Contextualizing the death of Charleena Lyles: National and local patterns where people of color die disproportionately at the hands of police

Credit: Genna Martin/, via Associated Press

Seattle’s jagged mountains were shaded blue the morning Charleena Lyles was fatally shot by Steven McNew and Jason Anderson of the Seattle Police Department (SPD), matching that of the community’s reaction to such police violence: tragic and somewhat jaded, topped with anger as sharp as the rocky skyline.

Lyles’ death tacks on yet another name to the list of people killed by police since 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot in 2014, when the nation decided it had enough and finally started taking note. Lyles was a mother of four, and was reportedly pregnant.

Via The Daily

Numerous events, memorials, vigils, and conferences have taken place for her. Seattle Public School teachers wore Black Lives Matter shirts to work the day following her death. Magnuson Park was populated with over 1,000 people Tuesday evening in solidarity.

Protestor holds newspaper clipping that reads, “Stop Police Brutality!” Contributing Photographer Jaya Harrell.

People of all ages were present that evening, and the march lasted over three hours.

Fifteen-year-old Chris said he didn’t expect to be out at such a march in his teens, and said he was “pissed,” though he looked like he was about to cry throughout the entire interview.

He watched adults try to converse with the police line to no avail, and found it surprising.

“Usually they want to talk whenever they want to talk, but when we ask them questions, they don’t feel like talking,” Chris said. “I don’t get that.”

Teens around him and others at the march felt Lyles’ death is the one that will make a difference because, due to the pregnancy, it was a double homicide.

For some, Lyles’ death echoes when Native American woodcarver John T. Williams was shot holding his knife in 2010. But, more recently, a white man wielding a knife was talked down by SPD without incident.

These nonviolent interactions leave people wondering why it wasn’t the same for Lyles, a woman compounded by an intersection of identities. She was a woman, she was black, she was a single mother, she was poor, and she was in the process of addressing her mental illness.

The Washington Post has recorded 460 deaths by police this year, a steep increase from this time last year. SPD’s data shows they’ve been responsible for less than 12 deaths every year since 2005.

US Policing

There’s a very clear distinction of power between law enforcement and the average person.

Nearly every interaction will involve violence in some form, whether it’s financial, physical, or emotional. Officers were initially created as slave patrol. Then vigilante justice came along, which didn’t really settle well with the state. The state then made distinctions between officials who could enforce the law, and people who couldn’t.

Fast forward to Rodney King, when the Los Angeles Police Department brutally beat him as a group in 1991 after a vehicle pursuit. These men were initially found not guilty. Years later, that decision was reversed.

Fast forward to Rice, a young black boy who was shot in the torso while playing in the park. His shooter, officer Timothy Loehmann, acquitted.

On June 9, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio Tadar Muhammad (right) and Jeremy Brustein (left) demonstrate in support of Tamir Rice outside of Quicken Loans Arena prior to game three of the NBA Finals. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports/File Photo

There was outcry, but not quite to the tipping point as there would be across the nation later. Skip a few years when Michael Brown’s shooter, officer Darren Wilson, was acquitted as well. Officer testimony painted Brown as having superhuman strength, just like the officers in King’s case also depicted their victim. This acquittal was where the tipping point came in Ferguson, Missouri.

Then one month later came Eric Garner’s death by an outlawed New York Police Department and that officer was acquitted as well. Garner had no weapons and was never fighting, as the video shows.

All of these incidents have many things in common.

The officers who shot and killed someone, in varying degrees of context, were all acquitted. All of the victims were Black. All of the victims came from low-income families — this matters in a legal sense because it impacts court cases, but also matters because it says something about who is more frequently policed.

All of these incidents made the nation’s divisions more clear.

As divisions grew, community pain swelled, and reaction began. Protests, marches, rallies, anger, frustration, hurt, and despair rose to the forefront in multiple variations of civil and violent protests. People decided they had enough because, instead of skipping ahead, the nation is on repeat.

A makeshift memorial is seen near the site where unarmed teen Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, Missouri on August 22, 2014. Credit: REUTERS/Adrees Latif. Courtesy of Adrees Latin.

SPD Policing

Lyles called in a burglary while she was in her home. She lived in Seattle’s North Precinct. It was North Precinct officers who opposed the Department of Justice’s settlement, a decision that required SPD to start use-of-force reform and put the office under a consent decree.

Officers felt so strongly against this, they filed a lawsuit about it. But even the notorious Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) — that tweeted out “the hatred of law enforcement by a minority movement is disgusting” last year — didn’t support the lawsuit. The North Precinct also pushed for the most expensive police center in the world at $149 million. The project is known as “the bunker” by local activists.

SPOG’s tweets, many of their articles, and the North Precinct officers’ lawsuit reflects defensive sentiments, a trait often found in the Blue Lives Matter group, which repurposed and flipped the name of the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM). All while the Department of Justice’s 2012 investigation found that when SPD uses force, it’s unconstitutional 20 percent of the time.

On the other side of the same coin, SPD has quite possibly one of the best accessible online data sets in the nation. The local department routinely advises other ones on transparency and data compilation, as well as the use of de-escalation tactics. Those tactics, indeed, are a part of their mandated reform.

This juxtaposition ultimately shows SPD is a divided office. New officers try to earn their spot and get heard while pushing for improvements, and other officers want to keep things the way they are and feel their rights, as law enforcers, are diminishing. Meanwhile, 63 police deaths have occurred this year, though it’s unclear if they were job-related or on duty. Those numbers, however, have decreased over time. It’s nearly half of what it was in the 1970s.

When it comes to training, SPD’s Public Informations Officer Patrick Michaud said most of it occurs in-house.

“We run our own training typically,” he said. “If someone goes to training on their own that’s on them. There’s not something that I think we endorse, like a company or business that we take part of.”

Michaud said SPD doesn’t require training taught by David Grossman or his colleagues, who advise police to think of themselves as warriors.

Police training begins well before the job, though. The Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission is the only police academy in Washington besides Washington State Patrol’s. The Commission has approximately 400 trainings slated for this year. Graduation requires 720 hours in training, or an 80 hour minimum equivalent for police coming in from out-of-state.

Training there is broken down into four blocks, as mandated by the Washington Administrative Code (WAC): classroom, practical activities, firearms training, and defensive tactics. Defensive tactics get 125 hours, and firearms get 86, according to the academy’s Quality & Standards Division manager, Donna Rorvick. Taser training is not a part of the core academy curriculum, but is in advanced training. The police who killed Lyles, however, did not have tasers on them.

The academy does Crisis Intervention Training, but only for eight hours. Their patrol beat mock scenarios take up 24 hours, half as an actor and half as an officer.

“The WAC tells us what four blocks we cover but it doesn’t tell us how many hours we do for each one or how we do that training,” Rorvick said. “De-escalation has always been a piece of any police officer’s job, but actually focusing on recognizing it and what tools you can use is kind of the current trend. It’s layered throughout the entire academy.”

Photos of Charleena Lyles, who was killed by the police in Seattle on Sunday. Credit: Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times, via Associated Press. Courtesy Photo.

Rorvick couldn’t assign a specific amount of hours on de-escalation tactics when asked. The same scenes are run for mock training, but the tested ones change. Scenes that are always included are domestic violence, suicidal subjects, someone with a mental illness, traffic stops, welfare checks, and burglary.

“Realistically, anything could be a weapon, so we teach them that they have to recognize the situation,” Rorvick said. “Obviously a gun is going to cause the greatest amount of concern, but proximity can be a concern. The officers are told ‘you have to make that decision’…it’s ‘do you have other options,’ and ‘if you don’t, you may have to revert to deadly force.’”

Rorvick said there’s no real priority structure when it comes to encountering different weapons or whose safety to think of first. She did note, however, that “if the officer’s not safe, then they can’t help anybody else be safe in that situation.”

In the Puget Sound region alone, three pregnant women have been killed. The Tacoma police shot and killed Jacqueline Salyers in Puyallup. King County Sheriff’s Department shot and killed Renee Davis in Muckleshoot. And SPD shot and killed Lyles. All three were pregnant.

The death of Lyles was not an isolated incident, and it also cannot be taken out of context with what’s going on around the nation, or with what’s going on right in our own backyards.





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