The fatal shooting of an African-American woman in front of her children after she called police for help was met with widespread outrage and condemnation Monday, even as people struggled to learn more about the events that led to Charleena Lyles’ death at the hands of two white Seattle police officers.
The reaction, locally and nationally, was notable for its breadth and depth, as individuals and activists across the spectrum of social-justice and mental-health groups demanded answers to the killing of the 30-year-old mother of four.
“This young woman was shot down like a dog,’’ said KL Shannon, a community organizer who chairs the Seattle King County NAACP’s police-accountability efforts. “The question is why? They could have Tased her. She was 75 pounds. They could have overpowered her.”
Shannon said reports that police knew of Lyle’s struggles with mental illness raised additional questions about the police response after Lyle called them to report a suspected burglary at her apartment in Magnuson Park. The family also said she was pregnant.
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“If you know in advance that the individual you’re dealing with has mental-health issues, why didn’t you bring someone with you who knows how to deal with that?” she asked.
Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner of Seattle, executive director of MomsRising, a national, grass-roots political-action group, called the shooting “an unacceptable tragedy.”
“There is no question that the Seattle Police Department could have and should have used de-escalation tactics instead of shooting first and asking questions later,’’ she said in a prepared statement. “It is clear that the ‘historic reforms’ within the Seattle Police Department, a department with a long record of racially discriminatory violence, have fallen far short of what was needed to keep Lyles and her family safe.”
Rowe-Finkbeiner called for all people to stand with African Americans who are demanding justice, saying “structural racism permeates our criminal-justice system from the moment the police are called (as this mom did), all the way through sentencing and beyond. This has to stop.”
Lauren Simonds, executive director of NAMI Washington, an advocacy group for people with mental illness, said Lyles’ death is likely to exacerbate existing concerns about calling police to deal with situations involving people with mental illness and substance-abuse disorders.
“Family members are increasingly reluctant to call police into a situation, and do it only as a last resort,’’ she said.
Simonds said the central questions for her focus on the use of lethal force, and whether the officers who responded had more than the minimum of eight hours in crisis-intervention training.
“Not knowing the details of the situation, I can’t comment on the actions of the officers,’’ she said.
A Boston-based, disability-rights foundation, however, had no such reservations.
“It is heartbreaking and unacceptable that Charleena Lyles died at the hands of those she had called on to help her,’’ said Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation. “There are millions of people with disabilities in the country, and they are members of every community. We must demand that our police become much better prepared to effectively interact with people with various disabilities.”
In a widely shared series of tweets, former civil-rights attorney Beth Caldwell of Seattle wrote, “This is not the first time the cops have shot and killed a mentally ill person carrying a knife. And this is not the first time they have shot a person of color carrying a knife. This is a case that screams of intersectional discrimination. … And what’s most depressing and rage-inducing is that I’m not shocked it happened right here in liberal Seattle.”
In an interview late afternoon Monday with The Seattle Times, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole said neither officer was armed with a Taser.
However, it’s unclear whether either officer had the two other less-than-lethal weapons, pepper spray or a baton.
Caldwell called out the North Police Precinct, where the shooting occurred, noting that officers at that precinct were opposed to federally mandated reforms. In 2012, the city negotiated a consent decree after the U.S. Department of Justice found that Seattle Police Department (SPD) officers routinely engaged in excessive use of force, most often against people with mental-health issues or substance-abuse problems. Federal investigators also found evidence of biased policing.
Officers at the North precinct circulated a petition against the decree and represented the majority of the 123 officers, detectives and sergeants who filed a federal law suit in 2014 asking the court to block the reforms. The suit was filed without the approval or support of the police union, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG). It was dismissed, but it is now on appeal.
Shannon of the local NAACP said the shooting marks a complete rollback of whatever progress the police have made toward reform.
“The consent decree is in place, and then you do something like this?!,” she asked. “The fact that she was 75 pounds, and pregnant, and you killed her in front of her children?
“The consent decree is supposed to hold them accountable,’’ she added. “It will be interesting to see how they respond to this now.” Still, she said she was troubled that the shooting had not been publicly addressed by O’Toole or one of her deputies by noon Monday.
“A news conference should have happened last night,’’ she said, when people at an impromptu tribute to Lyles turned out.
“What was soothing, it wasn’t just black people that came out,’’ she said. “It was across the board: young and old. White people. Black people. Brown people. They all wanted to know why?”