Questions About the Death of Charleena Lyles

Focus.

Tonight, the Seattle City Council is holding a special public meeting at 6 PM at the University of Washington’s Kane Hall to hear public concerns about the June 18 killing of Charleena Lyles in her home by two Seattle Police Department officers.

Last week, I posted an article suggesting that the three most helpful targets for activists in the wake of her death were the state legislature (to reform the uniquely impossible legal requirements in our state that shield on-duty law enforcement personnel who misuse deadly force); the federal court overseeing the city’s consent decree that mandates reforms in the Seattle Police Department; and the city’s ongoing contract negotiations with the two unions that represent officers and management within SPD. That’s relevant due to union objections to, among other things relevant to this incident, body cameras, less-lethal weapon requirements, and crisis intervention training.

City council members have no direct influence with any of these. Some are privy to the union negotiations, but even those are managed by the Executive Branch, currently under Mayor Ed Murray; and the negotiations, if they’re happening at all, are held in secret. No city official will comment on them tonight, and nobody from the council or SPD is about to say anything meaningful about the ongoing internal investigation of Lyles’ shooting. We’re unlikely to learn much tonight, and council isn’t relevant to the most immediate, urgent, and achievable activist goals.

But.

There are a lot of unanswered questions about Charleena Lyles’ death – questions that council members and local media need to be asking, too. What follows is a necessarily incomplete list of important ones, along with a couple of suggestions for things the city council can and should do. And to be clear, activists need to keep bringing the heat long after tonight’s meeting has come and gone.

The questions fall in three broad categories.

The Shooting Itself

Because Officers McNew and Anderson have claimed they feared for their lives, and because SPD’s use of force guidelines permit deadly force when an assailant with a knife is within 21 feet (as Lyles was), the officers will likely face no legal consequences for killing Charleena Lyles. But there are still far too many inconsistencies in their accounts that need to be addressed.

What was the knife or knives Lyles was allegedly using? Where did it, or they, come from, and when did she get them?

Did she get behind one of the officers, or between them and the door? Was she shot from behind by one of the officers?

Both officers had batons, and one had pepper spray. Why weren’t they used instead of deadly force?

Did the officers believe Lyles posed a threat to the three children in the room?

Why didn’t officers try to disarm the diminutive Lyles? Why didn’t they simply leave, barricade the door, and call for backup?

Before the Shooting

On June 5, two weeks before Lyles’ death, a similar home visit by SPD officers resulted in a nearly identical turn in her mood. In that incident, she threatened officers with a large pair of scissors. Unlike June 18, she was talked down, arrested, and as a result also had a subsequent appearance in mental health court. All this was noted in SPD’s database and accessed on June 18.

So, first of all, why did officers even respond to her call?

Lyles called 911 to report a suspected home burglary in which she believed an XBox was stolen. It wasn’t a burglary in progress, and it wasn’t an urgent call. Many citizens reporting such burglaries never even get visited by officers; they’re told to fill out a report online, or SPD takes a report over the phone.

Given the very recent history of a threatened attack on officers in her home, why did SPD even send officers to her home again?

Instead, they arrived in 45 minutes, discussing her June 5 incident and mental health status but apparently failing to prepare for the possibility, let alone likelihood, that it might happen again.

Why didn’t the officers meet Lyles in the apartment hallway or outside, where her movements would be more visible and no household objects were at hand (like a kitchen knife) that could be weaponized?

Going inside, why didn’t they have some sort of barrier between themselves and Lyles. Why didn’t they stay near the front door where they could retreat easily if needed?

Why didn’t an officer make sure the kids were moved to a different room, so mom could talk to the officers in private? (And the kids would be safe if mom suddenly had one of her moods.) If there weren’t enough officers, why not wait for backup? Or – again – why were they there at all?

Both officers had SPD’s crisis intervention training; one of them was considered a specialist, with 40 hours of training. None of their actions reflected that training.

Is the training itself deficient? Or is the training fine, but some officers simply don’t take it seriously?

The Social Safety Net

Lost in the shooting itself, and the reality of yet another black life extinguished by white law enforcement, is a local social safety net that failed Lyles at nearly every turn.

Charleena Lyles had four children by multiple fathers, and was pregnant with a fifth. She had a history of substance abuse. She was recently homeless and had been placed in her low-income housing through a nonprofit. Four kids, a pregnancy, and serious poverty are enormously stressful for anyone, even without the onset of serious mental illness. Yet Lyles seems to have had almost no help navigating all of this. The home was a mess.

Why didn’t she seem to have a home helper to help her cope with all the kids and a new home? Where were the fathers, or any kind of community support before she died?

How was she managing financially with a new home (when very recently she didn’t have one) and five mouths to feed? How precarious and stressful was her money situation? Did she have any kind of help with child care, or with navigating the often confusing, intentionally humiliating, and endlessly time-consuming “helping” social service agencies?

What kind of treatment did she have, or not have, for her mental illness? She reportedly had a prescription, but didn’t take the medication because she feared it would impact her pregnancy. That’s a perfectly reasonable, and serious, concern, one any competent health care provider or pharmacist should take pains to avoid – but apparently didn’t. Moreover, many anti-psychotic drugs can help with the illness but leave the patient sluggish and struggling to function – let alone able to manage four young kids. Lyles had every card stacked against her, and very few people seemed to care.

We live in a country where access to health care, especially mental health care, is a catastrophe, especially for poor people. Institutional racism is also a thing here – as it is in every aspect of a social safety net that found a home for Lyles and her children, but apparently did very little to help her cope with the kids, the pregnancy, the poverty, and a debilitating illness that resulted in her lashing out at SPD officers on two separate occasions this month. We know how the second one ended.

What Seattle City Council Can Do

Most of these concerns won’t be relevant in questions to council members tonight. (Though remember that local media, and through them the general public, is also in the room.) But two areas are very much relevant:

Seattle’s Budget

Council members amend and approve the city’s budget; that process for 2018 begins this fall, and emergency supplements can happen at any time.

Charleena Lyles was vividly failed by our city’s social services and health care access. But so are thousands of other Seattleites who are still very much alive. If Lyles snapped in part because she was stressed and overwhelmed coping, and not getting adequate help, council members need to honor her by taking a hard look at how to better fund those services and how to make them more accessible and user-friendly.

Police Oversight

Council also has an oversight function with SPD. In the Lyles case, that’s important for two related reasons.

The first is that after years of union and political obstruction, there remains no meaningful civilian oversight of SPD.

That is only one example of something that would help with a second, much broader problem, which will be on full display tonight. For all that public officials and SPD leadership has touted the reform process, SPD has done almost nothing to even acknowledge, let alone try to repair, its long legacy of abuse and the serious distrust for SPD among many local communities, especially among people of color.

The details of the Lyles case are important, but ultimately, they’re not why so many people are enraged. They’re enraged because yet another black life has been extinguished by local law enforcement, with every indication that Charleena Lyles didn’t have to die. The anger over Lyles is anger over literally decades of abuses, large and small, abuses that in many cases continue. You can’t understand the furor over the death of Charleena Lyles without that context.

City Council oversees SPD and its budget, but it also has the right to demand big-picture priorities. And council members need to demand that SPD’s reform process extend beyond hiring, training, internal policies, and all the other pieces of trying to redeem decades of cultural rot in the department. Those are all critical steps. But so long as SPD continues to treat whole communities like The Enemy – and so long as those communities expect SPD to treat them like The Enemy – the reform process means little. SPD needs to start working proactively, and hard, to earn the trust of all of Seattle’s residents. And council members can and should have something to say about that. Tonight.

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