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Tragic Shooting Death of Charleena Lyles Exemplifies Need for Civilian-Led Policing

Genna Martin / Associated Press

Around 10 A.M. PT on Sunday, June 18, 2017, a 30-year-old pregnant Black mother of four, later identified by her family as Charleena Lyles, was shot by Seattle police after she had called officers to report an attempted robbery in her 4th floor unit at Brettler Family Place Apartments.

Usually, one officer is sent to respond to reports of a burglary. However, a flag on Lyles’s case, due to an incident The Seattle Times reports took place on June 5th, 2 weeks ago, which involved a weapon, caused the Seattle Police Department (SPD) to send two officers. The SPD wrote on their web blotter that Lyles had allegedly been holding a knife when “[b]oth officers fired their duty weapons, striking the woman. The officers immediately performed first aid while the Seattle Fire Department responded, but the fire department declared the woman deceased once they arrived.”

Monica Williams, Lyles’s sister, said in a video recorded by the Seattle Times, “My sister got mental health problems. Yes. She does. But there was no reason for her to be shot.” She goes on to further explain that Lyles had been arrested prior to this shooting and the reason she had a weapon in her hand at the time of her prior arrest was that the father of her child had tried to fight her. According to Williams, Lyles called the police on him, he ran, and Lyles was arrested at that time. The video concludes with, “At the end of the day, like I said, my sister weighs 2.2 pounds. She’s this f*cking tall! There’s no reason for her to be shot in front of her babies!”

Related: NYPD Sergeant Arrested, Charged With Murder of Deborah Danner

Lhora Murray, a downstairs neighbor of Lyles, said she heard shots fired and called the police. She wasn’t aware at the time that it was Seattle officers who had fired their weapons. Murray said police gave her two of the victim’s children. One was an 11-year-old and the other was a toddler with down syndrome. It was reported that the 11-year-old told Murray, “They shot my mom.”

Recording of the Shooting

On June 19, the SPD released audio of the fatal shooting, a four-minute audio file of the minutes before and the moment of the tragic shooting. The audio clip is fuzzy and difficult to decipher, and it has all names and street addresses redacted. The clip begins with the officers briefly discussing Lyle’s previous encounters with police. After this, officers can be heard taking a report from Lyles, who told them that there was a break-in while she was away at the store and she had left her door unlocked. Children can be heard in the audio in the background. Officers ask if she knows who may have done this and she says she doesn’t. There are large gaps in the audio from the redactions. Lyles states that an Xbox was stolen and from there, the situation escalated quickly. In the last 15 seconds of the video, the officers can be heard saying, “Get back, get back, hey, get back, get back!” before five gunshots are heard. It’s difficult to understand what Lyles says before shots are fired.

Lyles’s family questioned why she couldn’t be subdued with a less-lethal weapon, like a baton or a taser.  Both officers at the scene were equipped with less-lethal options, according to SPD, who also stated that all Seattle police officers receive Crisis Intervention Training.

“The officers need to pay for what they did,” Monica Williams told The Stranger, a local Seattle news publication. “Even if my sister had a knife in her hand, she weighs like nothing, even if she’s soaking wet. There’s no way you could’ve taken a taser and taken her down? There’s no way you could’ve taken a baton and knocked the knife out of her hand?”

Lyles’s family, friends, and neighbors held a vigil outside Brettler Family Place Sunday night to mourn her death, recorded in a 40-minute video by The Stranger. “My nephew had to step over his mother’s body to get out of the house,” said Lyles’s sister through her sobs. “What 11-year-old boy deserves to go through that?”

What’s Next?

What’s the next logical step that goes beyond dealing with the consequences of tragedies, such as the death of Charleena Lyles, and circumventing police conduct at the root? Often tragedies, though they can be politicized for the wrong reasons, do in fact, bring people together.

Besides fighting to bring the police to justice (which doesn’t happen and is literally impossible in Washington state) and honoring the life and humanity of those tragically lost, perhaps we could come together to make a change in the system that creates these tragedies.  

Related: Philando Castile and the Wisdom of James Baldwin

In Seattle, last month, the city council passed a self-described “Historic Police Accountability and Reform Legislation” on an 8-0 vote. Every news outlet and local politician alike in the region described the new legislation as such. While this is a good thing and should be applauded as a step in the right direction, it’s only a step and we have a long way to go.

Progressive Army was able to catch up with Danny Suarez, past appointee to Miami’s Civilian Investigative Panel. Suarez worked in Police oversight for six years and concludes that “their effectiveness is minimal.” Suarez tells us that the language used in Miami’s model is very similar to Seattle’s citizen oversight structure. Put simply, one of the main issues with citizen oversight boards is that they have “no teeth.” For example, Suarez explains, “Seattle’s updated police oversight mechanism is detailed and all but if you read the 100 plus pages, there is the constant repeat of ‘may’ when referring to the Chief about recommendations, which is standard.” Suarez continues, “I do admire Seattle for attempting to take a tougher stance on policing, but after the dust settles it is still an advisory board/position that will follow a vicious circle of ineffectiveness.” We asked Suarez to describe his experience within police oversight:

Many of the “upgrades” to the current oversight models are merely an advisory addition and a waste. The head of a PD can reply to any oversight board with a generic response to a recommendation and that is the end of that, literally. There were many times our office discovered poor investigations from Internal Affairs, such as not asking questions related to the allegation, or not adding an obvious violation discovered during the investigation, and we would send letters to the Chief, Mayor/Commission, and City Manager then we would get a generic reply from the Chief and that was the end of that. The following month we would review more cases with poor investigations, send another letter, get another generic reply, and it would repeat for years…yup I saw this for years. So where is the oversight? How many people need to die, falsely arrested, have their civil rights violated, or improperly charged before America wakes up and makes the change?

The best way to hold our police force accountable is to be the entity it’s accountable to, namely, the community. The community not only needs ears, eyes, and a voice when it comes to oversight investigations when something goes horribly wrong, we need to be at the table to talk about everything police related.

What Kshama Sawant seems to be alluding to above is implementing Civilian-Led Policing. To define Civilian-Led Policing simply, it is a structured way of having a police force that answers to and takes orders from the community that it serves.

Civilian-Led Policing

Civilian-led policing is not some magical cure-all proposal, but what it does do is give you a seat at the decision-making table. For example, take a look at what a possible board/stakeholder makeup could look like:

Civilian-Led Policing

What the citizen boards come up with within their own community is on them. Which will undoubtedly result in having very difficult conversations. The goal is that the solutions and plans the board arrives upon as a community will occur with everyone represented in the process. A true civil participatory experience.

To learn more about civilian-led policing, listen to Michael Woods, a police scientist, in an interview with Brandon Sutton on The Discourse.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Charleena Lyles was killed on Sunday, June 19, 2017. It has since been updated to accurately reflect the date as Sunday, June 18, 2017.

Written by Andre Roberge

Father, Husband. Went to school for philosophy (university of WA) and now I work for a train company -- Interests include Labor Law, TILA, Unions, Paid Family Leave, Healthcare, Philosophy of Science, Fantasy Football and Open Government-- Fanboy of The Take Down with Nick Nowlin and The Way with Anoa. Follow Andre on Twitter @SubvertingPower.

Andre Roberge is a Researcher and Writer for Progressive Army.

Written by Jami Miller

Jami is a 37-year-old mother, who is open about her struggles with chronic mental health issues. In May of 2017, Jami signed the Pro Truth Pledge.

Jami Miller is an Editor of Progressive Army and a member of its Editorial Board.

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Tragic Shooting Death of Charleena Lyles Exemplifies Need for Civilian-Led Policing