Two days after Philando Castile’s killer walked free, my cousin, a pregnant Black mother, was gunned down in Seattle after she called 911 for help. We need to say her name: Charleena Lyles.
On Sunday morning, my cousin Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old pregnant mother of four struggling with mental health, called 911 to report a burglary. Instead of assistance, she was sentenced to her death, as the police gunned her down with very minimal to no de-escalation. She was staying in a transitional housing facility for homeless families in Seattle and someone robbed her home. She needed help. But two officers arrived at Charleena’s home and despite knowing she was advised for mental health counseling due to domestic violence, they reached for guns first when they saw her holding a knife. Instead of de-escalating, they chose to shoot and kill her — right in front of her children.
Seattle police officers are trained on how to de-escalate mental health situations. They chose to kill. Now they’re on paid leave. It’s obvious. These police officers should be fired immediately and indicted on criminal charges. And that’s just a start. We need full transparency in this investigation, the police should release all footage, not just the audio recording. We must demand that Seattle police aren’t allowed to investigate themselves. And we must change the laws that make it nearly impossible to prosecute officers that use deadly force.
At every single turn, the Seattle Police Department failed. First, a couple weeks before her death, they ARRESTED Charleena when she called for help with an abusive boyfriend. She spent 9 days in jail because she was a survivor of domestic violence and struggling with mental health. Seattle police knew she needed help, not guns–they even had it marked in their system. But when she was robbed and called the police again, instead of sending a mental health practitioner to her home they sent more police officers than they normally would. On an audio recording, you can hear the two officers discussing her on their way to Charleena’s home.1 They KNEW she was struggling with mental health. They had other means but after less than 11 minutes they reached for their guns. There was no reason for Charleena to die. Yet the Seattle police officers did not follow any training and policies set forth by the Seattle Police Department.
The Seattle Police Department has a long and dangerous history of mistreatment of people with mental health issues. They were under investigation by the Obama administration and the Department of Justice in 2012 for its ongoing pattern of officers using excessive force– especially on people with mental health and substance abuse issues.2 Right after the investigation, the Seattle Police Department was placed under a federal consent decree — which allows for police departments to be sued for civil rights violations and use of excessive force.
Too often people with mental health issues become vulnerable targets of police, despite police departments being required to have a clear protocol for engaging with them. According to one study in 2015, about 25% of people who were killed by police suffered from mental health issues.3 Just less than two weeks ago, a Black man diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Joshua Barre, was shot and killed by police in Tulsa, Oklahoma4— leaving his family in turmoil with unanswered questions. It is the same unanswered questions our family now has to deal with. To be Black and dealing with mental health means becoming an even deadlier target for police violence, and it has to stop.
In such an extreme, violent, and white supremacist climate that goes beyond any White House administration, Black women continue to be viewed as a threat in this country. The vicious stereotypes of Black women being out of control, angry, and aggressive have led to the death of too many. Just like my cousin, women like Sandra Bland, Tanisha Anderson, and Miriam Carey were deemed “threatening” by men who were twice their size and had guns just because they were vocal. Time and time again Black women are either forced into silence and invisibility or put in harm’s way — in the media, politics, and our personal lives. From public leadership, like we’ve seen with Congresswoman Maxine Waters and U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, Black women are constantly attacked and vilified for being boisterous and steadfast in their crusade for justice and taking a stand. But even in the mundane, everyday actions of being a mother, protecting one’s family, driving home, going to school, sitting in a living room of a home, Black women and girls are deemed a threat, facing the ultimate consequence — death.
All of this is happening just days after the officer who murdered Philando Castile was found not guilty. The reality is all too painful. Our community is forced to deal with it, sit with it, cry about it, while everyone else moves on. We know we have to fight harder. Yes, the whole system is guilty. We know we have to start imagining what real safety and freedom looks like for Black people. And the answer is not in hands of the police.
Our family deserves justice,
— Nakeya Isabell
1. “Seattle police release audio in fatal shooting of 30-year-old mother in Sand Point,” KIRO 7, 06-19-2017 http://act.colorofchange.org/go/8063?t=12&akid=7616.2215356.Sg7WmL
2. “WHEN POLICE KILL: CHARLEENA LYLES, A BLACK WOMAN, WAS PREGNANT WHEN SHE DIED,” Newsweek, 06-19-2017 http://act.colorofchange.org/go/8064?t=14&akid=7616.2215356.Sg7WmL
3. “Fatal police shootings in 2015 approaching 400 nationwide,” Washington Post, 05-30-2015 https://act.colorofchange.org/go/8065?t=16&akid=7616.2215356.Sg7WmL
4. “Shooting of mentally ill man in Oklahoma raises policing questions,” Denver Post, 06-17-2017 http://act.colorofchange.org/go/8066?t=18&akid=7616.2215356.Sg7WmL