Seattle police officers shot and killed a woman at her apartment Sunday morning in front of “several children” when the woman, who relatives said was pregnant, “confronted” them with a knife, according to a statement from authorities.
The Seattle Times reported that the 30-year-old woman had called police to report a possible burglary.
At a vigil Sunday night, family identified the woman as Charleena Lyles, according to the Times, and relatives said she had a history of mental health struggles. She was several months pregnant, her family said, and too “tiny” for officers to have felt threatened by her — even if she had a knife.
“Why couldn’t they have Tased her?” Lyles’s sister, Monika Williams, said to the Seattle Times. “They could have taken her down. I could have taken her down.”
Charleena Lyles, 30yo woman who was fatally shot by SPD today. Photo shared with permission from family pic.twitter.com/zHr3DV8mqM
— Steven Hsieh (@stevenjhsieh) June 18, 2017
On Sunday morning just before 10 a.m., two patrol officers were dispatched to investigate a reported burglary at Brettler Family Place, an apartment complex for people transitioning out of homelessness, according to Detective Mark Jamieson.
Usually, only one officer would respond to a standard burglary call like this one, Jamieson told reporters. But police were familiar with Lyles and her apartment, he said, and her call flagged “hazard information” affiliated with her apartment that “presented an increased risk to officers,” the detective said.
Officers walked to the fourth floor and “at some point, the 30-year-old female was armed with a knife,” Jamieson told reporters. Both officers, who have not been identified, fired their weapons. They performed CPR, according to authorities, but Lyles was later declared dead by fire department officials at the scene.
Children inside at the time were not injured, according to police. Officials who did not say if they were Lyles’s children. Police were trying to determine Sunday whether the children had witnessed the shooting.
The department’s Force Investigative Team is investigating the officers’ decision to use deadly force. Both officers will be placed on administrative leave during the investigation, authorities said.
Authorities offered few immediate details about what led police to fire their weapons. Early Monday, the police department released an audio recording capturing what they described as “some of the interaction with the caller prior to the rapid development of the use of force incident.”
On the recording, which officials said was captured by dashboard video cameras in the patrol cars, officers can be heard discussing a woman who had previously made “all these weird statements.” Neither officer is identified, and police say all names have been removed from the recording.
The recording captured officers speaking to a woman about an Xbox that she said was taken. Seconds after that interaction, however, the encounter suddenly escalates and the officers can be heard shouting at the woman to back away.
“Hey, get back! Get back!” an officer shouts, a call echoed by the other officer, before a volley of gunshots are heard.
In a short statement accompanying the recording, police said that both police officers involved “were equipped with less lethal force options, per departmental policy.”
Family members told the Seattle Times that they believe Lyles’s race — she is black — was a factor in her death. Seattle police told the newspaper that the officers who shot her are white.
Sean O’Donnell, captain of the department’s north precinct, where the shooting took place, said one of the officers is an 11-year veteran of the force and the other is “newer to the department,” reported the Times.
King County jail records show that Lyles was arrested June 5 on charges of harassment, obstruction of a public official and harassment of a law enforcement officer. She was released conditionally on June 14. Williams told the Seattle Times that one condition was that she receive mental health counseling, although the newspaper could not independently verify that information Sunday.
Williams told TV station KOMO News that her sister’s arrest earlier this month was connected to another incident at the apartment. Lyles was charged with obstruction because she refused to hand over one of the children to officers until Williams arrived at the scene. She had scissors in her hand, Williams said.
“She didn’t charge nobody or nothing,” Williams told KOMO News.
She said Lyles had “mental health issues” that were going untreated.
Around a hundred people gathered Sunday for a vigil honoring Lyles. The mourners taped a photos of the woman and her children to the back of black plastic chairs and spelled her name out on the sidewalk with small votive candles. Friends and family wondered aloud how police could shoot and kill a mother in front of her children.
Lhora Murray, 42, lives in the apartment directly below Lyles and told the Stranger she often heard yelling from the woman’s unit and called security multiple times. When she heard gunshots Sunday morning, Murray said she called people — unaware it was officers who had fired their weapons.
Murray told the Stranger that after the shooting, police handed her two of Lyles’s children, a 10-year-old and a toddler. “They shot my mom,” Murray said the 10-year-old told her as she took the kids outside.
The deadly shooting in Seattle came just two days after a jury in Minnesota acquitted an officer who was charged with fatally shooting Philando Castile, a local school employee, during a traffic stop last year. That acquittal sparked intense protests late Friday and early Saturday around St. Paul, where police estimate thousands of people were demonstrating, including a group that blocked the freeway.
The shooting in Seattle was “a tragedy for all involved,” Mayor Ed Murray said in a statement. He promised a full and thorough investigation, citing “historic police reforms” that are “in place to address such crises.”
The Seattle Police Department has been operating under a consent decree since 2012, following the conclusion of a federal investigation the previous year.
The Justice Department’s investigation concluded that the Seattle Police Department, one of the 40 largest local police forces nationwide, engaged in an unconstitutional pattern or practice of excessive force. While the 2011 investigation did not find that Seattle police officers have a pattern or practice of discriminatory policing, federal officials said their investigation raised “serious concerns on this issue,” concluding that some of the department’s “policies and practices, particularly those related to pedestrian encounters, could result in unlawful policing.”
After the investigation, the city of Seattle and the Justice Department negotiated a consent decree, which the federal government has used for nearly a quarter of a century to bring about court-enforceable reforms overseen by an independent monitor. These agreements were a key legacy of the Obama administration, but they are far less popular with the Trump administration. Earlier this year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has criticized such decrees, ordered Justice Department officials to review all reform agreements nationwide.
In April, less than a week after Sessions ordered a sweeping review of consent decrees, the Seattle police monitor filed a report saying that use of force by officers had gone down. Notably, the monitor concluded that officers and people in Seattle were not imperiled by this shift.
“Overall, use of force has gone down even as officer injuries have not gone up and crime, by most measures, has not increased,” the monitor wrote. “At the same time, the force that SPD officers do use is, by and large, reasonable, necessary, proportional, and consistent with the Department’s use of force policy.”
The report studied more than 2,380 incidents involving a use of force over a period of 28 months, the monitor wrote. During that time, more than half of the incidents involved someone determined by police to be “exhibiting some sign of impairment,” described as a mental health or behavioral crisis or potential intoxication. During that 28-month period, the monitor said there were 15 shootings by police officers; in six of those cases, the person facing police “appeared to be experiencing a behavioral crisis.”
This story has been updated since it was first published.