcement prosecution reform. I-873, an initiative that would change our state’s uniquely “regressive and dangerous” use of force standards, is currently collecting signatures. You can find out more about it at the home page of Washington for Good Policing.

Ultimately, the challenge of Charleena Lyles’ death isn’t that it was a rare type of incident – it’s that it’s not rare enough. The sooner that we can address mental health care access and pressure the federal court (consent decree), the city (union contracts), and the state (use of force laws), the less likely that future Charleena Lyles are to be killed by the people charged with protecting them.


[Author’s note: Ironically, I had hoped to post this article earlier this week, but was delayed by both additional details being made public and by personal health and money crises. If you find my reporting and commentary valuable – and would like to see me spending more time doing this and less time stressing over how I can pay for food, rent, and medical care myself – please consider donating whatever you can to help support my work. The PayPal button is on the lower right on geov.org’s home page. Many thanks for your help! – Geov Parrish]

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