A Seattle inquest jury unanimously agreed that two police officers who killed a pregnant mother of four while she allegedly wielded a knife were justified when they shot her seven times, leading to her death.
The six jurors agreed that officers Jason Anderson and Steven McNew complied with Seattle Police Department policy and training when they used deadly force against 30-year-old Charleena Lyles.
Lyles’ family rejects the jury’s decisions. Karen Koehler, an attorney for the woman’s family, said the inquest proceedings ignored Lyles’ history of behavioral health problems.
“During the seven days of the inquest proceeding, a solid and unflinching blue wall justified each and every action of its officers,” Koehler said. “The process focused only on the officers’ states of mind. Not on Ms. Lyles. Despite requests for a fuller picture to be presented — including a forensic expert on the topic of her mental health — the scope was strictly narrowed. Ms. Lyles mental health was deemed irrelevant except for what the officers knew about her — which was not much at all.”
According to reports, Lyles called 911 to report a burglary in her Northeast Seattle apartment on June 18, 2017. Anderson was dispatched to the call. He requested backup after being warned that Lyles had “produced a pair of long shears” during a domestic disturbance and burglary call weeks prior. McNew responded to the request for backup. One of the officers specialized in mental health, reports show.
The officers said they had little time to react when Lyles pulled the knife. Anderson was certified to use a Taser, but he had left it charging in his locker. They warned the woman to stand down and drop the weapon, but she refused. Both officers drew their guns and shot Lyles in the front, back and side of her body. The medical examiner said two of the wounds were nearly immediately fatal, puncturing the largest artery in her body.
Lyles was pronounced dead at the scene.
Three of four of Lyles’ children were in the apartment during the shooting. The mother’s family said she was several months’ pregnant and was a victim of domestic violence who was living with a mental illness.
The woman’s death spurred backlash and protests from the community. Many questioned why the officers did not use non-lethal force when she weighed less than 100 pounds.
The coroner’s inquest jury decision helps prosecutors decide whether to file criminal charges against the officers. Jurors answered more than 120 questions about the incident on July 5 and July 6 before deciding on July 7.
“This is, in fact, the only time that a jury is going to look at what happened,” Ted Buck, an attorney representing the officers, said. “So the significance, I think, of this outcome is that six people, chosen from the community, listened to the evidence and found that the officers’ actions were justified under the circumstances.”
King County prosecuting attorney Dan Satterberg said his office will review the evidence that was presented and the jury’s answers “in the coming weeks.”
A department review in late 2017 found the officers’ use of force was “reasonable, necessary, and proportional.” The Lyles family was awarded $3.5 million in the settlement from the city in November, even though initial wrongful death claims against the officers and the city were dismissed.
The Seattle Police Department has a history of using excessive force against people with mental health or substance issues, according to a federal consent decree activated in 2012, by the U.S. Justice Department. Federal investigators also found evidence of racially biased policing, reports show. The agency has since made some reforms. Lyles’s death motivated the department to implement a body-worn camera policy.
“Five years ago, the Lyles family, the Seattle community, the involved SPD officers, and our entire department were shaken by this unquestionably tragic event,” the Seattle Police Department said in a statement. “The SPD thanks the inquest administrator and his staff and all involved for their efforts to ensure a fair and transparent fact-finding process, and we thank the jury for its thoughtful and careful deliberation.”
Even though the jurors understood the department’s policy calls for using deadly force, two of six jurors were unsure if officers reasonably believed the woman posed a threat to officers before she pulled the knife.
Koehler said, “the findings of the inquest are nothing for the SPD to be proud about.”
“SPD’s policies, practices and procedures are designed specifically to allow an officer to shoot and kill a person in mental crisis with a pairing knife,” she said. “In those circumstances, officers are not trained to disarm. They are not trained to wound. They are trained to shoot to kill.
“The message is clear: If a person is in a mental health crisis and has any type of sharp-edged instrument, tool or weapon — do not expect them to survive if 911 is called in Seattle.”