SEATTLE — Seattle police sent members of its SWAT team to the site of the Charleena Lyles inquest after one of the officers who shot her reported concerns over comments aimed at him last week when he walked through a group of her relatives following an emotional day of testimony.
The incident occurred Wednesday evening at the Judge Patricia Clark Children and Family Justice Center following a difficult day at the coroner’s inquest into Lyles’ 2017 death, which included photographs of her body and a heart-rending video of two of her young children after they were removed from the apartment where Lyles was shot seven times by Officers Jason Anderson and Steven McNew.
According to witnesses and statements made Monday from Inquest Administrator Michael Spearman, a retired Washington Court of Appeals judge, McNew exited the building after the testimony and walked through a large group of Lyles’ family and friends, including her father, Charles Lyles, who had gathered on the steps.
Witnesses said some family members made comments to the officer, including calling him a “coward” and a “pussy.” His inquest attorney, Ted Buck, said McNew was concerned about what was said and called his sergeant. Two days later, two members of the Police Department’s SWAT team responded “for purposes of familiarizing themselves with the location in the event SPD may be called to respond.”
King County sheriff’s Sgt. Jim Donner, who oversees security at the building, said the visit “came as a surprise.” The Sheriff’s Office has jurisdiction over the building, which houses juvenile courts and detention.
Spearman, speaking Monday outside the hearing of the eight-member inquest jury, brought the incident up to the attorneys involved, calling the response “excessive.” He urged the officers to avoid Lyles’ family.
As many as a dozen of her family and friends, as well as members of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, have routinely attended the inquest. Many have been wearing shirts that say “I Am Charleena” on the front and #sayhername on the back.
“Words were exchanged,” said Buck, who is also representing Anderson. “He called his sergeant. A couple off-duty SWAT guys responded.”
Buck did not describe the comments as threats, but said they were personal in nature. The SWAT officers reviewed surveillance video of the incident. No arrests were made.
He said the officers have tried to avoid the family, but there is a single hallway outside the exits from the conference room where the inquest is being held, where public restrooms and a drinking fountain are located. The building’s only exits are shared.
“We are trying to stay out of their way,” Buck said. “We just want to get this damned thing over.”
Katrina Johnson, Lyles’ cousin and a vocal police reform advocate who was with the family during the exchange, said McNew walked through the middle of the gathering.
“This was a total overreaction,” she said. “No threats were made. Words were said, that’s all. The family feels threatened by [the SWAT response]. It was unnecessary.”
In a statement, Seattle Police Department Communications said the response was a “precautionary measure.” Officers visited the building Friday, when no inquest proceedings were being held.
“There was and is no intent to exercise jurisdiction that appropriately and capably belongs to [the King County Sheriff’s Office],” the statement read.
The Lyles inquest is the second of at least 56 pending inquests into police-related deaths in King County. The process — intended to be a public fact-finding review of deaths involving law enforcement officers — was stalled for years after County Executive Dow Constantine determined it was unfair and biased toward police.
Testimony on Monday was offered by Seattle police Sgt. Mark Grinstead, who detailed evidence gathered at the shooting scene, including the discovery of two knives on the apartment floor — one close to where Lyles fell and another found under a rag in the kitchen. A sheath that fit the knife was found in her pocket.
Grinstead described that knife as a “paring knife” with a 4-inch blade. The other knife was a steak-type knife, also with a 4-inch blade.
Grinstead engaged in a tense exchange with Karen Kohler, the family’s attorney, over where the officers were standing when they fired. Anderson left the scene before crime-scene investigators and detectives could question him. A schematic and photographs showed McNew was standing about 7 feet away from Lyles when he fired.
The jury was shown a heavily bloodstained down jacket and shirt Lyles was wearing when she was shot. Shell casings found at the scene indicated seven shots were fired. Lyles, who was four months pregnant, was struck seven times. At least four of those rounds entered her torso and passed entirely through her body. Some of the rounds were recovered from the apartment walls. Three bullets were recovered during an autopsy from her pelvis and buttocks.