Podcast | When police response to a crisis call goes wrong

Seattle police have undergone additional training to better respond to people in crisis, but they still end up killing some of those people.

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Demonstrators take to the streets to protest the fatal police shooting of Charleena Lyles. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Seattle police, more than many police departments, have extensive training to improve their response to people in crisis — but sometimes they kill or injure people after a call for help. In this episode of This Changes Everything’s focus on defunding the police, we look at what happens when things go wrong. 

Reporter David Kroman revisits the case of Charleena Lyles, a young Black mother who was killed by Seattle police in one of the department's most controversial incidents. There is little doubt that Lyles' death was the result of a failure, but there is disagreement over where the blame for that failure lies. 

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To understand what happened and what it can tell us about the complicated role of police in crisis calls, Kroman explores the choices made by officers on the day of Lyles' death, as well as those made within the system before the encounter.

In this six-part podcast, available now in its entirety, host Sara Bernard and Kroman take a close look at the challenges of policing today and explore whether it’s even possible to downsize the police force and create a new public safety regime that is more equitable and safe.

Keep listening:

Episode 1: How reform gave way to ‘Defund the Police’ in Seattle

Episode 2: Seattle police, social workers and mental health crisis calls

Episode 4: An Oregon city’s decades-old alternative to police

Episode 5: Defund, then what? Seattle activists’ ideas for police dollars

Episode 6: When defunding the police meets Seattle’s political reality


Transcripts for This Changes Everything are the product of a third-party service. The audio stands as the official record for the reporting in this series.

Anonymous speaker: [00:00:00] This episode of This Changes Everything is presented by the Crosscut Festival, May 3rd through the 8th, online and in Seattle.

Sara Bernard: [00:00:10] So a mental health crisis, depending on the situation, can certainly look violent or dangerous. That's often why people call 911

Daniel Malone: [00:00:17] Very often with behavioral health crises. there's something about the behaviors of the individual that makes other people think that there is an element of danger.

Sara Bernard: [00:00:32] This again is Daniel Malone, executive director of Downtown Emergency Service Center, or DESC, an organization that serves a lot of people who sometimes suffer from these sorts of crises.

Daniel Malone: [00:00:42] And, you know, oftentimes it's totally understandable why people would think that, because the person may be behaving erratically or unable to communicate in a clear and straightforward way. And that kind of stuff can often make people think that there's something unpredictable about the person or that there might be a potential for some kind of acting out behavior.

And so those kinds of events tend to make people think that what they're looking at is a public safety issue rather than a health issue.

Usually those responses have a beneficial result. But, in rare cases, police react in ways that made the situation worse and resulted in some kind of harm to somebody.

Sara Bernard: [00:01:53] This is where things get really difficult. In the context of Black Lives Matter and what instigated all these calls for defunding police in the first place, the main concern is a police officer's ability to use force. To some people, bringing police to a health-related situation can seem mismatched because, despite whatever training, they aren't mental health professionals and they have guns.

Still, Seattle is ahead of a lot of police departments when it comes to these issues. At least 60% of all sworn officers in the Seattle Police Department have been through a 40 hour training in crisis intervention, which covers different kinds of mental illnesses and their symptoms, includes deescalation techniques and emphasizes patience and active listening. Here, again, is Lieutenant Dan Nelson.

Dan Nelson: [00:03:17] So at times when people are kind of more of the emotionally based crisis or that they're suicidal or they're depressed, they have a lot of anxiety and things like that, we really want to come in with a soft approach. And this is something that's really emphasized in the 40-hour training, is something we practice a lot in our own SPD training.

Like, how do you soften your appearance with all of your stuff? And, you know, we're lowering your level, we're trying to maintain eye contact, we're doing a lot of active listening and just trying to meet the person where they're at.

Sara Bernard: [00:03:50] Use of force in these situations is very low in Seattle. These days.

Daniel Malone: [00:03:54] The vast majority of times that individual officers are dealing with DESC clients, it goes well.

Dan Nelson: [00:04:01] Again, I'm not saying that we're not without flaws, because we definitely have opportunities on some incidents where we can definitely do better, but far and away, we do a very, very good job.

Again, it's been a minute, but when I was the CIT  (Crisis Intervention Training) coordinator, I mean, we're using force less than 2% of the time we're engaging with people in behavioral crisis. Less than 2% of the time. That is ridiculous. And then of those times we're using force, 75% of the time it's our lowest level of force, it's usually complaints of pain related to handcuffs being put on.

So, I mean, extremely low level. Now, again I'm not saying we're perfect, because we are not perfect, but we do a very, very good job. At these most dynamic and unpredictable type incidents, we're actually using force at an extremely low rate.

Sara Bernard: [00:04:48] But force is still more likely during mental or behavioral health crises than other situations.

Crisis calls accounted for a little over 2% of all 911 calls in Seattle in 2017 and 2018, but 25% of all of SPD's documented uses of force. Nationally, studies show that one in four people shot and killed by police suffered from some form of mental illness.

Daniel Malone: [00:05:20] We simply have too many people in crisis, law enforcement trying to do their best in the worst case scenarios, and that's when these sorts of tragedies occur.

Sara Bernard: [00:05:33] I'm Sara Bernard and this is This Changes Everything, a podcast from Crosscut about the new normal. So, this is part two of our exploration of 911 crisis calls, this specific kind of mental health or behavioral health crisis that police officers in Seattle and across the country see all the time. It's not a crime, it's not a law that's been broken, but we've given this task to police.

As one news headline over the last few months put it, "We train police to be warriors, but then send them out to be social workers." Sometimes, then, things can go very wrong. And yet there are reasons we've defaulted to the system.

And the systems that contribute to these crises in the first place those are way, way bigger than the police department. Stay with us.

So, yeah, tragically, across the country, there are huge numbers of people killed by police while experiencing a mental health crisis. It's rare, but it happens in Seattle, too. One of the most well-known and criticized police killings in recent years in Seattle was of young mother Charleena Lyles.

David Kroman: [00:07:07] When you look at a case like Charleena Lyles, I would say fairly definitively, everybody sees that as a failure.

Sara Bernard: [00:07:16] This, again, is Crosscut staff reporter David Kroman.

David Kroman: [00:07:20] A woman ended up dead at the end, and that is universally considered to be a failure.

The thing where there is disagreement is whose failure that is. For many people in the community, the failure was the police officers.

Woman's voice: [00:07:35] She took bullets in her stomach and another in her chest. She was less than a hundred pounds yet the police called her a threat. 

David Kroman: [00:07:43] You have this mismatch. You know, the threat, the apparent threat was a knife, officers were using a gun.

Man's voice: [00:07:49] 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. I guess we're going to have to kill her," you have time to do better than you did.

Sara Bernard: [00:08:03] This audio is from a rally and vigil for Charleena Lyles, which was live streamed on Facebook a few days after her death.

David Kroman: [00:08:09] And that's why I say

Man's voice: [00:08:10] Murder is murder is murder is murder is murder is murder is murder.

David Kroman: [00:08:15] It's not hard to imagine why people see that as a breakdown and, you know, no matter what the mental state of Charleena Lyles at the time, see that that situation did not need to end in police shooting her.

When you talked to police about that, they also agree it's a failure.

Dan Nelson: [00:08:48] It's very, very unfortunate. At the end of the day, we can try to accommodate for folks mental health stuff. And we really do. We try it, a lot. I mean, between our response plan, our ongoing efforts with community mental health providers or mental health professionals that we have in house, we've put a lot of energy and effort into trying to accommodate for people's mental health disability.

But at times when the person's behavior is creating an imminent risk to somebody else or the opposite, themselves, that's when, kind of the expectation for further deescalation is off the table.

Sara Bernard: [00:09:31] We should note here that charges were never brought against the officers involved in the killing of Charleena Lyles and a wrongful death suit was dismissed.

So, the imminent threat in the moment, that changes the protoco,l Lieutenant Nelson says. But for a lot of police, there's also a bigger picture.

David Kroman: [00:10:01] They view themselves as being at the end of a pipeline of broken systems. And so, you know, I've brought this up with a few officers, including Grayson and including Lieutenant Nelson.

Sara Bernard: [00:10:12] That's Sandlin Grayson, who David rode along with in our last episode.

David Kroman: [00:10:16] And, you know, Lieutenant Nelson pointed out, you know, argued to me that Charleena Lyles had been in court before. About a week before her death, she had gone through the court systems.

Dan Nelson: [00:10:28] So the week prior we had been out there and, um, she exhibited similar type behavior. And the officers did a wonderful job with it, and they were able to manage it without having to use any force and referred it through the municipal mental health court. And then the judge, the judge, um, agreed to release, release her.

David Kroman: [00:10:49] The judge at the time elected, you know, she had had some, you know, some red flags about her mental health state, but the judge at the time had decided that she was okay to be out on her own, that she didn't need to be emergently detained anymore.

So for the police, they view that that situation, that in that situation, they followed the policies that they were trained to follow, which was, they felt like there was an imminent threat of harm or death to themselves, and so use lethal force. And that the failure that led to that was not there so much as it was this court system and this mental health system before them, that had allowed that interaction to occur in the first place.

Dan Nelson: [00:11:34] There's no perfect system. I think, you know, I trust the judge's assessments, and if he felt safe with her, her being back in the community, based on the stipulations on things, I think that's fine.

I think it's unfortunate that clearly she had some unmet needs that she still kind of had her same state of mind, I guess.

Sara Bernard: [00:12:00] And Grayson says this too, more or less

Sandlin Grayson: [00:12:02] When we are responding to incidents, we were reacting to that person's actions and behaviors. So, we're not going to have a successful outcome, you know, a hundred percent of the time or the outcome that we want. where everybody is safe and everybody is unharmed

Sara Bernard: [00:12:25] No system is successful. 100% of the time. But again, there is a larger context here: the role that the police department plays in most cities. Not to abdicate responsibility for killings that should never have happened, nelson says, but to acknowledge that there are so many things that go wrong long before the police get there.

And there's a lot the cops are doing that maybe they shouldn't be.

Dan Nelson: [00:12:49] Right. You know, and this is something that, you know, you talk about -- and just everything going on, locally and nationally around policing -- as police definitely have an input -- I mean, we are the input into the system -- but there is an entire system behind us.

And so we respond to the calls for service. We can't say no, we can't choose not to go. And we responded. Based on our training and discretion and everything else, we do what we do. But there are -- we're talking about reform, when we talk about all of this stuff -- there are a whole bunch of other things beyond the police.

Talk about mental health services. We are in drastic need of an entire mental health system overhaul. Like, it is bad. Every year, they do a national ranking on mental health delivery systems by state. Just historically you see our state of Washington is usually 46, 47 of the country. Oregon's one behind us.

Sara Bernard: [00:13:47] And so, when it comes to mental health crises, you might just have the rare few officers, like Sandlin Grayson, who actually want to be doing this.

David Kroman: [00:13:55] I would say it's actually become fairly commonplace to hear from officers that, from officers and leadership in particular in police departments, that responding to mental health crises was never supposed to be the role of police.

And it's something that they're not well set up to do. And something that a lot of officers did not want to do. I think every officer you would talk to, if you were to ask them, "Should we come up, should we design the mental health delivery system and manage it to a level to where it does not require officers to respond, to manage emergent mental health issues?" everyone would say yes. I don't think anyone would have any heartburn with that theory at all.

Dan Nelson: [00:14:39] The reason that police take hold so much is because we  are the stopgap.

David Kroman: [00:14:43] It's not the thing that a lot of these people signed up for. And, yet, it's the thing that a lot of them are doing.

Daniel Malone: [00:14:53] You know, police are desired to deal with some situation that worries people or possibly scares them.

Sara Bernard: [00:15:01] This, again, is DESC director Daniel Malone. 

Daniel Malone: [00:15:03] So then there is more support for the idea that, well, we need more police. It's just demanded more reliance on police to kind of manage situations or, or deal with certain kinds of social issues that police probably were never created for.

David Brown: [00:15:33] We're asking cops to do too much in this country.

In July 2016, former Dallas Police Chief David Brown said something similar.

We are, we're just askin' us to do too much. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cop handle it.

Sara Bernard: [00:15:53] This was just after the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castiel and of five Dallas police officers, allegedly in retaliation for police killings of black men,

David Brown: [00:16:03] Not enough drug addiction funding. Let's give it to the cop. 

Sara Bernard: [00:16:06] These comments are four-and-a-half years old, but they resonate.

David Brown: [00:16:10] You know, schools fail. Give it to the cops. Um, 70% of the African American community is being raised by single women. Let's give it to the cops to solve that as well. That's too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.

And I just ask for other parts of our democracy, along with the free press, to help. To help us and not put that burden on law enforcement to resolve.

Sara Bernard: [00:16:49] We'll be right back.

Anonymous speaker: [00:16:58] This last year has changed the way we talk about race, policing, public health politics, the climate, the arts, and the economy. And in many ways it's changed how we talk to one another. But it hasn't stopped the conversation.

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Okay. Back to the show.

Sara Bernard: [00:18:08] So most of the time, in most parts of the country, it's police who respond to mental health crises and overdoses and suicide attempts, as well as all kinds of other things that may or may not be what you think of when you think police officer. As we touched on in the last episode, a really hefty percentage of 911 calls, in the ballpark of half, depending on how you look at it, are non-criminal. Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis pointed this out a number of times over the summer.

Andrew Lewis: [00:18:33] And the data just doesn't bear out, as far as I can tell, that we need more police. It bears out we need more first response and that we're sending the wrong first responder in a lot of situations.

Sara Bernard: [00:18:42] Well, police responding to this stuff? It's still the most available option. There are, we should say, some crisis response alternatives in King County, including for instance, the Downtown Emergency Service Centers' own mobile crisis team, which was first launched as a pilot project almost a decade ago; and Health One, a Seattle fire department program, first piloted in 2019, that can respond to some of these kinds of calls four days a week

BUt these programs are just not to scale. They're not fast enough. And they don't always have the authority necessary to handle every type of situation the way police can.

Here, again, is Emily Katz, the former DESC nurse who you heard from in the last episode.

Emily Katz: [00:19:34] If I were to map out, you know, someone's in crisis, what are, what are your options in this situation? And my priority, in that moment was about timing, that like I needed something to happen now, then I have to involve the police. That's my only option if that's the priority, but it is a tool that I have to rely on sometimes. And I hate that. I wish there was something better, but our crisis system is not a crisis system. It is like a very slow referral system to something that doesn't work all that well, so it's hard to rely on that.

David Kroman: [00:20:07] When you're having a conversation around swapping out officers responding to crisis, people in crisis, you know, some of it is about the individual who's best trained to do it. Who's kind of best equipped to talk to and deescalate people in crisis. But a lot of it is this sort of frustratingly logistical side, which is police officers can drive their cars really fast, police officers have Narcan on their belt, they have a dispatch system that can send them there. 

Sandlin Grayson: [00:20:36] I carry Narcan in my vehicle and, typically for an overdose, it's often police that are arriving first, just because we drive these small vehicles, as opposed to a, a ladder truck or a medic.

David Kroman: [00:20:51] And if things prove to be unsafe, they have the legal authority to detain people. They have the legal authority to use force.

Sara Bernard: [00:21:04] Mariah Andrignis, the mental health professional who travels alongside Officer Grayson, points out that people really do need to be detained sometimes. Not arrested, but brought to the hospital for their own safety. And in her role, she's not legally allowed to bring them there.

Mariah Andrignis: [00:21:19] If someone needs to go to the hospital for a mental health reason, they're involuntarily committed because they're suicidal, yeah, that power exists only with him. I can't do it alone. I could go to someone standing on the side of the building, wanting to jump, and I'm still going to have to call them.

David Kroman: [00:21:36] So, it's this situation where it's just kind of, logistically and often legally, the path of least resistance to send an officer, even if an officer might not be the best person for the kind of long-term needs of that person and of society.

Sara Bernard: [00:22:00] And sometimes, regardless of the long-term needs of a person in crisis, there is violence involved and it makes sense to have people trained in violent encounters there.

David Kroman: [00:22:08] There was this incident in 2005 in Kitsap County where a social worker went into an apartment for somebody going through a crisis and the person ended up stabbing that social worker to death. This horrible situation, but that kind of hangs over, in some ways it -- it's not something that a lot of people talk about -- but it does kind of hang over the entire conversation around who else could respond to these things. Because I think, for as much as people want someone other than police officers to respond to crisis events, there's this twinge of fear. Sometimes it's very pronounced. Sometimes it's very subtle of, you know, what happens in a situation like that.

And so, in some ways, it is just easier to send a police officer, because if the situation does turn violent or unsafe, officers have the authority and the tools to use force and to use sometimes lethal force.

Sandlin Grayson: [00:23:11] When somebody is violent and they're armed, that is, I think, the place for law enforcement.

So I can't see where that would not be the case. We are going in, contacting very high risk people where there's that very high likelihood of serious injury or death.

David Kroman: [00:23:35] How many of your, how often are you responding to those kinds of call, would you say?

Sandlin Grayson: [00:23:42] Daily. Daily.

Dan Nelson: [00:23:46] A lot of our calls for service around people in behavioral crisis are from the actual care providers themselves. So, we have shelter space, we have drop-in centers who have somebody who's inside their facility, who's behaviorally out of control. And all of the staff have tried their deescalation, they've tried all of their stuff, and this person's behavior is beyond that and they can't effectively or safely manage it. So they end up calling the police.

David Kroman: [00:24:20] What is DESC's general relationship with the police right now, would you say?

Daniel Malone: [00:24:26] It's varied and complicated.

Sara Bernard: [00:24:28] Here again is DESC executive director, Daniel Malone.

Daniel Malone: [00:24:32] We serve a lot of people who are in very difficult situations, very hard times in their lives, and that just can result in many different kinds of events or incidents that sometimes devolve into problems that get beyond our immediate ability to settle down. And then sometimes, there ends up being an element of fear or concern that someone's behavior is going to result in harm to other people. And so our staff call the police for help.

There is no doubt that there are some situations where it isn't safe or appropriate for social workers to be the only people trying to manage the situation.

David Kroman: [00:25:37] Your typical nurse at a homeless shelter, or something like that, doesn't have in their back pocket the ability to say this situation is going to result in death or injury to either this person or somebody near this person, imminently, therefore I'm going to make the decision to end this situation. That's something that really only the police can do and moving away from that and feeling comfortable with not having somebody like that on scene, I think, is a roadblock, not just for police or public officials, but you know, some of the people who would take their place.

I think for some of those, you know, some social workers didn't go to school to be out there on the streets and feeling potentially unsafe. So, you know, it's a really, again, it's one of those situations where most people acknowledge things could be better and yet getting around those sorts of basic hurdles of who's actually there, who has the authority to do what, I think is more difficult than maybe some people realize

Sara Bernard: [00:26:45] Still, it's also important to point out that right now, Seattle police officers, alongside a handful of mental health counselors, are helping some people get the care they need.

Sandlin Grayson: [00:26:54] I think we long have been and will continue to be the portal to the patient healthcare system because, you know, we're not care providers, but we're part of that continuum of care.

Mariah Andrignis: [00:27:13] I think we did the math and it was like 30% of officers are now contacting case managers for clients on the scene, which is something that didn't happen five years ago.

Sara Bernard: [00:27:24] And there's some research suggesting that the presence of a mental health professional with an officer gets better outcomes.

David Kroman: [00:27:29] And there are studies that suggest that that genuinely does make a difference, that it improves outcomes in crisis situations when you have mental health professionals at police officer's side.

It is very, at least in the model that Seattle has right now, it is very intertwined in policing. They ride in the same police car. If your issue and your concern is that police make the situation worse, if they shouldn't be there, if their very presence makes the situation worse, putting a mental health professional in the car with that person is probably not going to satisfy your concerns.

But as far as, you know, if you're thinking of it more from a harm reduction model, what things can be made now that, while not certainly solutions to the problem, make things better.

Sara Bernard: [00:28:22] In any case, this is an area of policing that's getting a lot of attention from City Hall.

Mayor Jenny Durkin, for instance, has brought it up time and again, including during a virtual town hall meeting.

Jenny Durkan: [00:28:34] We have seen over many decades that now police respond to any range of calls that really are a reflection of where things have broken down in society and other institutions have not been in place to do the jobs they need.

For example, last year, the Seattle police department responded to almost 17,000 crisis calls. 17,000 crisis calls. We need to build a system in place so that fewer people have to call in the first place and they get the help that they need in the community. We saw a great defunding of mental health over the last few decades.

David Kroman: [00:29:13] You find these points of agreement. Like, we need better mental health systems. Not very many people would argue against that in either city hall or the police department.

Dan Nelson: [00:29:26] If the state wants to set more money aside for mental health, there is literally no one standing in their way. They can do that. It's just, they're, they're choosing not to.

David Kroman: [00:29:35] It's the, all right, what comes after that? And the thing that seems to be happening in city hall is police have always had a lot of money. And so we're going to, we'd like to take money from police to help bolster some of that stuff. And police think that is a bad idea.

Sara Bernard: [00:30:00] Most people can agree on this, at least: We have to fund crisis response. We have to fund systems to take care of emergencies, whether that's police or another kind of crisis response team. And definitely a better system upstream, better mental health services, better social safety nets. Those would help prevent so many of these crises from happening in the first place.

But in the meantime, Lieutenant Nelson argues, we just can't take away the current system without building a really robust alternative.

Dan Nelson: [00:30:28] So while, yeah, you can pick on the cops and take all of our money and stuff like that, that's fine. You can do that. But understand there's going to be some impacts on that because right now the system is not set up to operate sans police.

And, again, I'm down to have that conversation. If we set up a system of care, which doesn't overly rely on the police, absolutely. Let's have that conversation. But until such time as you come up with a system of care that can do that all, the only people you're going to be hurting are the people who need the services.

Sara Bernard: [00:31:07] There is one example out there of a system of care that operates sans police. Well, at least a good chunk of the time. You might even have heard of it by now, since as soon as the protests began, this relatively small organization in Eugene, Oregon started getting hundreds of calls: CAHOOTS.

Woman's voice: [00:31:27] We're really like a multi-tool of public safety.

Man's voice: [00:31:29] Our underlying philosophy is that when you're in a crisis, you don't deserve to have police show up. We want to send the right resources to the right situation.

Sara Bernard: [00:31:41] That's next time on This Changes Everything.

Thanks for listening to This Changes everything.

This episode was reported by David Kroman and produced by me, Sara Bernard. The story editor was Donna Blankinship and the executive producer was Mark Baumgarten. Our cover art is by Greg Cohen. You can subscribe to This Changes Everything on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen.

And if you like the show, please rate and review us. It really helps other people find us.

For more on This Changes Everything and other Crosscut podcasts, go to crosscut.com/podcasts.

For the latest political, environmental, and culture news from the Pacific Northwest, visit crosscut.com.

This Changes everything is a product of Cascade Public Media.

I'm Sara Bernard. You can listen to all of the episodes in this series right now at crosscut.Com or wherever you get your podcasts.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story used the passive voice when referring to crisis calls that end in the killing or injuring of an individual by police. The story has been adjusted to make clear the circumstances of these cases. 

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