Police Accountability

5 Questions Unanswered About the Shooting of Charleena Lyles

Here's how officers are already supposed to handle mental health crises.

By Hayat Norimine June 23, 2017

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Charleena Lyles's memorial, adorned with flowers and candles, outside her Brettler Family Place apartment in Sand Point, North Seattle. 

The fatal shooting of Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old black mother of four who called 911 to report a burglary, has led to some crucial questions about how police handle mental health crises. Just two weeks earlier, policy say a domestic disturbance response led to Lyles threatening the police and showing signs of mental health problems. Officer Davidson Lim's report said her case should be forwarded to mental health court.

The Seattle Police Department developed a comprehensive crisis intervention policy in 2014 after the U.S. Department of Justice stepped in to investigate excessive use of force and bias. And it can inform us about how police should act when they encounter someone struggling with mental health. As an SPD force team investigates the shooting, others including council member Kshama Sawant are demanding an independent investigation. Council member Lorena González's office will host a public forum on the shooting at the University of Washington campus Tuesday night. 

A behavioral health crisis is "defined as an episode of mental and/or emotional distress in a person that is creating significant or repeated disturbance and is considered disruptive by the community, friends, family, or the person themselves." There are a number of steps law enforcement could take in these cases—so here are some questions worth asking. 

Should a Crisis Response Team have played a role? According to the policy, the CRT, a squad of officers, should follow up on suspected criminal investigations involving mental illness, "crisis events, and people who have been identified as being a risk to themselves or others." Lyles's case seems to fall under that category, given SPD's hazard information and the June 5 report; police haven't elaborated on whether there was a plan to contact Lyles after she left the King County jail from June 5 charges.

Why didn't officers know about the "mental caution"? Police hazard information on Lyles, released by SPD on Thursday, showed the following warning: "assaultive to officers, mental, threats to officers, weapon." The dash cam footage showed that the two officers who responded to Lyles's burglary call, later identified as Steven McNew and Jason Anderson, discussed the hazard information. One asked if she had "a mental caution on her," and the other replied, "no."

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It's unclear whether the officer misread the hazard, or whether that warning hadn't updated in the system by Sunday. Detective Patrick Michaud told PubliCola he would guess police added the warnings after the June 5 incident, and sometimes it takes a while for cautions to process. But here's why that detail could be important:

1. In a situation that involves a subject in a mental health crisis, per crisis intervention policy, CIT-certified officers will take the lead when they can. McNew was a CIT-certified officer; Anderson wasn't. That clarification would have placed one officer with more de-escalation training at the heart of the decision-making process. An officer (SPD hasn't said which one was which) did ask specifically about the mental caution when his partner mentioned the safety warning. It's a question worth asking—whether McNew would've been more assertive, or approached the situation differently. 

For any calls involving someone with a known mental health problem, 911 communications should also dispatch at least one CIT-certified officer. But SPD's June 19 statement said they sent two responders because of an officer safety caution associated with Lyles, not because of her mental health. If that's the case, Lyles's call could have had two responders who both didn't have the 40-hour crisis training. 

2. Cops could call the on-duty designated mental health professional, had they known the incident involved someone in a behavioral health crisis. While it was just a burglary call, CIT policy states law enforcement can encounter "a subject in any type of behavioral crisis during any type of incident." 

Who fired first? This goes hand in hand with the earlier question. SPD's statement on June 19 said both officers fired their weapons. But more importantly, the question of whether a CIT-certified officer fired could focus the discussion. Should more officers be CIT-certified? Is the CIT-certified training not enough? 

Police haven't clarified whether Lyles was armed with one or two knives. (The family disputes the claim of a weapon altogether.) SPD on its blotter after the shooting said Lyles brandished a knife when police shot her. But in the audio released from the incident, an officer described Lyles as carrying two knives. When asked for the clarification, Michaud said he didn't know. "Hopefully we can get that info sorted out" soon, he said. 

Why wasn't Lyles referred to the Crisis Solutions Center or checked into a hospital? Reports said police arrested Lyles on June 5 on charges of harassment and, according to The Seattle Times, obstructing an officer. Obstruction qualifies her to get referred to the Crisis Solutions Center as an alternative to the King County jail; at the center she would have access to on-site mental health assessments and treatments, as well as individual or group counseling. Yet the June 5 police report said Lyles was booked into the jail, where the family told reporters she stayed for nearly two weeks. Mentally ill low-level offenders who don't want to participate in the program would get taken to the jail or Harborview Medical Center, according to the city.

Does the crisis intervention policy go far enough? The policy clearly states that law enforcement should de-escalate a crisis situation. But "officers are not expected to diagnose a subject with a mental illness, nor are they expected to counsel a distraught subject into composure," the policy states. And the standard to de-escalate doesn't apply when they're faced with an imminent safety threat. Rather, de-escalation can be a "reasonable alternative." The judgment of that standard comes from "the perspective of a reasonable officer's perceptions at the time of the incident." 

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