Seattle Police Failed To See Charleena Lyles As A Human Being

Charleena Lyles is being buried on Monday. Her murder still angers and haunts me.

Charleena Lyles is being buried on Monday. I plan to be there.

I didn’t know Ms. Lyles, never met this pregnant mother of four who in death has captured the conscience of a city. But in a way she represents us all.  The systems that were supposed to protect her ended up failing her instead. And the very people she reached out to for help in the end were the ones that took her life – with her children present to bear witness.

What trauma.

Ms. Lyles’ shooting on Father’s Day at the hands of two Seattle police officers, was as tragic as it was senseless. And three weeks later it still angers and haunts me, as a mother and a grandmother, but also as someone who was involved early on in creating the very system to prevent these kinds of tragedies in the first place.

Mothers for Police Accountability, which I founded, began working in the late 1990s with the Seattle Police Department as well as county mental health practitioners to find more humane responses for officers dealing with people in mental health crises.

In 1997, following a standoff on a downtown Seattle street in which a man, wielding a samurai sword, held police at bay for 11 hours, Police Chief Norm Stamper agreed to look at a model for crisis intervention training that was being used in Portland.

I rode there with Seattle officers and observed first-hand how Portland police worked with mental health professionals to de-escalate crisis situations. That year, Seattle Police established a Crisis Intervention Team, a voluntary program for officers to receive training from mental-health experts.

And the training is included in the Memorandum of Understanding between Seattle and the Department of Justice (DOJ), as part of the city’s ongoing monitoring by the federal government.

What is happening in America now makes me even more determined that we have to fix this.

All Seattle police officers are required to have at least eight hours of crisis training. Most are CIT-certified, which means they have more extensive 40-hour training. Both officers who shot Lyles had been trained. Jason Anderson, who was hired in 2015, had eight hours while Steven McNew, who came on in 2008, was certified.

And we know the training works. The department’s own report last August showed that over the span of a year, Seattle police used force in less than 2 percent of roughly 9,300 incidents in which they believed someone suspected of a disturbance or crime was mentally ill or in a state of crisis. The reporting is required under the court-ordered 2012 consent decree between (DOJ) and the city. 

But it didn’t work for Ms. Lyles.

We need to understand why.

Knowing about her past mental health encounter with Seattle police, why didn’t either of the responding officers use pepper spray? And why did neither have a Taser with them ― something that is required as part of the crisis training?

I understand Anderson told investigators that even if he had a Taser, he still would have shot Charleena because his training called for the use of lethal force when being attacked by someone with a knife.

I believe they failed to see her as a human being.

Mothers For Police Accountability wants to know if this is a prelude to what will happen when the DOJ monitor checks all the boxes and leaves town. What will happen when nobody’s watching?

The guys with the white hats aren’t coming.

What is happening in America now makes me even more determined that we have to fix this. I refuse to make this the new normal.

To heal the community we need to be able to hold this unjust system accountable. So Mothers will stay at the table where we’ve been for nearly three decades ― whether it’s holding community meetings, working alongside other organizations and on various committees around policing or speaking out directly about policy change.

We believe in accountability for everybody ― not just the police but for the black community, too. We are working to break the silence on black-on-black crime and how we harm one another.

We have to do both.  In order to have a whole community, everybody needs to do better.


Rev. Harriett G. Walden is founder of Seattle-based Mothers for Police Accountability and co-chair of the Community Police Commission, a civilian body established as part of the agreement between the city of Seattle and the Department of Justice working to develop police reform recommendations.