Taser probes, batons and pepper spray weren’t feasible alternatives when two Seattle police officers fatally shot Charleena Lyles after she suddenly pulled a knife on them, according to a newly released Seattle police report.
The Force Review Board report, made public Friday, provides the first detailed analysis of the findings that led to the board’s unanimous vote on Nov. 14 that determined the controversial shooting to be reasonable, necessary and proportional and consistent with department training and policy.
“The Board discussed the lethality of the threat presented, noting that one well-placed slash or stab wound can cause an individual to rapidly bleed out,” says the report, which makes no specific recommendations to change policy or training.
The report also was submitted to U.S. District Judge James Robart in Seattle, who asked for it as he weighs the city’s request to find it in full compliance with a 2012 federal consent decree requiring the Police Department to adopt reforms to address excessive force and biased policing.
Lyles, a 30-year-old African-American mother of four, was shot seven times by two white officers June 18 after she called 911 to report a burglary at her Northeast Seattle apartment.
Police said Lyles suddenly threatened Officers Steven McNew and Jason Anderson with one or two knives before they opened fire. No evidence of a burglary was found.
Lyles had struggled with mental-health issues, according to her family and court records, and the shooting came at a time her life was spinning out of control.
The shooting unleashed a storm of public protest, with many seeing it as another example of unnecessary deadly force being used by police against people of color. Lyles’ family members have said race was a factor.
Corey Guilmette, the attorney representing Lyles’ siblings and cousins, issued a statement on the report Saturday, saying, “In finding Charleena Lyles’s killing to be within policy and training, while also failing to suggest policy and training reforms, the Seattle Police Department is saying that the same events that led to Charleena Lyles’s death could happen again tomorrow, and there is no plan underway to make that outcome less likely. Charleena’s sisters, brother and cousins reject that.
“They expect the police oversight system, and city of Seattle elected officials, to insist that SPD push harder to find other tactical options for officers in a situation like this,” Guilmette said.
In releasing the review-board findings, the department noted the report is “significantly longer and more detailed than is typical” and that, “First and foremost, the Department respects that there can be no understating the significance of this review in the context of community trust.”
Anderson reported he had pepper spray and a baton with him at the time of the shooting, but wasn’t carrying his Taser because the device’s battery had died. Anderson faces potential disciplinary action over his handling of the Taser problem.
McNew, who wasn’t assigned a Taser, had a baton.
The board, which consists of about 15 members, concluded the use of a Taser was unlikely to be effective, given a success rate of about 50 percent despite “common misperceptions” that Tasers are a “miracle tool.”
Tasers won’t penetrate baggy or heavy clothing, the report says, noting Lyles was wearing a puffy coat.
In addition, the effectiveness of a Taser’s two electrically charged probes requires adequate spread between them to render neuromuscular incapacitation, with an optimal distance of 7 to 15 feet, according to the report.
Lyles was “well within half of that distance from each officer,” the report says.
Pepper spray within the small confines of the apartment would be “tactically counterproductive,” the board found, saying the potential secondary effect could disable the officers and make them more vulnerable to attack.
Batons require sufficient space to draw and maneuver, the report says.
“The Board agreed that neither time nor space would have allowed for officers to ready themselves with their batons,” the report says, concluding a baton is not an appropriate tool to defend against a threat with a knife.
Although the officers were larger than the 5-foot-3, 100-pound Lyles, the board found it would have been counter to training and policy for the officers to go “hands-on” with Lyles and put themselves at risk by trying to control a combative person armed with a knife.
Lyles posed an immediate lethal threat to the officers and two of her small children nearby, the report says.
The board found that Anderson, the first officer to respond, showed good judgment when he checked the address and discovered a caution alert that had been issued for Lyles because of a June 5 incident in which she had threatened officers with a pair of long scissors.
But in evaluating whether the officers should have called for backup or a crisis-response team the board noted there was no indication Lyles might be in crisis.
“The Board discussed that the fact that a person had experienced a crisis incident on one or even more occasions is not a basis for assuming that a person is mentally ill or will react violently on any subsequent occasion,” the report says.
On the contrary, training to mitigate the stigma surrounding mental-health issues “emphasizes responding to people as they appear at the time …,” according to the report.
During the June 18 call, the report says, Lyles initially appeared “calm and controlled.”
In submitting the report to Judge Robart, city attorneys argued its conclusions should have no bearing on the city’s motion to be found in compliance with the consent decree.
Lyles’ death occurred after the court’s federal monitor, Merrick Bobb, found the Police Department had met a series of required assessments, they say in a briefby the City Attorney’s Office.
The brief notes that if the department is found to be in compliance, it will still be required to keep that status during a subsequent two-year “sustainment period.”
“If Ms. Lyles’s death or the City’s response to it demonstrate, along with other evidence, that SPD has failed to comply with one or more requirements of the Decree, the court can make that determination on a complete record at that time,” the brief says.
The board’s findings, the brief adds, don’t mean the department or the city will “cease efforts to examine the incident fully, to work to prevent similar tragedies, and to build the trust of a community shaken not only by this incident, but by a national spotlight on police shootings.”
While the board has its perspective, the brief says, the City Attorney’s Office has its own views that could lead to further discussion about tactics and outside analysis on responding to people armed with knives.
The board, in acknowledging its report contains no recommendations to change policies or training, says the department is open to “honest dialogue” and practices elsewhere from which it might learn new methods.
But the report emphasizes no training or policy can address all potential scenarios or guarantee against tragic outcomes, nor will the department “put its officers in a position where they, or another, are expected to sustain a foreseeably lethal wound before they may use force that is reasonable, necessary, and proportional to the threat they face.”
In a separate brief, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle and the Department of Justice, which obtained the consent decree against the city, said they recognized the shooting’s tragic impact.
But as a legal question, the review-board findings should have no affect on the city’s request to be found in compliance, they wrote, reiterating their position that the police department has met its obligations.