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Seattle police shooting may show limits of crisis training

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SEATTLE (AP) — On a weekday afternoon in March, Seattle police officers fenced off a city block as they tried to persuade a suicidal man in the middle of a downtown street to drop a knife.

Pedestrians were cleared, traffic was rerouted, and more than two hours later, the man surrendered — without injury to himself or anyone else.

It was a textbook case in how police can calm volatile situations, and it reflected the extensive emphasis the department has placed on crisis intervention training under a 2012 settlement with the Justice Department.

By contrast, Sunday’s fatal shooting of a pregnant mother, who police say was armed with two knives, after she called in a burglary at her apartment illustrates the potential limits of such training.

It also threatens to undermine the strides Seattle police have made in regaining public trust since a series of troubling events, including the unnecessary killing of a Native American woodcarver by an officer in 2010, prompted the DOJ’s investigation.

Two officers, one a specialist in handling people in crisis, responded to the burglary. They knew the woman, Charleena Lyles, had struggled with mental illness and earlier this month had menaced police with metal shears in her apartment. But they nevertheless found themselves with little time to react when she suddenly snapped about two minutes after they began taking her report.

“If the officer has time, space and cover, they have more options than using deadly force, but that’s not necessarily going to be the case,” said Sue Rahr, a former sheriff and the executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission. “The suddenness of the threat in some cases precludes de-escalation.”

The killing has prompted outrage among many, including Lyles’ family, who questioned why the officers couldn’t use nonlethal methods to subdue the diminutive 30-year-old and suggested that race played a role. Lyles was black; the officers, identified as Steven McNew, a 34-year-old who joined the force in 2008, and Jason Anderson, 32, who joined in 2015, were white.

Neither officer had a stun gun, but they did have other options, either a baton or pepper spray. Like all Seattle officers, both had crisis intervention training, and McNew had volunteered for additional training to become a certified crisis intervention specialist.

In April 2011, McNew was one of three officers who received a commendation from their patrol sergeant for how they responded to a suicidal person armed with a knife.

Hundreds of people turned out for a protest march Tuesday night, and responses from the city’s mayoral candidates after Lyles was killed included calls for improved mental health systems, further changes in police training and demands for transparency in the shooting’s investigation.

James Bible, a lawyer for the Lyles family, noted that on an audio recording released by police, one officer asks the other to “Tase” Lyles, but the other responds that he doesn’t have one. If they had time to discuss that, they weren’t in immediate danger, Bible insisted.

“She’s actually the one to dial 911 and … she ends up dead on the floor in front of her children,” he told the crowd Tuesday night. “The system in Seattle is responsible to wealthy white people but not the rest of us. And that’s why we have to say, once again, murder is murder is murder is murder.”

Two officers, rather than one, responded to take Lyles’ burglary report because of her prior history with police. According to audio recordings released by police, the encounter Sunday was calm and professional for about the first two minutes: Lyles allowed them into her northeast Seattle apartment and told them someone had taken a video game console.

Suddenly, though, a confrontation erupted. There are sounds of rapid movement, the woman yelling “Get ready, (expletive)!” and the police radioing for help and repeatedly warning her to get back before five shots are fired.

Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, a Seattle police spokesman, said Wednesday that officers are trained to focus on “time, distance and shielding” in protecting themselves and others from a threat: “What is my need to intervene at this very moment? What is my sense of urgency? How close am I and how close do I need to be?”

That doesn’t mean the officers shouldn’t have entered Lyles’ apartment to investigate the burglary, he said.

“Everything’s normal, the officers are acting appropriately, taking her info,” Whitcomb said. “This is your right as someone who lives in the city: If you’re the victim of a crime the police will come out and investigate. Just because someone has interaction with the criminal justice system one day doesn’t mean they’re deprived of service the next day.”

Whitcomb said the department is “grieving for her children and her family” and struggling with the notion that earlier mental health or other support for Lyles, a pregnant mother of four who had been a victim of domestic violence, might have prevented what happened.

Lyles had been in counseling, with and without her children, and she had obtained housing last year after fighting homelessness for a decade, court records indicate.

“There will be a thorough investigation,” Whitcomb said. “We’ll continue being transparent. Nothing absolves us from how this ended. Our goal is to get to the truth.”

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