SPD: Shooting Death of Charleena Lyles “Unacceptable”
Note: Corrections have been made to the original article content for accuracy and clarity, as explained below the article.
June 21, 2017, SEATTLE- The shooting death of Charleena Lyles by two Seattle Police officers has been described by the Department in an interview today as “unacceptable.”
News of the shooting first broke on social media, as family members were alerted by Ms. Lyles’ neighbors and friends that she had been shot to death in her home by police. Mainstream media picked up the story and it spread across the nation like wildfire. Seattle has suddenly found itself at the center of a national crisis; the killing of, specifically, Black men and women by law enforcement. The actions of the officers who responded to a call of a burglary ended in the shooting death of a pregnant woman. Sergeant Sean Whitcomb, Spokesperson for the Department, forcefully stated the outcome is unacceptable.
“This outcome is unacceptable, and by that I mean the death of Charleena Lyles, is unacceptable and we are grieving for her family and her children, and our officers are deeply affected as well,” Sergeant Whitcomb said.
Three of Ms. Lyles’ children were present when she called SPD over the weekend, concerned about a burglary, and items missing from her home. The Department has released both audio and a transcript of the incident as captured by recording equipment worn by the responding officers. They are Steven McNew, who has been with the department since February 2008, who was the officer with crisis intervention certification, and officer Jason Anderson, who has been with the department since April 2015 who also had crisis intervention training as required by the Department. It’s unknown at this time if Mr. Anderson worked in law enforcement elsewhere prior to joining Seattle Police. No additional background information is being released by the Department at this time.
When a situation of such magnitude happens, often there is a great deal of inaccurate information published through mainstream media, and the digital grapevine. Rumors become facts, facts turn opaque, and confusion, outrage, anger and grief overwhelms. Witnesses, credible or otherwise, come forward, share pictures and videos, are interviewed on television and by law enforcement. Theories, viable or otherwise, become, at the least, possible, and at the worst, a conspiracy. Was Ms. Lyles targeted by police? Were there previous incidents between her and members of the Seattle Police Department that left her in fear of her life?
Did she, for any reason, have contact with an officer, or multiple officers, outside of their official capacity as Seattle Police? We asked Sergeant Whitcomb if he had any knowledge about this specific claim or rumor, which he did not. According to sources it will be investigated as a part of the overall investigation of the shooting.
Often, too often in fact, mainstream media jockeys to scoop the competition, to get the exclusive interview, and in the process glorify a story or mis-characterize the deceased. As an example, many were upset when mainstream media reported “three children found in home” as if Ms. Lyles’ children were hidden or locked away. They were not. The children were in plain view when their mother was shot to death in their home.
Ms. Lyles will never have the opportunity to show the world and the millions now watching and reading about her, who she was in life, as a mother, daughter, sister, and friend. By all accounts, she was more than the struggles she faced. The killing of Ms. Lyles leaves a void that can never be filled whether through protest or monetary compensation, which so often becomes the focus.
Mental illness is a sensitive, difficult topic, nevertheless it is relevant to Ms. Lyles’ fate and the actions of the officers. Many do not want Ms. Lyles’ to be judged, full stop, because of mental illness. Still, the Department and responding officers had previously documented incidents where mental health concerns were a factor. As such, that is how she was “flagged” in their system. Living with mental illness does not automatically mean a person has a propensity to act out in violence. Instead, it means special care and consideration must be taken. Both responding officers were trained and certified in de-escalation and crisis intervention.
Between the audio and the transcript, it is clear neither officer had a taser, which is categorized as a “less-lethal” weapon. Because of that, it has been incorrectly reported by the media that officers didn’t have a less-lethal option.
According to our interview with the Seattle Police Department, this information is incorrect. Whether Ms. Lyles, as police have said, suddenly armed herself with one knife or two (accounts of this detail are conflicting), responding officers, with full knowledge of Ms. Lyles’ history, did in fact have other, “less-lethal” weapons at hand, as required by the department. They did not use them.
While tasers often garner the most attention (and controversy), tasers are not the only less-lethal weapon used by law enforcement; rubber bullets, pepper spray, batons and other such weapons fall into the same category. In this case, according to Sergeant Whitcomb, the responding officers had either or both pepper spray and batons.
Prior to entering the home, as officers reviewed information about Ms. Lyles’ in their database system, particularly around a recent incident on June 5, one officer can be heard saying, they should not let Ms. Lyles be physically behind them when they are in her apartment. They then approach her home.
While officers can clearly be heard directing Ms. Lyles to physically move away from them by stating, “get back, get back!” they are never heard directing her to drop a knife or knives. They opened fire after what sounds like a sudden, brief, physical altercation during what was otherwise a calm, routine interaction between responding officers and Ms. Lyles as she described to them that someone had been in her home and items were missing.
The Seattle Police Department introduced “less-lethal” weapons after the shooting death of David Walker, which was captured by news cameras and aired. Mr. Walker was skipping down the street with a knife in his hand. Officers were called to the scene after a report of shoplifting. Mr. Walker died at the scene. The shooting was determined to be justified.
After former SPD officer Ian Birk shot and killed First Nation woodcarver John T. Williams, which was found to be unjustified, the Department was investigated by the Department of Justice over years of mounting complaints of excessive force. The Department was ordered by the DOJ to implement specific changes. That process is ongoing. The Department of Justice, according to our interview with SPD today, has eyes on, but is not officially investigating the shooting of Ms. Lyles. The only law enforcement agency investigating the shooting death of Ms. Lyles at this time, is the Seattle Police Department.
There is also the OPA, which is charged with independently investigating complaints by the public into police conduct. The OPA has been mired in controversy and concerns of conflicts of interest with the Department when investigating claims of misconduct or excessive force.
Further, there has been progress, though many say not enough, in the creation of a community oversight body to work with the Department, OPA and Seattle’s many communities around policing concerns.
While it has not garnered much national attention, Seattle, like any other city in the country, has long struggled with the issue of excessive force by police, and shootings which resulted in death and communities denounced as unjust and avoidable. The city finds itself there again, with the killing Ms. Lyles. There are demands for accountability, and justice. There are demands for the officers to be fired, arrested, and charged with a homicide crime.
Currently, both officers are on paid leave pending the outcome of the internal investigation.
But this brings us back to the killing of Mr. Williams, a shooting found to be unjust after an internal investigation, and inquest. Many assumed the now former officer, Mr. Birk, would be immediately charged with a homicide crime by the King County Prosecutor’s Office. He wasn’t.
During a February 2011 press conference, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg announced he would not file charges against Mr. Birk in the death of Mr. Williams. Mr. Satterberg explained that his office could not file charges at the county level because state law prevents such action. Those laws have not changed. In Washington state, if an on-duty officer kills someone, whether the shooting was found unjust or not, the officer is protected from criminal prosecution when claiming deadly force was used in self-defense. Mr. Birk insisted he felt his life was in danger, which led him to shoot and kill Mr. Williams. The shooting was found to be unjustified. But Mr. Birk maintained his assertion that he felt afraid for his life, and that feeling, rather than the act of killing, shielded him from prosecution.
That precedent, coupled with countless other police shootings, has many family, friends and community of Ms. Lyles worried, angry, and wondering if there will ever be justice for her.
The only exception to the law, is if and when it can be shown that an officer or officers acted out of malice, or a lack of good faith. In plain language and applied to the killing of Ms. Lyles there would have to be proof the officers maliciously intended to kill her, and/or were otherwise reckless or acted without appropriate regard for the rights and safety of Ms. Lyles. We reached out to the King County Prosecutor’s Office, and they did not respond.
Current and potential investigations aside, the Sergeant Whitcomb of the Seattle Police Department stated under no uncertain terms: a routine call, with well trained and informed officers who had other, non-lethal options at their disposal, should not have resulted in the shooting and death of Ms. Lyles, and it is unacceptable.
Correction: 6-22-2017 The date of the interview with the Seattle Police Department was June 21, 2017, not June 6, 2017. The article has been updated to reflect the correct date.
Correction: 6-22-2017 The term “non-lethal weapons” has been corrected throughout the article to “less-lethal weapons.”