Yesterday, Charleena Lyles, a pregnant Seattle mother of three children, reported an attempted burglary in her home. Police arrived, and subsequently shot her to death in front of her children after she displayed a knife.
Lyles, who reportedly struggled with mental health difficulties, may well have taken some kind of threatening action. But would a reportedly tiny woman brandishing a knife pose such a threat to two male police officers that deadly force would be justified? A 2011 Department of Justice report found that Seattle police routinely engage in excessive use of force. This section seems especially telling: “SPD officers escalate situations and use unnecessary or excessive force when arresting individuals for minor offenses. This trend is pronounced in encounters with persons with mental illnesses or those under the influence of alcohol or drugs.”
In response to the report, the city implemented sweeping reforms under a court-ordered consent decree. The reforms have reportedly worked: use of force and crime have both dropped, while injuries to police officers were either flat or slightly lower. The shooting of Lyles might indicate the reforms have not fully transformed the culture of Seattle’s police; on the other hand, the reforms are also the one thing the city can hold up to assure people of color that it takes their concerns seriously, and there is a chance for progress.
That is an argument the Trump administration seems determined to snatch away. Trump ran as a militant advocate of untrammeled prerogative for law enforcement. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s attorney general, attacked the Obama-era Department of Justice for supposedly handcuffing police and demoralizing them. Sessions announced in April that he was undertaking a sweeping “review” of consent decrees that the Department of Justice had obtained from police departments.
The tragic shooting of Charleena Lyles ought to be a moment of reflection on the question of whether police reform is moving quickly and thoroughly enough in Seattle and elsewhere. But the consciences of the president and his attorney general will remain, at best, untroubled.