Aerial photo depicting the neighborhood where Charleena Lyles lived. A red circle marks her apartment building with yellow text beneath reading, "Location of incident."

OPINION | Seattle’s Police ‘Reform’ Process Hasn’t Tackled Lethal Policies

Charleena Lyles’ inquest hearing highlights systemic failures under the consent decree and the inability of Seattle’s police accountability entities to change deadly policies.

by Dr. Howard J. Gale

July 6, 2022 — The headline in our local paper of record shouts, “Seattle police officers justified in killing Charleena Lyles, panel finds.” The just-concluded King County inquest into the 2017 SPD murder of Charleena Lyles was never going to provide accountability, justice, or even closure. On July 6, following the verdict, Katrina Johnson, Lyles’ cousin, said (at 00:21:12):

“I’m not sure that this process is in the best interest of impacted families. Being a person that works with impacted family, I don’t even know how I recover from this. Truly, now, this is just as bad, if not worse, than the day Lena was killed. It might even be worse because this is just completely unnecessary and just the amount of intimidation and abuse of power at display from the officers and the attorneys has just been next level. And I don’t know why anybody would want to subject themselves to this.”

As I’ll explain below, the inquest process was never designed to deliberate on responsibility, justice, policy, or what police could have done differently: It was designed to determine only if criminal laws were violated or if existing SPD policy and training — regardless of how unreasonable or unjust — were followed. So the phrase “justified in killing Charleena Lyles” means justified only in the context of the criminal law and the SPD policy at the time. This highly specific context for the meaning of “justified” was underplayed or ignored by many in the media.

It is SPD policy that led to the death of Charleena Lyles and to the death of so many others after her. Mayor Bruce Harrell issued a statement after the inquest verdict stating:

“I continue to believe we are asking the wrong questions — not whether the use of lethal force was justified, but whether it was necessary. Could we have ensured officer safety and saved a life? How can we improve training and adopt practices that reflect a commitment to ensuring lethal force is used only when absolutely necessary?”

I will explore below the complete failure of Seattle elected officials, as well as Seattle departments and commissions, to follow through on their promises five years ago “to work on finding a new way of doing things so that we actually get different results” (as stated by Councilmember Lisa Herbold on June 27, 2017). Over the last five years they all failed to address the changes in police policy and accountability mechanisms that could have prevented the killing of Lyles and so many others.

Photo depicting the front entrance to the Brettler Family Place.
Entrance of Brettler Family Place, where Charleena Lyles and her three children lived. Courtesy of King County Inquest Program.

The Charleena Lyles Inquest

The Lyles inquest is only the second King County inquest completed under the new rules and procedures that give the families of those killed by police a greater voice and role in the inquest process (see The Seattle Times article for a review of the Lyles case and the revisions to the King County inquest process). Given the unique circumstances of Lyles’ killing — no video and no witnesses besides the two SPD officers who shot her — it is doubtful that any such process could have turned out differently. While the SPD established a voluntary body-worn video (BWV) pilot program in December of 2014, it was not until July of 2017, one month after Lyles was killed, that then Seattle Mayor Ed Murray issued an executive order requiring all Seattle police to have BWV, with the order not taking full effect until 2018.

The King County inquest process is designed to establish the cause, manner, and circumstances of a death occurring with police involvement, and if criminal means were involved, as provided for in Washington State law. Additional requirements imposed by King County require a “full, fair, and transparent review … and to issue findings of fact regarding the facts and circumstances surrounding the death … including whether the law enforcement member acted pursuant to policy and training” (as stated in the King County Executive Order on July 28, 2021, emphasis added).

This means that the inquest jury is tasked with answering questions — based only upon testimony and exhibits admitted by the presiding inquest administrator — in three broad areas: the established facts in the case, whether police followed their department’s policies and training, and whether any criminal laws were violated. In the case of the Lyles inquest, there were 123 questions asked of the jurors, with all but five of the questions falling very narrowly into these three areas and, thereby, not allowing jurors to make judgments independent of the policy and law that governed at the time. These are the five questions that could have potentially allowed for jurors to go beyond established policy and law:

  • No. 70:  After Ms. Lyles had begun approaching Officer [Steven] McNew, could he move out of the kitchen without getting within lunging distance of Ms. Lyles?
  • No. 92:  Would a Taser have been a reasonably effective alternative to the deadly force used by Officer [Jason] Anderson and Officer McNew?
  • No. 93:  At the time Officer Anderson or Officer McNew fired his handgun at Ms. Lyles, did it appear that a reasonably effective alternative to the use of deadly force existed?
  • No. 94:  Was the amount of force used by Officer Anderson or Officer McNew reasonable to effect the lawful purpose intended, as defined in Instruction Nos. 11 and 12?
  • No. 96:  Did Officer Anderson or Officer McNew request or render medical aid for Ms. Lyles as soon as reasonably possible?

In all cases, save question No. 70, the six-member jury (originally eight members, having lost two because they contracted COVID-19), found unanimously that neither officer could have done anything differently, i.e., avoided the use of deadly force or rendered medical aid to Lyles more quickly. 

In the case of question No. 70, five of six jurors answered “no,” that McNew could not safely move out of the kitchen, with one juror responding “unknown.” The problem with the question is that it specifies “after” Lyles “had begun approaching Officer McNew” rather than asking if he could have moved out of the kitchen as soon as he realized she was wielding a knife. It is not clear whether the Lyles family attorneys objected to this wording and, if so, had been overruled by the inquest administrator (judge).

The more significant issue is that the inquest process is overwhelmingly focused on facts in evidence, SPD policy, SPD training, and potential violations of criminal law, thereby severely restraining the jurors’ ability even to speculate. Further, there is a substantial bias built into this process since the victim’s family gets one team of lawyers, whereas the City and the SPD functionally (with identical interests) get three: a team of lawyers for the City of Seattle/SPD, a team for the officers, and a team for the inquest court itself. While this last set is designed to be objective and simply elicit the facts the jury must consider, in actuality it serves as another opportunity for the repetition of SPD’s policy and training and for how the officers perceived the situation. In this context it is clear the jury’s answers were constrained by SPD policy.

Sketch depicting the interior of Charleena Lyles' apartment along with yellow markers depicting where evidence and individuals were found or located.
Sketch of Charleena Lyles’ apartment layout at the time of the shooting, drawn up by the Seattle Police Department Crime Scene Investigation Unit. Sourced from SPD CSI.

Facts at Inquest Almost Exclusively Limited to SPD Officer Testimony and Expertise

The facts in this inquest were mostly limited to the two officers’ testimony because there were no other witnesses or direct video of the incident (only poor quality video from the SPD in-car dashcam recording and a hallway security video from outside Lyles’s apartment). The jury was faced with the unenviable task of mostly accepting the two officers’ self-serving accounts of what happened, absent the ability of the Lyles family lawyers to offer evidence that would contradict their accounts. There were only two claims made by the officers that were called into question via evidence: (1) Officer Jason Anderson’s repeated testimony that the front door to Lyles’ apartment was closed the entire time despite the apartment building’s hall video showing he was outside the apartment while firing (all six jurors answered “yes” as to whether the door was open and as to whether Anderson was standing in the open doorway at the time he fired) and (2) Officer Steven McNew’s repeated testimony that he saw Lyles holding two knives, one in each hand, although a second knife could only be accounted for in the coat Lyles was wearing and not matched to knives on the apartment floor (seems highly unlikely that Lyles would brandish a knife and then seconds later put it back in her pocket before getting shot).

As regards to (1) above, the discrepancy between the video evidence from the hallway versus Anderson’s statement after the shooting and his repeated claims during the inquest, is greater than was made clear at the inquest. Counting the video frames establishes that the back of Anderson’s shoe can be seen in the hallway 1.6 to 1.8 seconds prior to the first sounds of gunfire (see time 2:55; time and video markings indicate it was shot at seven frames per second). Anderson’s moving out the front door and back in makes it difficult to understand his replacing this fact with his claimed memory of a closed door. This fact also establishes that there was an opportunity to exit the apartment.

Unlike civil or criminal trials, the inquest process is not designed to be adversarial. Therefore, there was no real ability for the Lyles family lawyers to call into question the honesty of the officers’ other testimony absent evidence directly contradicting the testimony in question. Did Lyles actually thrust the knife at Anderson? Was it possible that Lyles dropped the knife before being shot? Did McNew have an opportunity to exit the apartment before Lyles reached the kitchen, thereby vastly reducing the need to kill Lyles and potentially injure the two children that could have been struck by bullets and were unquestionably severely traumatized?

We do know that McNew’s claim that Lyles brandished two knives is highly questionable, that Anderson’s repeated claim that the front door was closed was unambiguously false, and that McNew’s repeated claims that he couldn’t leave because of his concern for the children — who could have been injured by gunfire and are certainly injured from the trauma of witnessing their mother shot to death and bleeding out — are obviously self-serving and questionable. All of this might have caused a jury, in something other than a narrowly defined inquest process, to be far more skeptical as to the veracity of the officer’s other claims. But, in the inquest process the jury had to take the officers’ testimony at face value.

Jurors Can Only Consider SPD Policy and Training When Determining if an Officer’s Actions Were Proper and if Alternatives Existed

Virtually all of the witnesses at the inquest were SPD officers testifying about SPD policy and training. Almost all SPD policy is peppered with conditionals as to an officer’s required actions (or avoidance of an action), such as “when feasible,” “when reasonable,” “when safe,” etc. Hence question No. 96 — “Did Officer Anderson or Officer McNew request or render medical aid for Ms. Lyles as soon as reasonably possible?” had to be answered in the affirmative by all jurors because they heard repeatedly that SPD training and policy required the officers to both “secure the scene” and to maintain “cover” over any possible remaining threat from Lyles, thereby justifying why Anderson kept his gun trained on Lyles for seven minutes after she collapsed on the floor without any sign of movement or life. SPD policy and training required that.

This exact same SPD policy and training produced an even more obscene display of irrational fear and force when Native American woodcarver John T. Williams was murdered by an SPD officer in 2010: Watch, starting at 58 seconds, as 11 SPD officers form an arrest team, over two minutes after Williams was shot dead and lying motionless on the street, with the folding knife he was carrying lying closed on the ground away from his body. Note the instruction from an SPD officer that the officer who shot WIlliams should be “the designated shooter, he’s already shot him, he’ll shoot him again if need be.” This absurd display of force and fear creates a circular and self-fulfilling belief system for a police officer: Since I can only use deadly force when I face a deadly threat I must demonstrate how incredibly deadly that threat is, or at least how deadly I perceive it. It is performative, self-justifying, and self-reinforcing. As with Lyles, it also needlessly delays medical intervention for crucial minutes.

Even if jurors weren’t convinced as to the severity of the threat and the necessity for these policies, they were tasked to rule as to whether officers followed their department’s policy and training. No matter how absurd, abusive, and inhumane it might be.

Almost all of the witnesses and testimony were dedicated to detailing SPD policy and training, so it is surprising that no one in the media noted what SPD training actually consists of. New SPD officers, prior to 2017, were required to have 86 hours of dedicated firearms training, with many additional hours of training involving firearms likely spent in “Mock Scenes/Applied Skills Practicals,” “Defensive and Control Tactics,” and in “Patrol Tactics,” with only 23 hours in “Crisis Intervention Training” (CIT). The most recent training syllabus requires 88 hours of firearms training versus 51 for CIT. Each and every year, an SPD officer must re-qualify for firearm use, with remedial training available if they fail, whereas the SPD requires only eight hours of CIT each year, with no assessment as to whether anything was learned or as to whether an officer could successfully deploy a skill based on this training (there are SPD CIT “Certified” officers who receive one additional, but not repeated, 40-hour training).

It was not within the scope of the inquest jury’s mandate to evaluate inequities in training, but it certainly should have come to the attention of the press and Seattle’s police accountability partners.

Ultimately, this hyper and repeated focus on existing training and policy — which, to be fair, is the purpose of the inquest — likely constrained the way jurors felt they could answer the only open-ended questions, i.e., questions No. 70 and No. 93, which asked not about policy but about possibility. The unanimous response, with not a single juror believing the officers could have acted differently, indicates that eight days spent hearing about SPD policy and training had an overwhelming influence.

SPD policy and training only allowed for the use of a firearm to confront a deadly threat. For this reason the jury could not consider alternatives to using a firearm, like a baton, pepper spray, or whether one officer (both over 6’ at around 200+ lbs.) could have tackled Lyles (5’3” at 100 lbs.) from behind while she faced the other officer (something a police practices expert had planned on testifying to if the civil trial had happened). The jury had to take McNew’s testimony at face value because there were no contradicting witnesses or evidence put forth, which, along with the badly worded question No. 70 (discussed above), diverted the jury from considering whether the officers could have left the apartment. Leaving the apartment would have been an action that — unlike using a baton, pepper spray, or a tackle — would not have been contrary to policy or training and should have been considered by the jury.

Given what the officers knew when they first knocked on Lyles’ door, it’s unclear to me why the jury was not asked whether the officers should have interviewed her in the hallway where there would have been adequate space to back away in a crisis. There was no necessity to go into the apartment since looking at the front door and door frame, to assess if there had been a break-in, could have been done from the hall.

It is also not clear to me why the Lyles family lawyers didn’t pursue questions concerning the efficacy of SPD’s crisis intervention training (CIT). During the fourth day of the inquest, the jury asked Lt. Dan Nelson a question regarding the efficacy of SPD’s CIT. Nelson answered by quoting the oft-used statistic, that SPD officers engage in over 10,000 behavioral health crisis interactions per year and rarely engage in any serious use of force (see 5:54:26 on video from the fourth day of the inquest hearings). This provided an opportunity for the Lyles family lawyers to ask for a more specific measure of SPD’s CIT success: How many other people experiencing a behavioral health crisis, and wielding only an edged, blunt, or no weapon, have been killed by the SPD before and after Lyles? While the judge might have blocked such testimony and evidence from being considered by the jury, the lawyers missed the opportunity to ask the question and publicly highlight the fact that the Lyles killing was not unique, but rather part of a decades long continuing pattern by the SPD (discussed in more detail below).

Photo depicting the knife held by Charleena Lyles with a yellow evidence marker beside it.
The knife Charleena Lyles was holding in her hand when she was shot. Courtesy of King County Inquest Program.

Did We Learn Anything New From This Inquest?

By June 23, 2017, five days after Lyles was killed, the SPD had released all relevant audio and video (including the original 911 call made by Lyles), pictures of the knives potentially involved, the crime scene diagram, and the interview transcripts of the two officers involved.

The SPD Force Review Board (FRB) report was released on December 8, 2017. Six months later, on June 18, 2018, a version of the hallway video synchronized to the SPD in-car video audio was released by the Lyles family lawyers. Hence, by the summer of 2018, virtually all information and evidence was publicly available.

The vast majority of the King County inquest involved testimony from SPD officers about policy and training. All of Seattle’s elected officials, the Seattle police accountability partners, and the federal court were involved in reviewing all SPD policies and training, and establishing new ones, over the last nine years. The policies and training that led to Lyles death cannot be a surprise for any of these people and entities.

Beyond highlighting the SPD policies that value an officer’s life far above those of the people they work for, only four new facts were established at the inquest: (1) It took seven minutes for anyone to administer aid to Lyles after she was shot, a gap due to SPD policy requirements requiring Officer Jason Anderson to keep his gun pointed at the dying Lyles and waiting for other officers to “secure the scene” (an SPD policy that leads to absurd reactions by officers, as noted above in the case of John T. Williams); (2) while in 2018 there was video evidence that the front door to the apartment was open, directly contradicting Anderson’s repeated statements that the front door was closed, the inquest established that this video evidence was irrefutable; (3) that Officer Steven McNew was standing on the opposite side of the kitchen island from Lyles, providing a barrier, yet within a baton’s reach, and that Lyles was quite a bit further from the front door than was apparent from the officers’ earlier statements (see 05:17:20 on video from the seventh day of inquest hearings), suggesting that McNew did have a viable opportunity to exit the apartment; and (4) that four of the seven bullets that were fired passed through Lyles and ended up embedded in the floor, a bedroom wall, and the kitchen island, suggesting that the children in the apartment were endangered.

Charleena Lyles memorial in Seattle, Washington, in 2017. (Photo: Sharon Ho Chang)

What Is Next in the Search for Justice and Accountability for Charleena Lyles?

Civil actions have run their course, as the Lyles family settled with the City of Seattle for $3.5 million.

The possibility for any disciplinary action ended over four years ago with all internal SPD investigations clearing the officers in the killing of Lyles and the Office of Police Accountability never having done any investigation (except for an investigation into Officer Jason Anderson’s failure to carry his Taser that day, resulting in minor discipline). Seattle’s police accountability partners never took up any formal review of this case, save for the CPC finding that the SPD investigations into the killing seemed valid (see below).

Washington State’s newly formed office for independent investigations of police killings will not take up this case because, for cases occurring before July 2, 2022, there is a requirement that “new evidence is brought forth that was not included in the initial investigation” (Sec. 302(1)(b)).

Lastly, King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg “called the details of Lyles’ death ‘heartbreaking’ in a statement and said his office will review the case ‘in the coming weeks.’” Satterberg’s statement is diversionary and disingenuous in the extreme. Satterberg famously declined to bring any charges against SPD Officer Ian Birk, who killed John T. Williams in 2010, despite the SPD deeming Williams’ killing a policy violation and firing the officer. Satterberg argued in 2010 that the Washington State law, then in effect, would require a prosecutor to prove the impossible: that Birk committed the killing with “malice,” i.e., evil intent and not simply incompetence or bias. This same law was in effect when Lyles was killed, as it wasn’t changed until 2018. Satterberg could not possibly attempt to prosecute the Lyles case after rejecting the Williams case.

Further, if Satterberg did proffer charges in the Lyles case, it would be impossible for him not to do so in numerous other cases over the last five years where Seattle police and other King County law enforcement officers killed people experiencing a behavioral health crisis while brandishing knives, under circumstances far more unambiguous and with eye witnesses or video evidence. For Seattle alone, Satterberg’s office would have to prosecute SPD officers for the killings of Danny Rodriguez, Ryan M. Smith, Shaun Lee Fuhr, Terry Caver, Derek Hayden, and the still unnamed person on Beacon Hill killed by the SPD last January (all killed after “malice” was removed from state law). No prosecutor is going to place themselves in such a politically untenable position with police. So, no, there will be no prosecutions of SPD officers for the killing of Lyles.

Photo depicting the knife held by Charleena Lyles with a yellow evidence marker beside it.
The knife Charleena Lyles was holding in her hand when she was shot. Courtesy of King County Inquest Program.

Juries and Judges Can’t, and Shouldn’t, Legislate Local Policy for Police When That Policy Does Not Violate Criminal or Constitutional Law

Whatever the shortcomings or failures of the inquest process, we need to ask: Do we want King County to determine Seattle policies for policing? If juries such as these could weigh in on policies and training, what if, in a different case with a different jury, a finding was made that officers should have reacted more rapidly, with even more deadly force? Absolutely nothing prevents Seattle, through its legislative or its initiative process, to determine how it wants its police to act and be trained. And that is the crux of the issue that everyone, from Seattle’s mayor, to the City Council, to the police chief, to the police “accountability partners” (the CPC, OPA, and OIG) wants to ignore.

Karen Koehler, an attorney for the Lyles family, wrote, “The family does not blame the jury for its decision. 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 [sic] knife. In those circumstances officers are not trained to disarm. They are not trained to wound. They are trained to shoot to kill.”

Police killings, such as that of Lyles, along with many of the other SPD killings during the five years since, are sometimes referred to as “lawful but awful.” While we should advocate for changes to federal and state law to make awful killings unlawful, we can far more easily change local policy to make awful killings a fireable offense and provide for truly independent investigations that might actually lead to criminal charges in some cases.

Juries and judges can sometimes tell us when the law, including the constitution, is violated. When it comes to policing, judges and juries can only help establish a low bar for police policy and, sometimes, help curtail the most egregious abuses. But, in a (theoretically/aspirationally) democratic society it is people locally who should decide when and how to go above that low bar. We should never hand over our civic responsibilities to someone else.

It is often misunderstood that the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) cases in 1985 (Tennessee v. Garner) and 1989 (Graham v. Connor) set the standard for the conditions under which police can use deadly force. It does not. These Supreme Court rulings established a low bar for police practices that would not violate the U.S. Constitution. Any city in the U.S. can establish its own laws and policies for the use of any force, including deadly force. If Seattle decided that police cannot use deadly force against people wielding knives, except under very specific and limited circumstances, then that would be the policy, and eventually the training, that SPD officers would have to follow, with termination potentially resulting from a violation of that policy. (It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the more complex issue of the criminal violations that may or may not result from a failure to follow local policies). As I have already detailed, this is not some pie-in-the-sky aspirational fantasy: It has been routinely accomplished for many decades in many countries. In the U.S., for example, the Camden County Police Department adopted use of force policies that went beyond SCOTUS standards.

Our current Seattle policing policies hide an inconvenient truth that was laid bare at the Lyles inquest. On the very last day of testimony at the inquest, SPD Officer Steven McNew responded to a question about the possible use of his baton, instead of his gun, on Lyles by saying:

“… she was in possession of a weapon that was capable of being lethal … the issue with the baton is that it’s for pain compliance … if somebody’s generally unarmed, doesn’t pose an immediate lethal threat, is you have to be in close to them and you’re aiming for large muscles to try and cause pain so that they give up. When you start talking about potentially swinging a baton at someone’s head, it’s generally understand [sic] that if you hit someone in the head really hard with a baton, you may kill them. And at that point I would essentially be addressing her with lethal force with an inappropriate tool that causes me to have to encroach even further into her space which puts me in more jeopardy, making it inappropriate for this situation…  that’s not an effective way, reliably, to save my life at that point … most importantly is that when somebody’s coming at you, and they pose an imminent threat of lethal harm, is that, if you want to survive that, you need to address that with a proportional response which is, in this case, a firearm. It’s the only thing capable of reliably stopping a threat, like the threat Ms. Lyles posed, with the least chance of failure.” (emphasis added, see 1:34:35 to 1:44:44 for McNew’s full response)

Other SPD officers involved in training had testified earlier along the same lines. For example, SPD Lt. Nathan Upton stated in his June 30 testimony that the SPD has not, and will never under any circumstances, train officers to use a baton on a person with a knife, because it is a “life safety issue,” i.e., for the officer, while fully disregarding the life safety of the person to be killed. This makes explicit the horrifying circular argument that underlies SPD policy and training: A police officer cannot use force that might be deadly until they need to use force which must be deadly to immediately end a potentially lethal threat. This is a policy that results in near certain death, as shooting is the only option when someone experiencing a behavioral health crisis brandishes a knife, or indeed any non-firearm implement. This is a policy that has led to the needless deaths of six people since Lyles, all experiencing a behavioral health crisis and wielding a knife (or no weapon at all; see this list with references). There are other cases, such as the SPD killing of Iosia Faletogo in 2018, where he was shot and killed because a gun was within reach, despite his being down on the ground and surrounded by six SPD officers. The current policy means a potential “life safety issue” for officers requires a near certain death for a non-officer.

During Upton’s June 30 testimony (from 1:00:26 to 1:01:07) at the Lyles inquest, he was asked by Officer Jason Anderson’s attorney, “Are you aware of any department, anywhere in the world, that requires or trains a police officer to respond to a lethal threat with a less lethal option?” Upton answers, “I’m not aware of that, certainly not in the United States.”

Photo depicting a close-up of the front of Officer Steven McNew's uniform.
Close-up of officer Steven McNew’s uniform and weapons. Courtesy of King County Inquest Program.

Who Should Determine Local Policy for Police?

One expects elected representatives to shape police policy, but that is complicated by the fact that the Seattle police remain under federal oversight as a result of the 2012 federal consent decree, requiring the approval of a federal judge for changes to police policies and practices that impact the ability of the SPD to provide “constitutional policing.” As noted in the discussion above concerning the SCOTUS rulings, “constitutional policing” is a low bar. Indeed the judge overseeing the Seattle consent decree looked into the Lyles case, but just seven months later found the SPD to be in “full and effective” compliance with the consent decree. Hence, the federal consent decree will not offer us a path towards changing the deadly SPD policies that killed Lyles. The federal consent decree may give us constitutional policing, but it will certainly not give us justice.

The federal consent decree has allowed Seattle’s city council and mayor to deflect responsibility. Depending on the situation, Seattle’s elected leaders can claim that the federal court, along with any or all of the other court spawned entities — the court-appointed consent decree monitor and Seattle’s “police accountability partners” — the Seattle Community Police Commission (CPC), the Seattle Office of Police Accountability (OPA), and the Seattle Office of Inspector General (OIG) — are the parties responsible for proposing, reviewing, and approving new policies and practices. It is a supremely effective way to insure minimal changes with maximum fanfare through a well-articulated diffusion of responsibility.

Unique among all these bodies is the CPC, for it alone was created to represent and advocate on behalf of the community. The CPC is “charged with significant oversight function” (per Council Bill 118969, p. 4), “reviewing closed OPA investigations to identify opportunities for systemic improvements,” (p. 8), and to engage “the community to develop recommendations on the police accountability system and provide a community-based perspective on law enforcement-related policies, practices, and services” (p. 11).

Most importantly, the 2017 city law establishing the CPC states that the CPC should advocate that “civilian oversight be enhanced and broadened beyond the scope set forth in the Consent Decree in order to better serve the public” (p. 50-51). In light of the fact that the federal consent decree only establishes a low bar for what it is permissible for police to do (under the U.S. Constitution and the SCOTUS rulings that interpret it) this role for the CPC is crucial and unique among all the other entities.

Despite this unique role for the CPC to advocate for policies that save people’s lives — rather than defend “lawful but awful” policies that pass constitutional muster — in December 2017 the CPC submitted a letter to the federal court overseeing the consent decree that expressed confidence in the SPD’s internal Force Review Board (FRB) which had, just weeks earlier, found the SPD killing of Lyles to be fully lawful and proper and in compliance with all SPD trainings and policies. The letter stated (emphasis added):

SPD nonetheless is in full compliance with the Consent Decree, because the FRB was designed under the decree and SPD has implemented the FRB process that this Court approved. Although we question whether the FRB as presently constituted should be the way in which instances of deadly force by SPD officers are investigated, this has nothing to do with the skill or dedication of those who comprise that Board. No matter the quality of those investigations or the fairness and integrity of the investigation process, the fact that it is entirely internal to SPD weakens the credibility of the findings.”

Note that the CPC expresses not a concern with the “fairness and integrity” of the investigation that justified Lyles’s killing, but instead worries about “the credibility of the findings.”

The CPC had already been working for nearly five years reviewing and rewriting SPD’s training and policies, most notably in regards to the use of force. Yet the CPC, while focusing on the self-serving and highly flawed FRB investigation, only had this to say about the policies that led inexorably to Lyles’ death in their letter to the federal court:

“The CPC is determined to fully understand the incident; bring to light any lessons concerning SPD training, policy, and/or tactics; and push for changes in areas that emerge as promising or necessary.”

Here we are nearly five years after the CPC wrote this letter, without any substantive changes to the policies that caused Lyles’ death.

After the inquest jury verdict CPC commissioner and co-chair Rev. Patricia Hunter was quoted by KUOW as saying (emphasis added):

“… the commission [CPC], community, and SPD need to look at what department policies and training entail. ‘If everything was in policy then we need to definitely take a look at the policies,’ she said.”

The CPC has had over nine years to do that. They failed to act when, weeks before the CPC started meeting in 2013, Jack Sun Keewatinawin was killed by the SPD. They failed to act after Cody Willis Spafford, Larry Andrew Flynn, Sam Toshiro Smith, Shun Ma, and Michael L. Taylor were killed by the SPD before Lyles. They failed to act after Lyles was killed. And finally, they failed to act after Danny Rodriguez, Ryan M. Smith, Shaun Lee Fuhr, Terry Caver, Derek Hayden, and the still unnamed person on Beacon Hill were killed by the SPD after Lyles. All these people were experiencing a behavioral health crisis and wielding an edged weapon or had no weapon. Twice as many people experiencing a behavioral health crisis and not wielding a firearm were killed by the SPD during the nine years after the CPC started meeting versus the nine years previous.

Last September the CPC all but admitted they were leaving police accountability to other entities, such as independent community groups, the new Washington State office for the investigation of the police use of deadly force, or the King County inquest process. The current co-chair of the CPC and commissioner since 2013, Rev. Harriett Walden, stated that “the inquest process is still going to happen, I mean because, I mean the final say is not here [at the CPC] … This is a new day here in Seattle, in King County, with this new ruling and, so no matter what this other finding was, it’s not the final finding.” This is a stunning abdication of power and responsibility, and a refusal to admit to over eight years of failure.

On July 6, 2022, hours before the inquest jury rendered its verdict, at the regular meeting of the CPC, Rev. Walden responded to my public comment raising some of the above-noted failings of the CPC by stating that she has “consistently talked about an out-of-policy takedown” (at 46:57, watch my comment and the CPC response from 44:00 to 49:00 on YouTube). This is a stunning response, suggesting that, after more than nine years, the proper solution is not to revise policy, but to instead provide for exceptions to policy. Also note there is no indication that investigation or accountability procedures need change. 

I have provided additional information as to the CPC’s repeated failures and unwillingness to address these outrageous killings in a recent op-ed.

As I noted in the above-linked article:

“In the U.S. police are told repeatedly that the most important thing is that they go home safe at the end of the day versus … ‘In Scotland, the culture is that the police officer’s safety is in fact very important, but it’s no more important than the safety of everybody else.’ It has been a mistake to believe that police policy and training can change how police interact in the real world without truly independent and civilian-based police accountability. I have noted above that every single police killing in Seattle over many decades, save one, has been deemed ‘Lawful and Proper’ by our existing accountability systems. Even in the most egregious circumstances, where our accountability system has recognized serious failures of training and failure to act in accordance with policy, SPD officers were still deemed to have acted properly when using deadly force. Without real independent accountability, police have no incentive to follow any new policy or training. Without real independent accountability, the current culture of policing simply cannot change.”

The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.

Dr. Howard J. Gale is a founder of, a Seattle group working towards full civilian control of policing policy, police discipline, and investigations of police misconduct. He is a research psychologist and Seattle-based activist. Find him on Twitter @bessarabia1 and read more analysis at his blog.

📸 Featured Image: Overhead view of Brettler Family Place, where Charleena Lyles was killed by Seattle police in 2019. Courtesy of King County Inquest Program.

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