SEATTLE – Two Seattle police officers who shot and killed a pregnant woman inside her apartment had been trained to deal with people showing signs of mental illness or other behavior crises.
Officials also say the officers had at least one less-lethal way to handle the woman who they knew had a previous volatile encounter with law enforcement and had been having mental health issues.
Still, within minutes of arriving Sunday to take a burglary report, the officers drew their guns and shot 30-year-old Charleena Lyles with three of her four children inside her apartment.
Authorities say Lyles confronted the officers with two kitchen knives – less than two weeks after she had threatened officers with long metal shears when they responded to a domestic disturbance at her home.
Family members say they want to know what happened Sunday and why police didn’t use a non-lethal option when they knew Lyles had been struggling with her mental health.
Family members spoke Tuesday at a vigil for Lyles outside her apartment building, calling Lyles as a good person and demanding justice.
Monika Williams, who said she was Lyles’ older sister, described Charleena as a woman who loved her kids and who liked to sing and dance.
“My sister was so loving and caring,” Williams said. “If you met her you would be drawn in. She was always smiling.”
Throughout the vigil, the crowd repeatedly chanted “Say Her Name,” followed by “Charleena,” while people held signs reading “Black Lives Matter,” “People with Mental Illness Matter,” and “Rest in Peace Lena.”
Police and the mayor say the shooting will be investigated.
The killing occurred as Seattle police are under federal oversight following a 2011 investigation that found officers were too quick to use force.
All Seattle officers now receive training on how to better handle those with mental illness or abusing drugs. One of the officers who shot Lyles had been certified as a crisis intervention specialist.
Detective Patrick Michaud said Seattle officers are required to carry a less-lethal option to subdue suspects and have a choice between a Taser, baton or pepper spray.
He said the officers who killed Lyles did not have a Taser and he was unsure which option they had at the time.
Near the beginning of a roughly four-minute police audio recording of the incident and before they reached the apartment, the officers discussed an “officer safety caution” about the address involving the previous law enforcement interaction.
The officers talked about the woman previously having large metal shears, trying to prevent officers from leaving her apartment and making “weird statements” about her and her daughter turning into wolves.
Seattle Municipal Court records show that Lyles was arrested June 5 and booked into King County Jail. She pleaded not guilty to two counts of harassment and obstructing a police officer.
She was released from jail on June 14 on the condition that she check-in twice a week with a case manager and possess no weapons.
The audio recording and transcripts released by police indicates that the officers had spent about two minutes calmly speaking with Lyles before the situation escalated.
The transcript shows one officer yelling “get back!” repeatedly and Lyles saying “Get ready, (expletive).”
An officer said “we need help” and reported “a woman with two knives.” He urged his partner to use a stun gun but that officer responded: “I don’t have a Taser.”
Sue Rahr, a former sheriff who heads the state Criminal Justice Training Commission, noted that circumstances determine whether officers are able to use non-lethal force or resolve a situation without force.
Officers may be able to take their time to persuade a suspect who’s standing in the middle of an intersection with no one nearby to drop a knife, but that might be different in cramped quarters or with children nearby, she said.
“If the officer has time, space and cover, they have more options than using deadly force, but that’s not necessarily going to be the case,” Rahr said.
James Bible, an attorney representing relatives of Lyles, said Tuesday that “the officers knew she was vulnerable” when they went to her apartment.
“When we call police for help, we expect protection, we expect safety,” Bible said. “It was their responsibility to protect her and they didn’t.”
He said family members are heartbroken and dedicated to finding justice.
Lyles’ cousin, Kenny Isabell, pastor of The Way of Holiness Church of God in Seattle, described Lyles as depressed but not violent. He said she “was going through some things in her life” but was working hard on improving it.
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