Seattle police shoot black woman; tensions run high

Charleena Lyles Vigil

Friends and family console Monika Williams, sister of Charleena Lyles, who was shot and killed by Seattle police officers Sunday.

Hours after Seattle Police shot and killed Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old African-American woman, in her Magnuson Park apartment, a growing group of people who described themselves as Lyles' aunties, cousins and sister were still inconsolable. The news had trickled out as one called the other, called the other, called the other. Many had driven in from Tacoma or Puyallup or other cities on Seattle’s edges to see for themselves what they couldn’t quite believe.

“I don’t understand why they got to kill everybody,” said Tonya Isabell, 54, Lyles’ biological cousin, but whom everyone present called “auntie.” Cousin Robin Cockerherm said Lyles was “78 pounds wet. They could have pushed her aside like this,” swiping the air with her palm.

The police shooting of an African-American woman appears bound to raise particular questions for a department that is operating under a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice over its use of what a federal investigation found to be excessive amounts of force. The same investigation also found indications of biased policing, although it reached no firm conclusions on that score.

According to the Seattle Police Department, officers were responding to reports of a burglary in Lyles' apartment shortly before 10 a.m. Sunday. Lyles had apparently called the police about the burglary from her apartment in Brettler Family Place, a housing complex at Magnuson Park run by Solid Ground, a social services nonprofit.

Lyles allegedly opened her door holding a knife. Two officers fired multiple times, killing her.

Seattle Police did not immediately release the names of the officers. According to The Seattle Times, both are white.

According to accounts from the department and family members, three of Lyles' children, ages 11, 4, and 1, were inside the apartment when she was killed, and they were taken into protective custody. Family members said she has a fourth child who was not living with her and, according to family members, one of the children has Down syndrome.

Monika Williams, Lyles' sister, said that Lyles had recently learned she was pregnant, the result of a test conducted while in King County Jail. Representatives from the jail did not immediately respond to requests for confirmation.

In the weeks before the shooting, Lyles had been arrested on several minor charges and spent nine days in jail, according to King County records. As a result, the department had flagged her and her apartment in its records system. So when dispatchers got the call, the department sent more officers than it might otherwise have done, according to the Seattle Police Department's blog.

Early Monday, the department released an audio recording taken from the officers' in-car video system, which captures sound through officer-worn microphones even after they've left their car. The two officers knew of Lyles and can be heard discussing her prior incidents as well as her mental health. The audio ends with the two men shooting Lyles, but in the minutes leading up to her death, the interaction between officers and a woman, presumably Lyles, is calm and apparently under control. The recording does not provide a clear narrative of events, but indicates that the situation changed rapidly.

Crosscut has also obtained dispatch recordings, beginning from when Lyles was shot.

"Auntie" Isabell had housed Lyles for three months in Tacoma before Lyles found the spot in Magnuson Park a year ago. Isabell and fellow cousin Cockerherm both described Lyles as a good, loving person, who cared deeply about her children. She had struggles, they both said — with mental health as well as an abusive boyfriend — but she was working on it.

“Just because of where she lived and the mental things she's going through doesn't mean you get to take her life,” Isabell said.

There is likely at least some video recording of the event: There are two security cameras at either end of the hallway where Lyles lived. Solid Ground Communications Director Mike Buchman confirmed that police had already taken footage from the security cameras. Lyle lived in the apartment in the middle of the hall; how revealing the footage will be depends on how much of the incident took place in the hallway.

In the wake of federally mandated reforms to the police department under the consent decree, SPD’s Force Investigation Team and detectives from the Crime Scene Investigators unit were conducting a top-to-bottom review of the scene. Representatives from the Office of Professional Accountability, the department’s disciplinary review arm, were also on hand to interview the officers and review their conduct.

Force investigations like these can take months to complete, but in high-profile and racially charged shootings, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole have been known to expedite the process: When an officer shot and killed Che Taylor over a year ago, the investigation was shortened by several months. The officers’ behavior was eventually found to be within police department protocols.

As a part of those federally driven reforms, officers in the Seattle Police Department have been required to go through more de-escalation and crisis intervention training. Nevertheless, knives are still treated as deadly weapons and officers are instructed to pull their weapons when confronted with one. During one mock scene at the academy, where all recruits complete basic training, Crosscut observed a rookie officer scolded for not pulling his weapon quickly enough when faced with a knife.

In a statement after Sunday's shooting, Mayor Murray pledged a thorough investigation. "Today’s incident is a tragedy for all involved. My thoughts are with the many people impacted, including three children and the responding officers."

Both officers were placed on paid administrative leave, a standard practice in such situations.

The scene at Magnuson Park was surreal: Residents lingered in doorways as officers filed in and out of Lyles’ apartment holding large red bags marked with the biohazard symbol. In the background, on the park’s grounds, men played cricket.

Meanwhile, Lyles’ family had already begun imagining their next step. Lyles’ sister, Williams, pointed to the work Che Taylor’s brother, Andre, has done since the death of his brother. Taylor's organization Not This Time advocates for changing state law to make it easier to prosecute police officers who use deadly force, a nearly impossible standard as the law is currently written. Isabell, with whom Lyles had stayed in Tacoma, said she never affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement before, but certainly would now.

Mourners light candles at a vigil for Charleena Lyles who was shot and killed by Seattle Police Department on Sunday. Credit: Matt M. McKnight

At a candlelight vigil Sunday evening, more than 100 people crowded outside Lyles' apartment building as family members and acquaintances spoke in a raw display of emotion. Williams could hardly finish what she was saying.

Among the speakers was Taylor. "We're tired of going through this same thing," he shouted. "We're tired of it." He used the occasion to advocate for a new ballot initiative, "De-escalate Washington," that would change Washington state's laws around prosecuting police officers for deadly use-of-force. Taylor called it "the worst law on police accountability in the nation" because it requires prosecutors to prove officers acted in "malice" to obtain a conviction.

Attendees lingered for more than two hours as the sun went down over Magnuson Park. They continued to listen as people spoke, occasionally chanting, "Say her name!" and "We want justice."

National media has already begun to take note, with high profile news outlets and activists such as Shaun King using the hashtag #CharleenaLyles on Twitter. Fresh on the acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who shot and killed Philando Castile in Minnesota while Castile's girlfriend live-streamed his death via social media, the relationship between communities of color and police departments remains tense.

Lyles' death, it seems, will make things worse.

Monday, June 19, 7:15 AM: This article has been updated to include the audio released by the Seattle Police Department, as well as the dispatch communications obtained by Crosscut.   


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.