There are more questions than answers about Charleena Lyles’ shooting by Seattle police. Under the federal consent decree and years of reforms, the department now has a good process for investigating these types of shootings.
The tragic shooting of Charleena Lyles by Seattle police on Sunday deserves a full, vigorous investigation.
If recent history is a guide, there is reason to hope it will get one. Reforms in the Seattle police have vastly improved the department’s investigations into officers’ use of force. Lyles’ death is a tragedy, and the closely watched investigation will be a stress test of the recent accountability reforms.
Lyles was black, and the Seattle police officers who shot her are white. Both her family, and the officers, deserve a full investigation. Regardless, race in our society remains an indicator of inequality — from vastly disproportionate incarceration rates of black men to lagging graduation rates for black students. African-American communities have good reason to distrust policing.
The public should demand answers to many troubling questions about Lyles’ death. Why was deadly force necessary against a pregnant woman with three children in her apartment? Why did the incident escalate in seconds from a routine interaction to gunfire? Why did at least one of the officers not have a Taser? Did the officers follow their Crisis Intervention Training, which teaches de-escalation strategies?
There are also troubling questions about the human-services system. Just two weeks before her death, Lyles had allegedly threatened police with scissors and voiced apparent delusions while her 4-year-old daughter crawled on her lap, according to a police report.
Was there adequate treatment offered to Lyles for mental-health problems, which her family said were getting worse? When she was in jail earlier this month, did she get evaluated and treated? Washington, after all, is under a federal court contempt order for failing to provide timely mental-health services to jail inmates.
Lastly, what was Child Protective Services’ role in the Lyles household? The agency investigated a child-neglect complaint last year, according to her family, and it has a duty to support families in crisis with services.
If this shooting happened just a few years ago, there would be ample reason to be skeptical about the police investigation. Remember: The federal consent decree signed between President Obama’s Department of Justice and the City of Seattle in 2012 was primarily about excessive use of force.
This is how the independent monitor of Seattle police reforms, Merrick Bobb, described such investigations before 2011: “When force was reported, it was documented ‘on paper stuffed, unreviewed, in file cabinets.’ If reported force was investigated, those inquiries were typically incomplete or inadequate.”
Fast-forward six years. In April, Bobb found that the Seattle Police Department meets the federal consent decree standards with a coherent, transparent process of investigating use of force.
Force investigators are already at work. Their findings will become public, and be reviewed by an internal review board, the prosecutor and, most likely, a panel of civilian jurors convened for a shooting inquest.
The process is not perfect, and officers, as we’ve seen here and around the country, can make egregious mistakes. But overall, there has been a decrease of 60 percent in moderate- to high-level use of force incidents, including officer-involved shootings, since the reforms began in 2012, according to Bobb’s recent report.
Seattle police still disproportionately use force against black suspects, compared with white suspects. The severity of force used — including deadly force — is statistically the same across ethnic groups.
As the monitor wrote, “A subject’s race does not appear to predispose him or her to more or less serious force.”
Lyles’ death will test Seattle police reforms. We need answers to the host of troubling questions.