by Paul Faruq Kiefer
(This article originally appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
After a grueling 13-hour mediation on the night of Monday, Nov. 29, the family of Charleena Lyles reached a $3.5 million settlement with the City of Seattle and two Seattle police officers, ending a four-year-long wrongful death lawsuit that began when the officers shot and killed Lyles in her Magnuson Park home in June 2017.
“This has been a horrible case. Shameful,” said Karen Koehler, the lead attorney representing Lyles’ family, during a press conference at the Stritmatter law firm on Tuesday afternoon. On a television behind her, Lyles’ eldest daughter — watching from her aunt’s house in California, seated in front of a Christmas tree — leaned off-screen to cry.
Lyles, who was 30, called 911 from her apartment on June 18 to report a burglary. She was known to the Seattle Police Department (SPD) — and to Seattle’s criminal legal system in general — both as a survivor of domestic violence and someone struggling with mental illness. At times, her illness escalated into full-blown crises. Only two weeks earlier, for instance, officers arrested Lyles in her apartment after she brandished a pair of scissors and threatened to transform into “the wolf” while reporting a domestic violence incident. After pleading not guilty to harassment and obstruction charges in Seattle Municipal Court, Lyles appeared in Seattle’s Mental Health Court on June 13, where a judge ordered the County to release her from jail.
Lyles did not know officers Jason Anderson and Steven McNew, who appeared at her door on June 18 to respond to her burglary report. On his way to the low-income housing complex where she lived, Anderson received an alert on his in-car monitor about Lyles’ recent mental health crisis; he called for backup from McNew, who had received crisis intervention training. But when they arrived at her apartment, Lyles’ family said, the officers were woefully unprepared.
In the family’s original lawsuit, attorneys argued that Anderson and McNew failed to perform their duties by entering Lyles’ apartment without a de-escalation plan. McNew, the more experienced officer, allowed Anderson to take the lead; at times, McNew turned his back to Lyles.
Anderson looked up from his notepad and saw Lyles holding a knife. From her family’s perspective, she was spiraling into another crisis. The family argues that the officers should have cleared the knives from Lyles’ kitchen counter to reduce the chance of a confrontation.
Anderson immediately drew his gun and pointed it at her. McNew, snapping to attention, told his partner to use a Taser to subdue Lyles. “I don’t have a Taser,” Anderson replied. Although all SPD officers are required to carry a “less-lethal” alternative to their gun, Anderson had left his Taser in his locker because its battery was dead. According to Lyles’ family, both officers then escalated the confrontation by shouting at Lyles to “get back.” When she didn’t, the pair shot her seven times. As she lay dying, her infant son crawled onto her chest. Three of her four children were only feet away when she died.
The Office of Police Accountability (OPA) ultimately suspended Anderson for two days as punishment for not carrying his Taser, but SPD determined that the shooting was justified, in part because Lyles’ bulky coat might have deflected a Taser, but especially because Lyles was carrying a knife — a reason, the department argued, for the officers to believe their lives were in danger.
Lyles’ family’s lawsuit didn’t focus on whether the officers were in danger. “We went to state court and brought a negligence allegation,” said Edward Moore, another attorney for the Lyles family. “That allowed us to look at the officers’ actions leading up to [the shooting.] We were allowed to make allegations that they didn’t plan properly … They had been trained on de-escalating knife attacks with Tasers. It would have required an additional officer, and it would have required a Taser.”
The lawsuit faltered in King County Superior Court in 2019, when Judge Julie Spector dismissed the case after attorneys for McNew and Anderson argued that their actions were justified because Lyles was allegedly committing a felony — threatening an officer — when they shot her. Spector also barred declarations three expert witnesses — a forensic psychologist and two use-of-force analysts — retained by the Lyles family’s lawyers. The family appealed, and in February, the Washington State Appellate Court overturned Spector’s rulings and sent the case back to the King County Superior Court. Monday’s settlement brought the suit to an end ahead of a planned trial in February 2022.
“The money is representative,” Koehler said of the settlement amount. “Representative of the magnitude of the loss, and acknowledgement, whether they apologize or not.”
“We hope the Seattle Police Department will recommit themselves to treating every citizen with dignity and treating the mentally ill with the same deference — or even more deference — as other citizens,” Moore added, “and that individual officers will respect policies and the people they come into contact with.”
Lyles’ family isn’t satisfied with the settlement alone. “We won’t get my mother’s emotional support,” said Lyles’ 15-year-old son, who asked to be identified as Q. “And we want to see the officers who killed my mother criminally prosecuted.” He and his siblings, who will receive the $3.5 million as a trust, currently live with Lyles’ aunt in California; she is preparing to formally adopt Lyles’ two youngest children.
Moore emphasized that Lyles’ death was an example of “a police response to a health crisis,” adding that Lyles’ attorneys are in touch with the legal teams representing the families of other people shot by Seattle-area police while experiencing mental health crises, including the family of Terry Caver, a 57-year-old man killed by SPD officers in Lower Queen Anne last year. “We all share notes,” he said, “because the police rarely, if ever, take responsibility for their mistakes.”
While the settlement brings an end to the family’s lawsuit, King County is poised to move forward with an inquest, or formal investigation, into Lyles’ death in early 2022. Efforts by County Executive Dow Constantine in 2018 to make the inquest process more transparent, spurred partly by public outcry about Lyles’ killing, fell apart after the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) challenged Constantine’s rule changes. When the inquest begins next year, neither Anderson nor McNew will be required to attend the fact-finding hearings.
Paul Faruq Kiefer is a journalist, historian, and born-and-bred Seattleite. He has published work with KUOW, North Carolina Public Radio, and The Progressive magazine, and he is currently working on a podcast for KUAF in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Paul reports on police accountability for PubliCola.
📸 Featured Image: Jessica Isabell, Charleena Lyles’ cousin, performs some poetry during the Vigil of Remembrance, Jun. 18, 2020, at Magnuson Park. (Photo: Susan Fried)
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