Shot while her kids listened

June 22, 2017

Anti-racist activists protested after a deadly visit by the Seattle Police Department left Charleena Lyles' four kids without a mother.

TWO SEATTLE police officers shot and killed a pregnant 30-year-old mother of four, Charleena Lyles, on June 18, in the front room of her apartment, while three of her children waited in an adjacent room.

According to police, the officers arrived after a call from Lyles reporting a burglary. Seattle Detective Mark Jamieson told the Seattle Times that the officers received a warning that Lyles was an officer hazard when they responded to the call, suggesting that Lyles had a previous unfavorable encounter with police.

This hazard warning is the reason why two officers were dispatched, rather than one.

In a dash-cam audio recording released by the police, the two officers can be heard discussing an encounter with Lyles prior to the shooting. On June 5, two weeks before her murder, Lyles called police for similar reasons.

"She let them in," says one of the officers, describing the incident while sitting in the parking lot of Lyles' apartment complex, "and then she started talking all crazy...she had a pair of scissors." Eventually, the officers were able to convince Lyles to drop the scissors, leading to a peaceful resolution.

Activists demonstrate against the police murder of Charleena Lyles in Seattle
Activists demonstrate against the police murder of Charleena Lyles in Seattle

But not on June 18. After the officers discussed the June 5 incident, they entered Lyles' apartment, where she told them about an Xbox that had been stolen. At some point, an altercation ensued, as heard in a disclosed audio recording of the incident. Twenty-five seconds later, following the cry of Lyles' daughter and one officer yelling "Get back!" both officers began shooting.

Charleena Lyles was killed in her own home while three of her children, aged 1, 4 and 11, listened from the other room.

Jamieson says that Lyles was armed with a knife. If this is true, the officers had every opportunity to deal with Lyles peacefully. They knew all about the similar June 5 incident, in which officers said Lyles threatened them in her apartment with scissors, but was talked down without any violence. According to a statement by police, both officers were equipped with "less than lethal force."

Even if the officers didn't have a plan to deal with aggression before entering the apartment, it's hard to imagine how Lyles represented a threat to the officers. Her sister described Charleena as "tiny," and her cousin estimated she was "78 pounds wet."

"What is the reason to use such lethal force?" Lyles' cousin Erneshia Jack told the Guardian. "There are many ways to subdue someone without shooting them. She's not big. She's not intimidating...She called you, and you went to her house and killed her."

DEADLY INCIDENTS like these aren't rare for the Seattle Police Department (SPD). The SPD has been under a Department of Justice (DOJ) consent decree since 2012, following a federal investigation that uncovered a pattern of police abuse and racism.

According to the DOJ website, the investigation found that the SPD has "engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive force that violates the Constitution and federal law."

Since the decree, the SPD has altered its image significantly. It has implemented racial sensitivity and de-escalation training and now operates a program for officer-worn body cameras, earning Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole national attention.

But how much has substantively changed remains in question.

Sunday's slaying recalls the murder of Che Taylor, a man shot and killed by Seattle police officers in February 2016. The 46-year-old Black man was approached in his car by two white plainclothes officers. Dash-cam footage showed the officers brandishing an assault rifle and a shotgun, and telling Taylor to exit his vehicle.

Taylor exited the car and got down on the ground, as the police ordered him to do. Fewer than five seconds later, police opened fire and Che was shot seven times.

Seattle activist and Che's brother Andrè Taylor has been in contact with the Lyles family since the day of the shooting, attempting to help them through a difficult time that he understands well. Barely a year has passed since the police shot and killed Che, yet Taylor must already mourn another casualty of the SPD.

Che Taylor and Charleena Lyles are only two names of many, but two names which we will not soon forget.

On the night of her killing, protesters gathered outside Lyles' apartment, chanting, "We want justice!" and holding candles and signs. Michael Taylor, Lyles's uncle, spoke to them: "This is my family and we're going to be as one. We're not going to stop until we get to the bottom of this."

None of us will.

A rally was called for June 20, and Social Equality Educators, a progressive caucus within the Seattle Education Association, called on its teachers to wear Black Lives Matter shirts to school that day. On June 23, Seattle will march for justice in the name of Charleena Lyles and all other Black women victimized by racist policing.

The SPD has proven to be a bad apple tree, and its roots are rotten. The job falls on us to demand justice for Charleena Lyles and stop the killing at the hands of the police.

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