On Sunday 18 June 2017, Charleena Lyles contacted the Seattle Police Department (SPD) for assistance related to a burglary at her Sand Point home. According to multiple reports, including audio released by the SPD (links to audio at seattlepi), two white police officers responded to the call. Before speaking to Charleena Lyles, the officers reviewed background information indicating that there had been previous interactions between Charleena Lyles and the SPD.* The officers then approached Charleena Lyles.
The audio released by the SPD suggests that the interaction started calmly. Something then went terribly wrong. The officers can be heard loudly saying “Get back”. One officer called for the use of a taser; the other officer replied that he did not have one. The officers then shot and killed Charleena Lyles.
The killing of Charleena Lyles has prompted outrage, calls for an investigation, and demands for additional training of police officers in conflict resolution. The Stranger’s Heidi Groover, Steven Hsieh, and Ana Sofia Knauf provide a comprehensive overview of the incident and a subsequent rally and march by supporters of Charleena Lyles. In short, supporters of Charleena Lyles are not denying that she was dealing with mental health challenges, and they are not disputing the officers’ claims that she was in possession of a knife. Instead, they are arguing that the system failed terribly and criminally. A community member called on the police for assistance, and the police killed her.
They want to know why the officers, given their knowledge of previous interactions between Lyles and the SPD, did not consider a different approach. They want to know more details about the escalation of the conflict. What exactly was the nature of the perceived threat? How did the officers have time to discuss a taser but not enough time to pursue non-lethal de-escalation? Could the officers have withdrawn and called for assistance? Why were the officers not carrying tasers or non-lethal response items? And they want to know why they can now point to another example of police officers killing a person of color.
The questions are fair ones. And while it is incorrect to conclude that a person possessing a knife could not be a mortal threat, or be perceived to be a mortal threat, to two larger, trained individuals working as a team, it is definitely fair and necessary to examine whether the officers had better non-lethal options and the time to pursue those options. The family of Charleena Lyles deserves honest, thorough answers.
I wasn’t able to attend the rally for Charleena Lyles, but I went to her neighborhood today and took some photos of the memorial site near her residence. My first view of the neighborhood was in the dashboard camera footage released by the SPD. It was interesting how the narrow field of view from the camera, the descriptions of the type of housing, knowledge about the tragic ending, and images from the rally influenced my hasty, ill-informed, and biased assumptions about what the neighborhood would look like. I thought about those assumptions (and why I made them) as I was driving to the neighborhood. They all proved incorrect, which didn’t surprise me.
That neighborhood is beautiful. I’ve been on a lot of military bases, and driving into that area gave me the very distinct feeling of driving onto a base. There is a row of houses that reminded me of a typical officers’ row, and many of the buildings looked like military barracks and administrative offices. The huge, repurposed warehouses and the immaculately cared for green grass left almost no doubt. Sure enough, a sign in front of a building that looks to be in a stalled state of construction referred to the Sand Point Naval Air Station.
I drove around for a while before heading to Brettler Family Place. It looks like a great place to live. It is close to the water, surrounded by parks, with a playground out front. I am making assumptions again, but at least now I am working with first-hand observations.
The memorial for Charleena Lyles and other victims of interactions with the police was powerful. If you’re in Seattle, I recommend visiting it.
I suspect many people will read that Charleena Lyles had mental health issues, previous interactions with the police, and was in possession of a knife and conclude it was an “unfortunate outcome”. We owe it to our fellow citizens (and non-citizens) who worry about their safety in interactions with the police to question our assumptions and ensure that we all benefit equally and fairly from the very important services that police provide. The best organizations constantly review their actions and strive to improve their operations. Calling on law enforcement entities to do that does not disrespect or diminish police officers’ service and commitment.
* I have seen this referred to as a cautionary note in the police file. I am not sure of the actual terms used. It may simply mean that police records indicated there had been previous interactions between the SPD and Charleena Lyles.
Notes: I revised some wording after my initial post.
- Instead, they are arguing that the system failed terribly and criminally. A community member called on the police for assistance, and the police killed her.
- What exactly was the nature of the perceived threat?
- …it is definitely fair and necessary to examine whether the officers had better non-lethal options and the time to pursue those options. The family of Charleena Lyles deserves honest, thorough answers.
- …How did the officers have time to discuss a taser but not enough time to pursue non-lethal de-escalation?