Charleena Lyles, the troubled mother of four who was killed by Seattle police on Sunday, was not one who fell through cracks in the mental-health system.
If anything, according to court records and interviews, almost everybody involved in her life was trying to get her help: Prosecutors, judges, her attorney, state and private social services, her family and Lyles herself all were working to address her increasingly erratic behavior.
But it ended in her death.
Two Seattle police officers, called by Lyles to report a burglary at her Magnuson Park apartment Sunday, shot and killed her after police say she suddenly displayed a knife. Both officers fired at her.
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The incident was eerily similar to a confrontation she had with officers at the apartment on June 5, when she reportedly was held at gunpoint by officers after she refused to drop a pair of large shears.
In both instances, Lyles appeared to undergo a dramatic mood change, going from passive and conversational to belligerent in seconds. An audio recording of Sunday’s shooting reveals the officers having a normal-tone conversation with Lyles before suddenly repeatedly ordering her to “Get back!” and then firing.
A report on the June 5 incident indicates Lyles sat on a couch in the same apartment, a child in her lap, and repeatedly refused officers’ orders to drop the scissors. After tense moments, she put them down and was arrested on suspicion of two counts of harassment and one count of obstructing a police officer.
She appeared in Seattle Municipal Court the next day, where everybody involved in the hearing – prosecutor, defense attorney and judge – agreed she needed a mental-health “look-see,” according to court documents and a recording of the hearing.
Her attorney, Ashwin Kumar of the King County Defender Association, asked for her release when she was arraigned and said her family has “mental-health concerns.”
“She also has mental-health concerns,” he said of Lyles.
Kumar told the court that Lyles already was undergoing counseling ordered by the state Division of Child Protective Services (CPS). A May 26, 2017, letter from Solid Ground, the agency that provided her housing, indicates she and her four children had been meeting weekly with a child and family therapist. They had met at least five times, according to the letter.
Norah West, a spokeswoman for CPS and the state Department of Social and Health Services, said privacy concerns prevented the department from discussing whether it was providing Lyles with services.
King County court records indicate Lyles was sent to Sound Mental Health in June 2016 after a domestic-violence arrest in Auburn involving an altercation with her sister.
“I believe I need counseling,” Lyles wrote a counselor as part of a mental-health evaluation in that case. “I believe I am suffering from depression.”
Lyles described a childhood of neglect and abuse, both physical and sexual, leading to years of homelessness. That ended last year when she and her four children – including a 4-year-old with Down syndrome – moved into the Brettler Family Place in Magnuson Park, which is operated by Solid Ground.
The court record indicates – and her family has confirmed – that Lyles was stressed and concerned she would lose her new home, and the state would take her children.
The incident on June 5 sent ripples of concern through the court hearing. The judge interrupted Kumar to say how “extremely volatile” she found the incident with the shears, particularly since it happened even as Lyles was receiving help.
Kumar said it was new behavior that everybody found disturbing.
“The family says it’s extremely unusual,” he said, suggesting that Lyles was going through “more of a mental-health crisis.”
In a statement Monday, Solid Ground said the promise of healing and a better life “was taken away for Charleena and her children by the inability of multiple institutions, including the housing, health, mental-health and law-enforcement systems,” to help her.
“As a direct service and social-justice organization it is incredibly frustrating to see our systems fail the people who come to us,” the organization said. “We all must do better to make our community the equitable, safe place we all yearn for.”