WASHINGTON (August 31, 2017) -- On June 18, 2017, Charleena Lyles was killed by officers Steven McNew and Jason Anderson, after they were dispatched to Ms. Lyles’ residence in reference to a burglary. The officers shot Ms. Lyles because she approached them with a knife. The shooting is currently under investigation and the two officers are on paid administrative leave.
After 74 days, the Seattle Police Department (SPD) has not completed their investigation. In the midst of an ongoing investigation, NBLSA finds importance in revitalizing the conversation around the way Black women have been brutalized in this country . NBLSA seeks to advance this conversation during this investigation, rather than reacting to a potentially devastating decision.
The brutalization of Black women in this country is often marginalized by larger discussions on police brutality. Black women make up thirteen percent of America’s population yet, account for thirty-three percent of all women killed by police officers. This alarming statistic does not even account for women like Sandra Bland who committed suicide following her experience with police violence.
The disparate treatment of Black female victims of police violence is also evident in the media. While Black female victims are brow-beaten and villainized, Justine Damond, a White female victim is being touted as “the most innocent victim of police brutality”. Ms. Damond suffered a terrible death when Officer Mohamed Noor of the Minneapolis Police Department shot and killed her on July 15, 2017. However, and although not perfectly, the wheels of justice have begun to turn for Ms. Damond in a way that is rarely seen when the victim of police brutality is a Black woman. As a result of this shooting, the Minnesota Police Chief resigned. Immediately following his resignation, the new police chief implemented a new body camera policy for his officers. All the while, the community that has consistently and vehemently protected officers, regardless of irrefutable facts, is noticeably silent. While we mourn the loss of all victims of police violence, we can not tolerate or ignore biased representation and inequitable treatment of Black women.
Ms. Lyles, a pregnant, five-foot three-inch tall mother of five, did not have to die. Had the officers been better trained and more responsible, Ms. Lyles and her baby would likely still be alive today. What Ms. Lyles got when she called 911 were two irresponsible officers who were not prepared to protect and serve the community. Two officers, who refused to wield their tasers, in violation of department policy. Two officers, who decided to shoot a woman because they could not handle or de-escalate the situation in a non-lethal manner.
The SPD is known for its systemic use of excessive force. In 2012, after an SPD officer killed a homeless man walking across the street carrying a carving knife and a piece of wood, the Department of Justice (DOJ) stepped in and began investigating the SPD. The DOJ alleged that illegal force was most often used against Black and Brown people and those who were either mentally or chemically impaired. Five years later, the SPD has acted in routine fashion by unnecessarily killing Ms. Lyles, despite the DOJ investigation that led to a consent decree forcing the SPD to adopt new policies and training to address excessive force.
The “shoot first” mentality that Officers McNew and Anderson employed is counterproductive and in deep contrast with the SPD’s recent progression away from excessive force. It is time to rethink the way officers prepare and respond to dangerous situations. The first option cannot be shoot to kill. We need officers who can consider non-lethal methods to neutralize potential threats.
Last year, former Dallas Police Chief, David Brown, said, “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country.” Perhaps Mr. Brown was correct. However, most professionals in America are asked to take on more than the average person can handle. The difference between police officers and other professions is the amount of training, education, and experience.
NBLSA calls on local, state, and federally elected officials to work with police departments to raise the minimum requirements for police officer applications to include higher levels of education and experience. Just as lawyers must engage in rigorous studies, internships, and bar examinations, prospective officers should be required to obtain similar experience to ensure that they are capable of policing communities. NBLSA also calls on the Seattle Police Department to fire Officers Stephen McNew and Jason Anderson for willfully violating SPD policy which ultimately ended in an unnecessary death of a mother and her child.
Founded in 1968, NBLSA is a national organization formed to articulate and promote the needs and goals of Black and minority law students to effectuate change in the legal community. As one of the largest student-run organizations of its kind in the United States for Black law students, NBLSA has thousands of members across America and is also comprised of more than 200 chapters and affiliates from six countries, including the Bahamas, Nigeria, and South Africa.
National Attorney General
Chair, NBLSA Advocacy Committee
Mark A. Dunham, Jr.
NBLSA National Chair