By Erica C. Barnett
A King County inquest jury concluded that Seattle police officers Jason Anderson and Steven McNew used reasonable force when they shot Charleena Lyles, a pregnant Black woman with mental illness, seven times in her apartment in 2017, killing her.
The jury, whose charge was determining whether the two officers acted reasonably and within SPD policy when they shot Lyles, said McNew violated the department’s policy on less-lethal weapons because he was not carrying his Taser at the time of the shooting, but agreed that a Taser would not have been a “a reasonably effective alternative to the deadly force” used against Lyles, who was holding a small paring knife when she was killed.
The jury’s findings followed seven days of presentations and witness interviews, including graphic photos of Lyles’ body and testimony from neighbors and a fire department officer who hurried Lyles’ children past her body and out of the apartment. After a court official finished reading the jury’s conclusions, Lyles’ father, Charles Lyles, shouted at Anderson and McNew, “You killed my daughter! Fuck you!” twice and told them they would have to answer to God before being ordered to leave the room.
The inquest into Lyles’ killing was delayed while King County revamped its process for reviewing shootings by officers, removing the inquiries from the court system and ensuring that families have legal representation. Despite these changes, the structure of an inquest remains rigid: In Lyles’ case, the six-person jury was charged with answering more than 120 yes/no questions, such as “at the time Officer Anderson or Officer McNew fired his handgun at Ms. Lyles, did it appear that a reasonably effective alternative to the use of deadly force existed?” to determine whether the officers violated the laws and Seattle Police Department policies that were in place at the time. On most questions, the jury was unanimous.
After the ruling, the attorney for Lyles’ family, Karen Koehler, said in a statement that the family “does not blame the jury” for finding that SPD followed its policies, because “SPD’s policies practices and procedures are designed specifically to allow an officer to shoot and kill a person in mental crisis with a paring knife.”
Officers knew that Lyles had a history of mental illness when they responded to her 911 call reporting a burglary in her apartment; just two weeks earlier, she made a similar 911 call and, after officers arrived and began taking her statement, suddenly started acting erratically and making statements that indicated she was in a mental health crisis, saying the officers were “devils” and “members of the KKK,” according to court records. She also pulled out a large pair of scissors.
In the six months prior to her death, Lyles had also called police more than 20 times, often to report domestic violence and assault by the man who fathered two of her four children. When McNew and Anderson arrived at her sweltering apartment, Lyles was wearing a long, heavy black coat—a fact that neither officer registered as a sign she might be experiencing a mental health crisis, according to testimony.
“During the 7 days of the inquest proceeding a solid and unflinching blue wall justified each and every action of its officers,” Koehler said. “the message is clear: if a person is in a mental health crisis and has any type of sharp edged instrument, tool or weapon – do not expect them to survive if 911 is called in Seattle. Charleena Lyles, a pregnant mother of four children with three at home, called the police for help, went into mental crisis and was shot dead. The findings of the inquest are nothing for the SPD to be proud about.”
The Seattle Community Police Commission, one of three police accountability bodies at the city, said in a statement that they were “disappointed” by the findings and the additional trauma the process created for her family, adding that they still support the revamped inquest process. “Police officers should be equipped with the right training and tools to deescalate and prioritize life” when they know a person is in crisis, the CPC said. “Despite Lyles’ small statute, neither of those things happened in this case.”
In a statement, Mayor Bruce Harrell called Lyles’ killing “a tragic event that rightfully shook our community” and pointed to the need for more “reforms and improvements” within the police department. “I continue to believe we are asking the wrong questions – not whether the use of lethal force was justified, but whether it was necessary. Could we have ensured officer safety and saved a life? How can we improve training and adopt practices that reflect a commitment to ensuring lethal force is used only when absolutely necessary?” Harrell said.
King County prosecuting attorney Dan Satterberg said yesterday that his office would review the jury’s findings and decide whether to charge either of the officers with a crime.
A spokesman for City Attorney Ann Davison said, “We hope the completion of this inquest and the findings of the inquest jury provide some semblance of closure to the family, officers, and the community. We thank the jury for their time, attention, and service.”