The death of Charleena Lyles, a pregnant mother in Seattle, has sparked outrage over excessive police force against black Americans
Seattle police shot and killed a mother of four inside her apartment in the presence of her young children after she called law enforcement to report a burglary.
The death of 30-year-old Charleena Lyles, who police say was carrying a knife, has sparked outrage across the country, with critics decrying the shooting as another example of US law enforcement using excessive force against black Americans.
Two officers fired at Lyles shortly after arriving to investigate a burglary on Sunday morning, and the mother was pronounced dead before she could be taken to a hospital, according to police. Law enforcement on Monday released a four-minute audio recording of the fatal encounter, which captures an officers saying, “We need help” and “Get back! Get back!” before they fired a stream of bullets.
The Seattle Times identified the woman killed as Lyles and said she was pregnant and that three children, ages one, four and 11, were at home during the shooting. Police said the youth were not injured, and that other family members are taking care of them. Police called Lyles a “suspect” in an initial statement, though the Times reported that Lyles was the one who had made the call to report a burglary.
“They didn’t only take one life – they took two lives,” Wanda Cockerhern, a cousin who helped raise Lyles, told the Guardian on Monday. “And they destroyed the four lives of her children.”
Cockerhern, 51, noted that Lyles’ four-year-old daughter has Down’s syndrome and was struggling to understand what had happened. She added: “Her 11-year-old son had to walk over his mother’s dead body … I want justice, and we want answers.”
Lyles’ relatives said she suffered from mental health challenges. The officers who fired at Lyles are now on paid administrative leave, which is standard protocol in a shooting.
It’s unclear how the burglary investigation escalated to a fatal shooting. Although the police department would typically only send one officer to investigate a burglary, police said that two officers investigated in this case “due to information pertaining to this address that presented an increased risk to officers”.
In the police recording, which came from the officers’ dashcam video systems, one officer implied that he is familiar with the home, saying, “Is this the one with the three kids?” The officers also briefly mentioned possible mental health issues.
The audio suggests that police fired their weapons very soon after first encountering Lyles. One officer asked about an Xbox being taken and whether the door had been unlocked before the police start shouting at the woman to get back. About 15 seconds after that first command, officers started firing.
“What is the reason to use such lethal force?” said Erneshia Jack, a 23-year-old cousin of Lyles. “There are many ways to subdue someone without shooting them. She’s not big. She’s not intimidating … She called you, and you went to her house and killed her.”
Studies have repeatedly suggested that people with mental illnesses and disabilities are killed by police at disproportionately high rates. One report suggested that the risk of being killed by police is 16 times greater for individuals with untreated mental illness compared to other civilians. Police also kill African Americans at rates significantly higher than the rest of the population. The officers who shot Lyles are white.
The shooting came days after a Minnesota police officer was acquitted of manslaughter in the death of Philando Castile, a black motorist whose case went viral last year after his girlfriend live-streamed the aftermath of the shooting on Facebook. The decision prompted large protests over the weekend.
Lyles is not the first high-profile case of police profiling black Americans as suspects in their own homes. Last year in Indianapolis, an African American woman was carjacked in front of her home, and after she and her husband called police to report the robbery, law enforcement showed up and shot the husband, with officials later claiming that police thought he was the robbery suspect. There have been similar cases of people shot in their own homes in Arizona, Florida and Texas.
The officers who killed Lyles should face charges, said Cockerhern.
“These officers should not be able to walk around with a smile on their faces when six lives have been destroyed,” she said, adding, “She’s a good mother. She’s a happy fun person. She’s the life of the party. Anywhere she goes, she shines.”
Lyles lived at a complex of apartments for formerly homeless people, called the Brettler Family Place, according to the Seattle Times. Roughly 400 people live in the apartments and about half of the residents are children.
Mike Buchman, spokesman for Solid Ground, the not-for-profit that operates the complex, told the Guardian that residents and staff were shaken by the shooting.
“It’s horrible. Regardless of what might have been going on with her and the call to police, it should not have ended this way. We all feel that deeply,” he said, adding, “This isn’t an incident in isolation … The Seattle community has had a lot of scrutiny about police response in communities of color.”
Seattle’s mayor Ed Murray said in a statement that the shooting is a “tragedy for all involved” and vowed that the incident would be “fully investigated”.
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