Statement on the shooting death of Charleena Lyles

The shooting death of Charleena Lyles is devastating to her children, her family and our community. It is shocking that a call to report a burglary could escalate to her death.

As a city we have been here before. An interaction with a person of color, or someone with mental health issues, leading to death at the hands of the police. Residents of our city rightly demand to know how the encounter could escalate, why the police resorted to deadly force, and what could and should have been done differently to prevent needless death.

And while we can point to the consent decree with the Department of Justice as having made important changes, this shooting brings home that the problem goes far deeper than what a consent decree can accomplish. 

There will be an investigation that we can hope will shed greater light on what exactly happened in Charleena Lyles' apartment. But we also know that process will be ultimately unsatisfactory, and unacceptable for the changes we want to see.

I am going to detail why - not out of cynicism, but because we have to confront the depth of the problem.

The process will be long. The city will investigate use of force, the county will conduct a legal inquest, the prosecutor will decide whether to bring charges, and during all this time the officers will remain on the police force. The contract with the union does not permit officer discipline until those processes are complete. Justice will not move close to the speed with which Charleena Lyles' life ended, if justice ever occurs.

Officers are trained to use deadly force when someone has a knife who is close to them. All of us will want to know why the officers could not have done something different.  They will point to their training, which may lead the authorities to exonerate their actions.

Public agencies will likely not decide whether bias or racism played a role. We know implicit bias based upon race is real - not just in policing but in all aspects of our society. It is impossible to ignore the statistics in Seattle, or nationwide, that police treat people of color differently. That overall pattern will prove to some that race played a role in this particular shooting. The officers involved will deny that racism played any role, pointing solely to their fear of a woman with a knife. If there is no evidence of explicit bias or racism, a prosecutor, jury or officer discipline process will likely conclude that it can’t address whether there was implicit bias, which will be deeply unsatisfactory.

Washington law is extraordinarily protective of officers. To avoid criminal liability, all they must show is subjective fear in the moment they chose to use force. Juries are often deferential to the police. Even in the case of John Williams, who was shot while turning towards an officer calling to him, the King County prosecutor declined to bring charges against the officer.

All of this must change.

I support Initiative 873, which would change Washington’s standards for prosecuting police officers. 

Officer training must continue to change. Seattle trains officers on implicit bias, de-escalation and crisis intervention. But this often must undo prior training at the State Academy. I have supported, and will continue to support, a Seattle Training Academy in which we, under the oversight of the Community Police Commission, can create our own curriculum building on best practices from our country and abroad.

I support the recent changes to the officer discipline process, but believe we still need to provide more civilian input and authority into that process.

We cannot ignore that racism is real across our society and in our city. It is a deeply uncomfortable topic for many, but it is not something we can sweep aside or ignore. Which means that this is not a problem to be solved by any one policy change, or the consent decree alone. This requires sustained engagement by all of us.

Which is why I continue to advocate for a strong and independent Community Police Commission. The consent decree will end, but we need a mechanism by which to hold elected officials, the police and the public itself accountable to the values we say we hold.  

The tragedies must end. But this will be a long struggle to which we all must commit ourselves. I will.