Reforms Should Have Prevented Charleena Lyles’ Death, But They Didn’t. Why?

And we must stay vigilant.

We’ve been over this.

That, in short, may best sum up the frustration many people are feeling in Seattle following the shooting death of Charleena Lyles at the hands of two Seattle Police officers.

This isn’t to overshadow the other emotions at play here—the grief of her children, left without a mother; the pain of Seattle’s African-American community, traumatized once again; the anguish of the officers involved, whose guilt we should not automatically presume. But—at an admittedly privileged remove from the tragic scene in Sand Point—a prominent emotion is frustration. Frustration that a mother of three experiencing mental-health issues called police to report a stolen Xbox Sunday morningand didn’t live to see Sunday night. Frustration that the death occurred despite so much effort to prevent it: the effort to train cops on how to deal with mental-health crises; the effort to outfit them with less lethal weapons that provide protection without requiring them to shoot their firearms. As Lisa Daugaard, police-reform advocate and director of the Public Defenders Association, put it in an e-mail to Seattle Weekly: “It seems like the kind of incident that is supposed to turn out differently in light of all the recent efforts.”

Yes, it does.

It’s important to recognize that at this point we still don’t have all the facts about Lyles’ death; we may never have them all, since Lyles is not able to tell her side of this undeniable tragedy. It’s also important to recognize that this is not the time to speculate. Yet the information we do have is enough to be troubled by, enough to take stock of how far we still need to go in reforming our police.

We know, first, that the police knew that Lyles had in the past struggled with mental-health troubles. As the two officers approached her apartment in Magnuson Park, they reviewed a previous incident in which, they claim, she said that she and her daughter were turning into wolves. Her family has confirmed that she was seeking mental-health help. SPD has said the reason two officers were responding to Lyles’ call instead of only one was this previous incident, in which police talked her into dropping a pair of scissors before arresting her.

De-escalating such situations has been a central focus of Seattle police training in recent years, ever since a 2011 federal investigation found that Seattle police showed a pattern of excessive force and possible racial bias. Among the charges made by the feds is that Seattle police had too frequently escalated situations, especially with individuals experiencing a behavioral crisis. Seattle’s efforts to comply with the federal mandates that grew out of the lawsuit garnered national attention. A 2015 New York Times story about Seattle’s efforts begins with a training officer describing “a suddenly antagonistic encounter” with a citizen and how to reduce the chance that force is used.

While we also know that there was ample skepticism toward the federally mandated de-escalation training—one officer is quoted in the article saying he thinks sticking a gun in a suspect’s face is an effective way to de-escalate a situation—on the whole it appears to be working. A report by Seattle’s federal monitor in April showed a 60 percent drop in “moderate” or “high-level” use of force since 2011.

That’s great news. Yet it also deepens the sting of what happened Sunday. That in this context of increased training and reduced antagonism, two officers shot and killed a woman who weighs about 100 pounds and who they knew was experiencing mental-health problems is disquieting, to say the least.

Audio of the incident suggests that the officers wanted things to turn out differently. One can be heard saying “Tase her” as Lyles approaches them with a knife; the other officer responds that he doesn’t have a Taser. Gunshots then ring out. Among other things, Lyles’ death is a reminder that guns and human error are a tragic mix, and one would hope, given the reforms, that the officers would have been better prepared to avoid them.

Cops go into awful situations daily. As the April use-of-force report noted, SPD officers “face tense and dangerous situations” and “are routinely called upon to interact with individuals who have been let down, left behind, or forgotten by the social-service, mental-health, educational, and criminal-justice systems.” That’s no doubt true. It would be delusional to think that more de-escalation training or Tasers will cure the ills that so often put police and those in crisis in proximity in the first place.

Yet we must stay vigilant and shun discouragement. We’ve been over this. It can get better. It’s up to us as a city to see that it does.

editorial@seattleweekly.com

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