Power Lines

The Shooting of Charleena Lyles and the Return of the Police Accountability Conversation

The death of a mother who called for help is the nucleus of a restored movement.

By Hayat Norimine July 11, 2017 Published in the August 2017 issue of Seattle Met


“Say her name! Charleena Lyles. Say her name, Charleena Lyles. Say her name.”

The name was an anthem. Charleena. Lyles. The words echoed through a crowd of hundreds, a rally in honor of the 30-year-old pregnant mother of four. Many held signs or wore T-shirts emblazoned with her face. Tears streamed down the cheeks of Lyles’s younger sister, Tiffany Rogers, as she tried to speak. Lyles promised her family she would make a difference in the world. She’d be famous. They never thought it would be like this. 

On a Sunday morning in June, Seattle police fatally shot her, just feet away from her children—ages 11, four, and one. It’s an incident that has sparked anew an issue many believed had been put to rest. After years of ugly, racially charged police investigations, the U.S. Department of Justice sued the city over the police department’s excessive use of force and discriminatory practices. In response the city council passed milestone legislation on police reform. Seattle thought it was past this. 

But on June 18, 2017, police responded to Lyles’s reported burglary in her fourth floor apartment in North Seattle. Lyles greeted the two officers, Steven McNew and Jason Anderson, at the door. An Xbox had gone missing, she said, and her bag looked like it had been rifled through. Seconds later, a 180-degree turn. Lyles brandished a knife, the cops would later say. 

“Get back, get back!” the officers shouted.

“Tase her,” Officer McNew said.

“I don’t have a Taser,” Officer Anderson replied.

“We need help,” McNew pleaded into his radio. “Hey, hey, get back!” shouted Anderson.

One, two, three, four, five shots. 

In just 20 seconds of escalation, Charleena Lyles’s life was over.

What happened in the days and minutes leading up to that escalation raises questions about police training and whether the DOJ-spurred reforms are enough.

On their way to Lyles’s apartment, officers knew it might be more than a routine call. There was a domestic disturbance, the cops recalled, on June 5, when their fellow officers had arrived to find the male suspect gone and Lyles sitting on the couch. Her four-year-old girl with Down syndrome crawled around in her lap as Lyles held a pair of shears, police recounted. She had allegedly threatened the cops, made a few unusual comments indicating some inner struggle, but they managed to talk her into dropping the scissors. They phoned the family, who came to help and reportedly told the police that Lyles’s mental health had declined recently, and rapidly. They arrested her on a harassment charge without further incident. 

“Has she got a mental caution on her?” McNew is heard asking his partner, in an audio recording of the deadly June 18 incident, before they’re about to meet Lyles. “No,” Anderson replies. Just an officer safety caution. Those warnings help inform police about the situation they’re walking into. What the officers didn’t know is that there actually was a mental caution on Lyles’s file. Maybe it was misread, or maybe it hadn’t processed in the system at that point, but could that “caution” label have made a difference? Would they have stopped her with a Taser if they had one? 

Those questions may never be answered. So many factors play into an officer-involved shooting, but what always comes afterward is the family’s emotionally wrought and, most often, unsated search for justice.  

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Tiffany Rogers speaks at a rally held in honor of her sister Charleena Lyles on June 20, 2017.

The DOJ investigated
the city in 2011, the year after police fatally shot John T. Williams, a Native American woodcarver, and the year after a gang unit detective, Shandy Cobane, was caught on tape telling a man prone on the ground that he’d beat the “Mexican piss” out of him. By 2012, the city had come to a settlement agreement and formed a civilian oversight body for police, and for years city officials and citizens tinkered with the legislation. Council member Lorena González, who had, as a civil rights attorney, successfully sued and settled with the department in the “Mexican piss” case, took the reins on the bill, which the council approved in May 2017. 

Statewide, Washington has one of the most lenient policies on police accountability. That’s thanks to one word from our state statute: malice. To prosecute a cop for a death, you have to prove he or she had malicious intent. It’s the perfect defense: Evil intent is almost impossible to prove. Seattle state senator David Frockt attempted just this year to introduce a bill that would roll back that requirement, to no avail. Instead activists are hoping to get another measure, Initiative 940, on the 2018 ballot. It would create “good faith” standards for law enforcement, establish more statewide de-escalation and mental health training, and require officers to render first aid to save lives.

The lesser-known Crisis Intervention Team training already existed before the DOJ stepped in, as a tool for officers to learn how to de-escalate a situation that involves behavioral health crises. As part of the federal government’s settlement with the city, the DOJ also reviewed CIT’s policy and ramped up mental health training efforts. As of June 2017, the force had 4,232 crisis calls this year; police used force on 1 percent of those calls, and 60 percent of that use of force were “type one.” That can include causing temporary pain from tight handcuffs or pointing a firearm. 

Both officers involved in the Charleena Lyles shooting had been trained, police say. One, Steven McNew, received a 2011 commendation for his response to a suicidal person armed with a knife. He’s among the 63 percent of the department who voluntarily spent 40 hours on crisis intervention training. 

But the state-mandated eight hours is not enough, says Ashley Fontaine, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Seattle. And while the CIT focuses on bias against those with mental illness, it doesn’t adequately address intersectionality, or racial bias topped onto that. If an individual with untreated mental health problems is 16 times more likely to get shot by police, what does that mean for a black person with those same problems?

There’s a lot to mental health, and other invisible disabilities, that law enforcement may not know how to develop comprehensive policies for—at least not without encroaching on personal privacy issues or due process rights. Lyles was never diagnosed. Police placed a mental caution on her file because of their previous interaction with her. But for reasons that are unclear, Officer McNew and his partner didn’t get that message on June 18. Monika Williams, Lyles’s older sister, says the mental health system failed Lyles in different ways, but she’s not even sure what Lyles would’ve been diagnosed with. Williams couldn’t believe that her sister would grab a knife, that she would show aggression in any way. How could she hurt anyone? Five foot three, 110 pounds—“String Bean Leena,” her brother called her. Such a small frame, such a tiny woman.

Lyles had called for help. And the two incidents in June weren’t the first. For years she sought protection from domestic violence, court records indicate, and last year a judge finally granted her a protection order. She had an open case with Child Protective Services, Williams says. She held onto her kids for dear life. 

“This is never going to stop for me,” says Williams. She says she won’t quit until police are held accountable. “This is the rest of my life here. My sister made the path for me.” Williams walks in the shoes of many she already knew who lost loved ones. She and her family say their fight isn’t about black versus white. It’s light versus darkness. It’s about hope, and fighting to trust the system again.

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