SPD release Force Review Board report on Charleena Lyles shooting

On Friday afternoon, the Seattle Police Department released several documents related to its internal investigation of the shooting death of Charleena Lyles at the hands of two police officers.

Among the documents released:

  • the CSI investigation report of the scene (Lyles’ apartment);
  • the Force Investigation Team report;
  • the final report of the internal Force Review Board;
  • several statements from the officers involved;
  • a document with answers to questions from the City Council on the incident, and another document with answers to follow-up questions.

It must be said up front: these documents represent certain perspectives on what transpired that morning, not the objective truth. While plenty of facts and evidence are presented and incorporated into the narrative to support the conclusions being drawn, they are still being interpreted, and as after-the-fact readers it’s impossible for us to know where the officers and investigators might be adding, omitting, or reinterpreting evidence. To date, all the investigative work has been done internally by Seattle Police Department staff, and that is not enough to ensure full accountability of police officers for their use of lethal force. From here, the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) may decide to investigate further, and there will also be a formal inquest conducted by outside staff (most likely King County).

That said, the information in the reports is detailed and highly informative, and shows how involved the SPD investigation processes are for incidents like this.

I recommend that you read the Force Review Board report from cover to cover, then the CSI report and the Force Investigation Team report. The Force Review Board report gives an excellent and thorough summary of what SPD believes happened, and the board’s conclusions on what went right and what went wrong. After reading it, it’s much easier to spot the relevant information in the two investigative reports.

The biggest take-away from the collective information is that “hindsight is 20/20.” There were numerous small clues that Charleena Lyles might have been in a crisis, but no one was in a position to have all that information and piece it together. To wit:

  • When Lyles called 911 to report a burglary, she was acting slightly odd. But it’s very common for people to be disoriented immediately after becoming a victim to a crime, and it’s also common for people to be nervous when calling 911.
  • Solid Ground and Mercy Housing, the owner and operator of the housing complex where Lyles lived, had received a report that Lyles had recently pulled a knife on a young boy and threatened to kill him. They were required to report that incident to the police, but had not done so.
  • Lyles had told the 911 dispatcher that she had gone to the store and come back to find that some items had been stolen from her third-floor apartment. When SPD reviewed the security camera footage in the hallway outside her unit, they found that no one had entered her apartment that morning. They also found that she had not left her apartment other than to take out the garbage, despite having told the 911 dispatcher that she had gone to the store. To be fair, the dispatcher had asked Lyles a somewhat leading question as to whether she had gone to the store, but Lyles parroted it back.
  • When the officers arrived at her apartment, the apartment was very messy, with old food and dirty dishes and pans stacked up in the kitchen. It was also very warm in the apartment, but Lyles was wearing a thick, padded coat. Prior to the point when Lyles suddenly pulled a knife on one of the officers, she kept putting her hands in the pockets of the coat — something police officers are trained to notice but not necessarily conclude is a threat.

It was impossible for the officers to piece this all together, since they didn’t have access at the time to much of it. Even if they did, they still might not have concluded that she was an active threat; SPD officers are, trained not to stigmatize mental illness or to assume that someone who has been known to have mental illness issues in the past is currently in crisis. And individually each of the clues can be explained away as something normal in the life of a single mother living in public housing, struggling to make ends meet and take care of her kids.

Nevertheless, the Force Review Board praised the two officers for their approach to responding to the call to Lyles’ apartment.  Calls to the scene of a reported burglary after the fact, under department policy, are generally completed by a single officer, and in this case Officer Anderson was dispatched. Upon arriving and parking his car, he looked up the address in his computer and discovered that in a previous dispatch to Lyles’ apartment she had threatened an officer with a pair of scissors; she was taken into custody and placed in a mental health program, and since she had subsequently been released and was back at home with her three children, Anderson could assume the proper authorities had found her to have recovered and was not a danger to herself, her children, or police officers. Still, he prudently asked for a second officer to accompany him on the call, and Officer McNew was dispatched. Before they approached the building, they discussed the prior incident and agreed that they should not let Lyles stand behind them.

When Lyles let them in, they took positions in accordance with their training: Anderson stood in the doorway, and McNew stood in the entrance to the kitchen (they are trained to block access to kitchens, where a suspect might access knives or other weapons).  Lyles acted normally, giving the officers her account of the burglary, right up to the point where she pulled a knife out of her coat pocket and lunged at Anderson. He yelled “get back” and jumped back as best he could (the door was behind him, and the entrance was partially blocked by clutter). Lyles then turned on McNew, who was pinned in the kitchen, and raised the knife over her head as if she was going to throw it at him. McNew ducked, then looked up and saw that she now had a knife in each hand. Both officers repeatedly told her to “get back!” several times until she started advancing on McNew. At that point both officers shot Lyles.

The time from when Anderson first said “get back!” to the officers firing on Lyles was nineteen seconds. That certainly raises the question of whether the officers had the time an opportunity to de-escalate the situation. Both officers had been through Crisis Intervention Training (CIT). But they were in close quarters, with Lyles only a few feet away from each of them and carrying one or two knives; the officers were in immediate danger. The kevlar vests that officers wear protect them from bullets, but not edged weapons. Also, knife wounds even to the extremities can cause substantial blood loss in a very short period of time. And despite the fact that Lyles was much smaller than either of the officers, as the Force Review Board report states “size is not relevant when a person is armed with a knife.” The de-escalation training emphasizes that the first step is creating physical distance and/or separation from the person, but in this case Lyles had pinned them in, so their only option was to order her to get back. Even if they had the option to back out of the apartment into the hallway, that would have left Lyles’ two children in immediate danger, so it was a poor option.

Much has been made of the fact that Officer Anderson was not carrying his department-issued Taser, which was a violation of departmental policy. His excuse: the battery was dead, and he had requested but not received a new one yet. He was also considering no longer carrying the Taser, but had not officially informed anyone of that yet.The OPA is already investigating that issue, and the department’s processes for handling battery replacement and decisions to no longer carry a Taser are being reviewed. But both Anderson and McNew were carrying other less-lethal tools: both had batons, and Anderson had pepper spray.

According to the FRB report, however, none of that mattered, because in the circumstances none of the less-lethal tools were appropriate. Tasers require the ability to shoot the electrodes through to the skin, and at a distance on the body from each other. The officers were too close to Lyles, and her padded coat would have prevented the electrodes from reaching her. They were also too close for effective use of the pepper spray (and the officers would be in danger of spraying each other), and at that close distance the pepper spray might not stop someone lunging with a knife. The batons would have been difficult to use in the confining quarters of the entrance and kitchen, and are not effective against edged weapons.

Thus the Force Review Board found that Anderson and Lyles acted within departmental policy in their response to Lyles’ attack on them with a knife. As per the report,

Based on these factors, the Board concluded that Policy 8.100 applied, that both officers’ actions complied with policy and de-escalation training up to the point of her assault on Officer Anderson, after which, in light of the close proximity of Ms. Lyles to Officer McNew, her affirmative actions to close that distance, the potential for crossfire between the officers if she were allowed to move closer, and the active lethal threat she posed, it was neither safe nor feasible to attempt further de-escalation.

The FRB did point out several things that the police did wrong, mostly after the shooting.  Anderson and Lyles had seen the two children in the main room of the apartment, but were unaware that Lyles’ third child was sleeping in one of the bedrooms — until he came out when he heard gunshots. The officers immediately secured the apartment — and the safety of the children — when the first backup officer arrived, by getting them out of the apartment (they even took care to cover the eyes of the oldest child as they were escorting him out). However, the backup officer left the three children with a neighbor outside and returned to the apartment to help deliver medical aid to Lyles; a difficult decision at the time to be sure, but not the right thing for the children.

When supervisors arrived on the scene and Anderson and McNew came out of the apartment (replaced by other officers), the supervisors spoke to the two of them together, rather than following policy and immediately separating them before taking statements from each of them.  The FRB also found that the supervisors provided incomplete statements on their roles, actions and decisions on-scene.

The reports also point out some weird things, many related to Solid Ground and its management of the complex and Lyles’ tenancy. The Force Investigative Team report details several things that came to light after the incident. One was the afore-mentioned incident where Lyles allegedly threatened a boy with a knife (which the FIT investigator discovered through a whistleblower at Solid Ground). The FIT investigator also heard from downstairs neighbors that they had made dozens of reports to Solid Ground about noise and disturbances coming from Lyles’ apartment. Further, two weeks after the incident Solid Ground contacted SPD to let them know that they suspected methamphetamine use in the apartment (though the reports don’t say how or why they suspected) and were about to test it for chemical contamination; they later reported that the apartment tested “well over the safe level of exposure.” Lyles’ toxicology report came back clean, though the forensic examiner reported that it would be undetectable in her blood stream after 12 to 30 hours; also that the methamphetamine levels in the apartment were not high enough to show up in her bloodstream. Based on this information, it’s impossible to conclude whether Lyles herself was using methamphetamines, or whether she, associates of her, or a prior tenant might have used the apartment as a meth lab. It’s also unclear whether the unsafe levels of exposure (high enough to require the cleaning crew Solid Ground hired to wear protective gear) had any effect on Lyles herself.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident as news reports and information were trickling out, the City Council sent a long list of questions to SPD about the incident, its policies, and particularly how crisis intervention and de-escalation training and the use of less-lethal tools might have played a role in avoiding this tragedy. SPD’s answers (here and here) speak to the nuances of responding “in the moment,” and provide thoughtful explanations of SPD’s policies (regardless of whether they were followed to the letter in this case or not). They make for useful and informative reading.

Again, none of what the Police Department has released is the “definitive truth” of what happened on the morning of June 18th when Charleena Lyles was shot; it’s simply SPD’s collective view based on the evidence they have collected, the statements of the officers involved, and the internal investigators’ work. It can and should be thoroughly reviewed by outside parties, including the OPA as they see fit, the inquest panel, community members, and elected officials. This doesn’t end the conversation on Charleena Lyles’ death, but it does move it forward.

What happened to Charleena Lyles isn’t an episode of “CSI” that wraps up cleanly in an hour. It was a messy, real-life situation with lots of loose ends and imperfect people. The one thing we do know for sure, though, is that it was a terrible tragedy.

From here we’ll see how the OPA responds, and how the inquest will proceed.