Charleena Lyles’ family demands police reform at Seattle public forum

Rev. Kelle Brown starts a public forum on the death of Charleena Lyles, who was shot by police at her home earlier this month, with a prayer. (Photo by Yemas Ly.)

Mixed emotions filled Kane Hall Tuesday as Seattle community members showed their support in a town hall meeting for Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old pregnant mother of four who was gunned down in her own apartment on June 18.

The hearing at Kane Hall at the University of Washington served as an open space for the Lyles family as well as for hundreds of Seattle community members to come together to reflect on Lyles’ situation and to hear input from the Seattle City Council.

Michele Storms, ACLU of Washington’s Deputy Director, moderated the forum and established ground rules that prioritized the voices of Lyles’ relatives. Women of color were given second priority after Lyles’ family, followed by men of color and everyone else.

Storms justified her guidelines by highlighting that minority women normally “don’t get to speak” and she, herself a black woman, asked to the audience to give them an opportunity.

Mostly women of color gave speeches during the hearing.

The meeting opened with Charles Lyles, father of Charleena, recollecting warm memories of her.

He reflected on her time as his daughter and her time as a mother to her three children. According to Charles and other people who knew her, “her kids were her world.”

He talked about the impact on his daughter’s children as well as the impact on him, as he has been having anxiety attacks and depression since Father’s Day, the day her life was taken.

“Her boyfriend was harassing her and burglarizing her house,” Charles Lyles said, “and for some reason, they shot her five times. They tried saying she had knives. Everybody’s got knives in their house.”

He addressed the way the Seattle Police Department twisted the story to portray his daughter in a malicious light using her history of mental illness. There had been speculation that she had called the police over with the intent of making them shoot her.

Lyles added: “My daughter loved life. There’s no way she would have called police over to kill herself, especially in front of her kids.”

Charleena’s family including her father, grandfather, brother and cousins attended the hearing.

Charles Lyles Sr., grandfather of Charleena, spoke out as well, criticizing the Seattle police’s method and training. Lyles Sr. said that more than a dozen people in his family were policemen. When dealing with the public in tense situations, Lyles said his family members were trained “not to kill them” and to “talk to them.”

Like many other attendees that night, he demanded “we need to do something to put a stop to this unnecessary killing.”

The audience yearned for change, and many urged for better police training and tactics.

Many Seattle community members pointed out in their speeches that de-escalation training would have saved Charleena’s life and many others in similar situations. Some suggested the police be disarmed and some suggested the police have body cameras.

The council members listened to the audience’s thoughts and concerns.

“We as policymakers need to get a better understanding of better training,” Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez said. “What is de-escalation training?”

Gonzalez repeatedly said that the town hall meeting was a “first step” to holding the police accountable for Lyles’ death and raising awareness for better approaches in handling situations like hers.

According to Gonzalez, the law “basically makes it impossible to charge a police officer,” and she urged the audience to continue to fight to change that.

Many of the Seattle community members pointed out the institutional racism that contributed into the decisions made leading up to Charleena’s death.

“We cry not just for the death of Charleena,” said Sheley Secrest, a vice president of the King County NAACP. “We cry because this is impacting our community, and we are depending on a system that has failed us too often.”

Councilmember Tim Burgess said that he is saddened to see that our society has been battling the same issues as it had in the 1960s.

People asked for change many times over the 2 ½ hour hearing, yet there was no complete answer from the council members that satisfied Seattle community members.

“Why are we negotiating justice?” said Nikkita Oliver, community activist and mayoral candidate. “Your [white] children are being taught about racism, and our children [of color] learn it in our everyday lives.”

Oliver added: “I don’t trust police to investigate police.”

Councilmember Kshama Sawant addressed the topic and urged attendees to sign the petition during the event to appoint an independent committee to investigate Lyles’ death.

Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole’s absence resonated through the crowd. Many attendees had demanded that she and Mayor Ed Murray be there.

Sawant had previously contacted O’Toole to attend the community junction and O’Toole responded with an email stating that Sawant’s “request to her reflects a disappointing level of ignorance in Seattle Police Department policy.”

Attendee Jennifer Cobb, leader of an advocacy group …and Justice For All, expressed the symbolism behind the situation.

Among the 24 minority, mostly black, women who spoke, many saw Lyles’ death as the physical embodiment that a black woman’s life is less valued in society.

“There’s no excuse for what’s going on around this nation,” Cobb said. “This has got to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. We need to shame America.”

According to Gonzalez, the city has already begun the process of the expedited review and had expressed solidarity, along with other council members, in pressuring federal Judge James Robart to handle the case faster.

Many points were made last night, and the audience unanimously agreed with Rev. Kelle Brown of Plymouth United Church of Christ that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”