In a recent family correspondence, my Uncle, Dr. Thaddeus Spratlen, a long time Seattle resident, shared his thoughts on the recent killing of Charleena Lyles by police in her home in front of her children. He kindly gave me permission to post his letter here.
By now you probably have seen some reference to last Sunday’s police shooting here in Seattle of Charleena Lyles, a 30-year old, pregnant and mentally ill African American, mother of four children. Two White officers were responding to a reported theft of an X-box and jewelry at a public housing complex for previously homeless people. There had been previous calls from the victim regarding burglary or other disturbances that resulted in two officers being assigned to respond to the call for help. On previous occasions the victim had been armed with some sharp shears. On Sunday she was holding two knives. In the verbal exchange between the officers and Charleena, she mixed phrases that were incoherent with others that reflected the need for help. It has been suggested that she was experiencing hallucinations. Details on why the interactions became life-threatening and violent are not clear. But one of the officers shot and killed Charleena when she apparently was moving toward them and would not drop the knives. Voice interactions are not clear as to whether any of her other behavior was physically menacing to the officers.
Why guns and deadly force in a situation that did not appear to be life-threatening to the officers? As the law requires there is a Police Department investigation underway. Tragically, there have been no convictions in the 13 or so nationally-reported cases in which police officers have been charged with wrongful death. Charleena’s death is likely to be another one in which police who kill are exonerated. It has just been revealed that cameras outside her fourth floor apartment recorded no entry or activity during the time when she was away from her apartment shopping before she called for help. The officers were not wearing body cameras. So except for the voice recordings we are left with the officers account of what happened.
This is likely to be a worse case than the deadly encounter between St. Paul, MN police and Philando Castile. Recently, his killer, Jeronimo Yanez, was found innocent of second degree manslaughter. In this instance a standard of “culpable negligence” was the threshold for conviction. In video footage it seems clear that the officer was negligent and created avoidable risks. They did not require the victim or other occupants to get out of the car. There seemed to be negligent disregard for the a child and Philando’s girl friend who were in the car. The officer fired several shots into the car. Philando was shot three or four times. Miraculously neither the child nor Philando’s girl friend were hurt. This trauma and tragedy started with a stop because of a broken tail light on the car that Philando was driving.
In the case of Charleena, the responding officers did not have tasers with them (despite having information from previous responses at this address). So far it has not been indicated why they did not use pepper spray or their batons. Also, it is not clear how far away Charleena was from the officers when she started moving towards them. According to Seattle Times columnist Jerry Large, the likely standard for conviction for the killing of Charleena would be “evil intent.” And so it goes for one more tragic tale of White police officers panicking in the face of carrying out their responsibilities of providing protection or help from crime. The police officer ended up being a killer instead of protector. Grim statistics also reported by Jerry Large were that for 2017 there are almost three police killings per day in the United States! As he put it, Charleena was the 451st person killed by police in the United States during the first 169 days of 2017. That should be a national disgrace for violence against people that police are being paid to help and protect.
Sadly, Philando, Charleena and thousands of other victims of police killings could not stay out of the way of the police. Back to my starting point, the nation must find more humane and effective ways of dealing with mentally ill people and the use of deadly force by police. This is another instance in which we lead the world in infamy.
Thaddeus Spratlen, Seattle, WA