Police were quick to respond to Charleena Lyles’s call about a burglary in her apartment. Less than an hour after she dialed 911 on the morning of 18 June, she opened her door to two Seattle officers and explained that her Xbox went missing after a trip to the store.
Two minutes and 35 seconds later, the pregnant mother of four was lying on the floor, face-down, bleeding from gunshot wounds. Her one-year-old son crawled to her and rested his head on her body.
The policemen, who are both white, had fired bullets at Lyles from about 5ft away. They immediately scrambled to get the baby and two other children out of the apartment, but it was impossible to prevent them from seeing their mother, who died by the time the ambulance arrived.
The killing of Lyles – who police claim threatened the officers with a knife and may have been mentally ill – has reignited national criticism of racially biased policing in the US and law enforcement’s disproportionate shooting of black Americans. Once again.
But this time, the shooting has taken place in a progressive city whose leaders insist that they have created a model for de-escalation and crisis intervention training that departments across the country have followed.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who is doing it better than us,” said Sgt Dan Nelson, Seattle police’s crisis intervention team coordinator.
That claim is particularly painful for Lyles’s grieving relatives. To them, the case is a litany of all-too-familiar injustices: disregard for those with mental health challenges; the use of excessive force against communities of color; and a state legal system that makes it impossible to prosecute officers who kill civilians.
At a memorial service one week ago – packed with Lyles’s family and hundreds of other mourners – some said they were holding on to hope that the shooting was so disturbing and indefensible that it would be the catalyst for meaningful reforms.
A victim treated like a suspect
Charleena Lyles, 30, known by her loved ones as Leena, was about 15 weeks pregnant when she was killed. The day after the funeral, her siblings and cousins briefly laughed through their grief at the absurdity of two policemen feeling physically endangered by her.
She was feisty and outspoken, they said, but at 5ft 3in and 100lbs, she was not intimidating or menacing – and certainly not some kind of skilled knife-thrower as police seemed to fear.
“She’s not a threatening person at all,” said Monika Williams, her 37-year-old sister. “She was just one of those people who lit up the room.”
Her relatives said she was known as one of the most energetic people in the family and loved dancing, styling her cousins’ hair and writing poetry about her loved ones. Above all, they said, she was dedicated to her four children.
“I truly admired her as a mother and I just admired her drive,” said Shaneé Isabell, a cousin who grew up alongside her. “She was very courageous and dependable, and she was very loyal.”
Seattle officers saw something very different in Lyles. The day of her death was not the first time she had called police for help and was instead treated like a suspect.
On 5 June, Lyles called police after an ex-boyfriend showed up to her apartment unannounced, according to her family. Officers arrived to investigate a “physical domestic disturbance”, but instead of approaching her like a potential domestic violence victim, the police quickly had their service pistols drawn, records show. They felt threatened, the officers later said, because Lyles was holding a pair of scissors.
They arrested her for “harassment”, alleging she “repeatedly used words and actions to create a substantial risk of assault”.
A police report on that day said that Lyles seemed “out of touch with reality” and had made statements about police being the devil. But any struggle Lyles was having with her mental health was only further exacerbated by spending the next eight days behind bars, away from her children, her family said.
Four days after her release, on 18 June, two different officers prepared to investigate her burglary call, reviewing Lyles’s previous incident which noted that they should approach her with caution.
“She started talking all crazy,” officer Jason Anderson told the other officer, Steven McNew, according to released audio recordings. “This gal, she was the one making all these weird statements.”
When they arrived at her door, Lyles answered a few questions and the officers, in later interviews with investigators, said that everything seemed normal to them, though they both said they noticed her home was messy.
Within a few minutes, they realized she had a knife in her hand, and said in their official account that they feared she could try and stab them or throw it at them. McNew, 6ft 2in and 250lbs, later noted that he is “a little larger” than Lyles, but said he feared for his life nonetheless.
Anderson and McNew screamed at her to get back, and at one point she complied. They briefly discussed tasering her, but they didn’t have one on them. Within about 12 seconds of them noticing the knife, they both fired multiple rounds at her.
Neither officer ever ordered her to drop the knife.
‘The training is to kill’
Deep distrust of police is embedded in the family, said Williams, Lyles’s sister. “I can honestly say I would fear the police, even before this, more than I would fear a gang member. At least a gang member, you’d have to do something to them for them to want to do something to you.”
When Williams’s four-year-old daughter sees an officer, she always asks: “Are you going to shoot my dad?”
Lyles’s relatives all had stories – unjustified tickets, unwarranted stops, threatening physical contact.
Nakeya Isabell, Lyles’s cousin, said this was standard police behavior in Seattle’s African American communities: “They train your mind to fear people, specifically black people. It’s a system founded on racism … All the training is to kill.”
“They are hunting us,” said Angel Johnson, another cousin. “It’s like target practice.”
The US Department of Justice (DoJ) validated these kinds of complaints in 2011 when it concluded that the Seattle police department was engaged in an unconstitutional pattern of excessive use of force. The investigation originated with the 2010 police killing of a First Nations woodcarver who had trouble hearing and was ordered to drop his knife while walking down the street.
The DoJ inquiry resulted in a consent decree that required the agency to make significant reforms under the watch of a federal monitor.
(These kinds of court-enforced reforms are now under threat by US attorney general Jeff Sessions, who has ordered a review of consent decrees, arguing that the DoJ has gone too far in its interference with local policing.)
Seattle is proud of the progress it has made, Brian Maxey, chief operating officer, said in an interview at police headquarters. From 2011 to 2016, the department’s use of force has dropped 60%, and last year, out of 9,300 cases of encountering people in crisis, officers applied force only 1.6% of the time.
“We rarely use force and when we do, it appears to be appropriate,” he said, adding that he believes the agency has aggressively tackled racial profiling and bias.
Crisis intervention trainings emphasize de-escalation tactics – finding ways to slow down the situation, isolate suspects so they can’t harm others and use non-lethal force to disarm them. Even officers with minimal training are well equipped to respond to people facing mental health crises, said Nelson, the crisis intervention coordinator.
“They have a pretty deep level of understanding,” he said, adding, “We definitely are national leaders in our training.”
Maxey and Nelson said they couldn’t comment on the Lyles shooting while the investigation was pending, but they both noted that, in general, knives are considered lethal instruments and there are times when officers have to respond with deadly force.
‘Accountable to nobody’
The officers who killed Lyles had both done the required crisis intervention training.
Anderson later admitted he was supposed to be carrying a Taser, but that his battery recently died and he hadn’t replaced it.
Seated inside his seventh-floor office in city hall, Seattle mayor Ed Murray called Lyles’s death a “tragedy” and “huge setback” for the city. “Seattle’s story, I think, is significant progress, but we’re not there yet … The question is what failed with their training.”
Katrina Johnson, Lyles’s cousin, scoffed at the idea that the department had improved, noting that the medical examiner’s office told her that Lyles had two bullet wounds in her back: “They de-escalate who they want to de-escalate.”
No matter what evidence emerges, the officers are very unlikely to face any criminal consequences in Washington, which is by some measures the hardest place in America to hold police accountable.
In 1986, the state passed legislation saying officers cannot face prosecution for killing someone in the line of duty unless they acted with “malice” and “evil intent”.
The law is the most restrictive in the US, where it is generally very difficult to convict officers who kill, since they can broadly cite self defense. Despite video evidence, officers across the country have avoided criminal consequences in most high profile killings in recent years, including the deaths of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and Tamir Rice.
In Washington, police are never convicted. Out of 213 police killings in a 10-year-period, only one officer was even charged, according to a Seattle Times investigation.
“It’s the worst law in the nation,” said André Taylor, a police reform activist whose brother was killed by police last year. “It can embolden officers. They feel they have this special immunity. They don’t want to be responsible or accountable to nobody.”
Taylor, who has been assisting Lyles’s family, is chairing a campaign to pass a ballot measure that would remove the “malice” language.
Without criminal consequences, activists have argued, the killings will continue. Under the current laws, Taylor argued, the easiest way to get away with murder in Washington state is to put on a police uniform.
Life without their mother
Lyles’s oldest children have avoided talking much about their mother’s death. Her 11-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter are aware of some of the marches and protests in her honor, but they’ve struggled to process the events, said Francis Butts, their grandmother, who is taking care of them.
“I’ve just been keeping them busy,” she said, seated in the basement of a Seattle church where the family was preparing a reception after the funeral. “They just seem normal, but you can look in their eyes and you can see the hurt and pain.”
Lyles’s four-year-old and one-year-old, who were crawling nearby when their mother died, don’t seem to understand what happened. But Lyles’s family fears long term impacts for the toddlers, who are now living with one of her sisters.
“They are going to have secondary trauma for the rest of their lives,” said Katrina, one of the cousins.
Nakeya noted that the children were frightened by loud noises at the funeral and could be suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress. “These are two babies who can’t communicate. What are they going to do? We can’t bring their mother back.”
Shaneé said there was at least one clear lesson she took away from her cousin’s death: she would never call the police again.