‘Murder is Murder’: Despite Reforms, Mourners Fear Justice Will Be Elusive for Charleena Lyles

Use of force reviews remain firmly under SPD control. That’s left families unsatisfied before.

A fierce grief blanketed the crowd of hundreds who rallied Tuesday evening outside the Sand Point home of Charleena Lyles, two days after the pregnant mother of four was shot and killed by two Seattle police officers. Many family members sobbed as they described the sister, the cousin, or the neice they’d lost, their voices catching in their throats; several family members tried to speak, but wept for a minute or two before they could manage get any words out at all. When James Bible, the civil rights attorney representing the family, described what happened on Sunday, Lyles’ older sister, Monika Williams, dashed through the crowd, sobbing, “I can’t hear this anymore. I can’t hear this anymore.”

The mood was raw, and at times livid. Cutting through every speech, every moment of silence, came the refrain: “SAY HER NAME! CHARLEENA LYLES! SAY HER NAME! CHARLEENA LYLES!

Many who spoke into the microphone demanded justice for murder.

“I’ve been crying since I found out about this moment on Sunday,” Bible told the crowd, “but our tears will lead to action, inevitably. … One reality that will always be present in a situation like this, in any sort of police murder — and I did say those words, based on the information I’ve reviewed, based on the things that I’ve seen… is that ultimately those police officers get to sit in a nice courtroom and talk about what they saw … but the thing that you never, ever, ever get to hear is from the person that’s passed away. … That’s why at this moment we need to do everything that we can to represent her, to represent her children, to represent her family, to say that her life matters.”

Referring to what the Seattle Police Department’s audio transcript revealed, he added, “If you have time to look at your friend and say, ‘Should I use my Taser or should I use my gun?’ And then say, ‘Oh wait a second, I don’t have a Taser’… You had time to do better than you did. That’s why I say murder is murder is murder is murder is murder is murder is murder is murder is murder.

That, too, became a refrain Tuesday evening.

“I’ll never see my sister again,” said Lyles’ younger sister, Tiffany Rogers, her voice rising in pitch, choking back tears. “I just wanna grieve right now, and I can’t even do that because I’m so angry. I’m scared of our so-called ‘protectors.’ I was before, but I definitely am now. It hit too close to home. I would have never thought in a million years that it would happen to my sister.”

The calls for justice came fast and furious — “I want justice for my cousin,” one of Lyles’ cousins cried, “We will get justice for my cousin” — but whether it will the kind of justice the mourning family and the angry crowd wants remains very much to be seen.

Officially, what happens next is that the SPD’s Force Investigation Team (FIT) will look into the shooting, a process now mandated under the federal consent decree. According to a statement by Office of Professional Accountability director Pierce Murphy, these new policies “require SPD to fully investigate and critically analyze every officer-involved shooting before determining whether or not to refer it to OPA for potential disciplinary recommendations.” The FIT investigation could take two or three months or more. It’s then weighed by the SPD’s Force Review Board, which determines whether the officers operated within SPD training and protocols, and “any conduct the FRB concludes may have been in violation of SPD policy is automatically referred to OPA.” The King County Prosecutor’s Office may also review the case and call for a coroner’s inquest.

Public Defender Association director Lisa Daugaard, speaking for that office and not as a member of the Community Police Commission (CPC), is concerned that this process isn’t adequate. “As we learned after the investigation of the Che Taylor killing last year, the wholly internal Force Review Board process that was put in place under the settlement agreement with DOJ does not do enough to publicly identify lessons learned so that avoidable loss of life will not be repeated,” she wrote via e-mail. “I would like to see immediate attention to whether there can a fully independent investigation of the facts in situations like this.”

According to Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who spoke angrily to the crowd Tuesday evening, and read aloud several of the nine questions her office fired off to the SPD, what currently exists is not enough, either. “We demand that the City of Seattle appoint an independent committee to review this case with full public accountability,” she said. “We cannot rely on the existing process to determine why Charleena was killed because that process has failed Che Taylor; that process has failed every person who was killed at the hands of the police.”

In late May, the City Council unanimously passed what has been called historic police-accountability legislation, which increases the amount of independent, civilian oversight into police reform and operations. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle told the Seattle Times that this legislation would move beyond “front-end” prevention work to “the important safeguards necessary on the ‘back end’ when things go wrong and discipline of an officer is being considered.”

Yet the recent legislation is not likely to impact this investigation very much — at least in the near term. Daugaard points to an accompanying resolution that calls for the CPC to eventually “convene a stakeholder conversation about whether an external investigation process for serious uses of force is feasible and desirable.” And Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who was present at the event, specified in a brief interview that the new legislation is still waiting on both a review by federal judge James Robart and on bargaining negotiations with the police union.

But one change did happen Tuesday evening: Following repeated calls for a public hearing where Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole would field direct questions from the public, Herbold decided that, as chair of the Council’s Civil Rights Committee, she’d hold one. “I did not come here planning to have this hearing,” she said. “I was moved in the moment.”

As a result, she was short on details, but suggested that “ideally, what I see happening is the public coming and asking their questions and us sharing that with the OPA, the [Police] Chief, the CPC, and having that be a part of what we get back as part of the investigation.” While all the investigative bodies will do their own, independent work, “I think they would be open to looking at the questions that members of the public have and trying to get answers to those questions as part of their investigation. That’s what I would hope.”

Also on Tuesday, a coalition called De-Escalate Washington announced that it had been working for 18 months on a new initiative to the legislature in 2018 to change state law around police killings and police training. The initiative, according to the summary document filed with the Secretary of State, “would require law enforcement to receive violence de-escalation, mental health, and first aid training, and provide first aid; and change standards for use of deadly force, adding a ‘good faith’ standard and independent investigation.”

Williams, Lyles’ older sister, speaking to a circle of reporters after the speeches were over, said she believed that “when the police department does the shooting, the same police department should not be investigating.”

Williams said she will remember her sister’s giant smile most of all — a smile now plastered across social media, the next in a line of black Americans slain by police. Several who spoke Tuesday evening suggested her case could be an example for the nation. “All these killings have gone unsolved; maybe this is the one that’s going to make a difference,” said Laurie Davis, Lyles’ aunt, in a hoarse voice. “Charleena told me that she would make an impact on this world. And she’s doing that now. She’s doing that right now.”