Seattle police have won praise for their crisis-intervention training and results. Why did their encounter with Charleena Lyles, a young mother with mental-health problems, turn deadly?

Share story

Seattle has won praise for how it trains police officers to deal with people in mental-health crises.

Officers averaged 27 encounters a day with people in crisis over a three-month period, data show. They used force in 2 percent of those cases.

That’s “tremendous” work, according to a report last year by the federal monitor overseeing an agreement with the city to try to eliminate excessive force by officers.

Then how to explain what happened the morning of June 18 when two crisis-trained officers shot and killed Charleena Lyles, a young African-American mother whose family said she was struggling with mental illness and was concerned authorities would take her children?

Did the officers, who are white, deviate from their training? Did they follow it to an unfortunate, tragic end? Will we know, even after an investigation that could take months reveals more details about 15 crucial seconds when the officers’ visit seemed to shift from routine to deadly?

Police have said, and audio recordings reflect, that after Lyles reported a burglary in her small Northeast Seattle apartment, an apparently calm conversation with the responding officers turned dangerous. One of the officers said she suddenly had a knife. Her children were at home.

Sue Rahr, a former King County sheriff, said she did not want to speculate about the Lyles incident. But Rahr, who heads the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, spoke generally about training for a situation in which a person suddenly threatens officers in close quarters with a weapon — and children are present.

Charleena Lyles shooting

More coverage

In most crisis scenarios, officers are trained to use “time and space” to de-escalate danger. In other words, they try to slow down actions and create distance between them and the person in crisis to buy time, talk and defuse tension, Rahr said.

Unfortunately, if officers face an immediate deadly threat they should respond with deadly force, she said. “If there’s time and space you may have other options. If there are children in the vicinity that also significantly limits options to do other things,” she said.

The officers, Steven McNew, 34, and Jason Anderson, 32, could have tried using a Taser to stun Lyles. But neither officer was carrying one, something they discussed in the seconds before shouts of “get back” and gunfire are heard on recordings. Seattle officers are required to carry a less-lethal tool — a Taser, a baton or pepper spray.

Anderson is now facing a Seattle Police Department (SPD) internal investigation for not carrying his Taser. Officers such as Anderson who have been trained in using a Taser and have been issued one must carry it during a shift.

Anderson told police investigators the battery died on his Taser and he had left it uncharged in his locker for a week or two.

If the officers had time to discuss Tasers, then they weren’t in immediate danger, said James Bible, a lawyer for the Lyles family, last week.

Gerald Hankerson, president of Seattle-King County NAACP, has called the revelation that Anderson did not bring his Taser “astonishing.”

“He was ill-prepared and irresponsible to deal with the public, and this just shows he would rather go out in the community believing he needs nothing but his gun,” Hankerson said.

A group called De-Escalate Washington had been poised to announce a statewide ballot initiative that would require officers to have more training for dealing with people with mental-health problems.

The launch of Initiative 940’s signature drive was delayed, in large part out of sympathy for Lyles’ family, said Kim Mosolf, an attorney with Disability Rights Washington, one of the community, union, tribal and advocacy groups behind De-Escalate Washington.

We increasingly rely on police as first responders to people in crisis, Mosolf said, because of inadequacies in our mental health-care system. And the eight hours of crisis-intervention training (CIT) state law now requires for police aren’t enough, she said.

Lack of Taser “disappointing”

What happens when you call Seattle police to report a person in crisis?

All Seattle officers have at least eight hours of crisis training and most are CIT-certified, with more extensive 40-hour training, the federal monitor reported last year.

According to policy, dispatchers should send at least one officer with advanced training to any call that appears to involve a person in “behavioral crisis,” due to mental health, substance use or some other reason.

Such an officer isn’t required to be at all crises. But dispatchers should try to get a CIT-certified officer to the scene, according to the monitor.

Officers with advanced training were on the scene in 71 percent of crisis calls during a three-month study period in 2015, the monitor reported.

A special Crisis Response Team, which includes a mental-health worker, can be requested for major incidents. That team isn’t available on weekends, said Sgt. Dan Nelson, Seattle’s CIT coordinator.

“It appeared to me, and from what I heard, Seattle was embracing crisis training very diligently and leading the way among King County law-enforcement groups,” said Graydon Andrus, clinical programs director for the Downtown Emergency Service Center, a Seattle provider of mental-health services. Andrus serves on the committee that helped shape and oversee city policies for crisis training and response.

But “the lack of adherence to the Taser policy was disappointing news,” Andrus said after learning Anderson didn’t carry his Taser.

SPD data show that this year, through June 20, officers used force in 1 percent of crisis incidents, with no one killed until Lyles called 911 to say someone had broken into her fourth-floor apartment while she was out.

Keys to de-escalating

Hired by SPD in 2015, Anderson had eight hours of crisis training; hired in 2008, McNew had received the advanced training.

Anderson was dispatched to handle Lyles’ burglary report. Just one officer would respond to such a call under standard procedure, Anderson said in his post-shooting interview with SPD investigators.

He asked for a second officer, he said, because of a safety warning about Lyles’ previous call. McNew responded and later asked Anderson if Lyles had a “mental health” caution. Anderson said no.

A recording shows both officers knew they were dealing with a potentially volatile situation because of the incident two weeks earlier when Lyles called to report a domestic disturbance.

During that June 5 visit, according to a police report, Lyles acted strangely, holding a large pair of shears. She threatened officers verbally, the report said, and talked about wanting to “morph into a wolf.”

With guns drawn, officers said they got Lyles to drop the shears. They arrested her and she appeared in Seattle Municipal Court. She appeared June 13 in Mental Health Court, where she was ordered to be released the next day.

Seattle police recently de-escalated a dangerous crisis downtown without deadly force. In March, an African-American man holding a knife told police to shoot him. As he paced in the middle of the street, police spent two hours talking with him and tried using Tasers, which weren’t effective. The man surrendered and no one was hurt.

Police officers at that scene adhered to what Nelson, the CIT coordinator, called the keys to de-escalation: making the scene safe, starting a dialogue and seeking solutions.

The challenge for Anderson and McNew was how to follow those principles in Lyles’ apartment with young children inside.

How a knife figures in

A recording and transcript reveal that the officers discussed one precaution before entering: They agreed not to let Lyles get between them and the apartment door. When the officers entered, Lyles seemed calm, and they talked for three minutes about what allegedly had been stolen.

Anderson asked if an Xbox had been taken. Lyles said yes. Anderson and Lyles each then said something inaudible or unintelligible. Then things abruptly changed.

McNew starts saying “get back,” apparently to Lyles. Anderson calls for backup. Lyles then says “get ready [expletive].” McNew calls for help, saying “a woman with two knives.”

McNew calls for Anderson to “tase her.” Anderson says he doesn’t have a Taser. They yell “get back” several more times. Then gunfire.

The shooting took place in close quarters, near the kitchen and doorway of Lyles’ two-bedroom apartment, according to police. Both officers said they were within about 5 feet of Lyles when she began to move closer and both fired their guns.

Rahr, speaking about scenarios, said most officers wouldn’t leave when someone in crisis is armed with a knife and children are nearby.

“I think the officers would be vilified for leaving children with a person displaying violent homicidal actions,” she said.

Should they never have entered the apartment and instead asked Lyles to come outside?

Standing outside the doorway wouldn’t be properly empathetic, Nelson said. The goal is to treat everyone with equity and dignity.

“If we’re responding to someone who called in a burglary, we’re going to do our standard investigation, regardless of the fact they have mental-health issues,” Nelson said.

If Lyles had a knife, as police say, did the officers have to shoot her?

McNew carried a baton; Anderson had a baton and pepper spray.

Pepper spray likely wouldn’t be effective, said Don Gulla, a retired King County Sheriff’s Office sergeant who trained officers in crisis intervention, and is now a consultant. Pepper spray takes a little time to work and you need to be close to the target, Gulla said.

A baton is an extension of your hand and you wouldn’t want to let a person with a knife get that close. “I wouldn’t suggest using pepper spray or a baton” in such a circumstance, he said.

What about tackling the slight Lyles, who weighed 110 pounds?

“When a person has a weapon, their body size is rarely relevant,” said Rahr. “I don’t know of any safe technique to tackle anyone with a firearm or knife.”

Would a Taser have helped?

“I am personally a very ardent supporter of Tasers,” Rahr said. “They are an essential tool for officers to have.”

Tasers are effective about half the time they’re deployed, said Nelson.

Lyles’ proximity to officers would have made Tasers a questionable option, Gulla said, as more distance is needed for their effectiveness and the Taser darts may not have penetrated her coat.

Anderson told investigators that even if he had a Taser, he would have shot Lyles because she had lunged at him with a knife and looked as if she might stab McNew.

But Hankerson of the NAACP said McNew’s call for his partner to use a Taser shows the appropriateness of a less-lethal response. “That tells you right there the other officer apparently believed or knew less-than-lethal force was the only response that was necessary.”

Gulla predicted SPD will change its policy and require all officers to carry them.

“I’d love to tell people the CIT system would have zero incidents in the future. But I’d be lying,” said Randolph Dupont, a University of Memphis professor and expert on the training that’s spread to some 4,000 communities nationwide.

“CIT is the best thing we have now,” said Mosolf, of Disability Rights Washington. But “we need to look more closely at what the training is, how much officers are getting and whether it was developed with the people it purports to affect.”