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Pregnant Woman Fatally Shot By Seattle Police Outside Apartment Building

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) We want justice. We want justice. We want justice.


This was the scene last night outside of an apartment building in Seattle. A young mother named Charleena Lyles was shot to death in her home by police. At least one of her children was nearby. Lyles' relatives are accusing police of not doing enough to de-escalate an encounter with a person known to have mental problems.

NPR's Martin Kaste is in Seattle where he's been following this story. And Martin, Charleena Lyles was about 30 years old. He had three kids, and her family - they're saying that she was pregnant. So what do we know about what led to this police shooting?

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Well, Audie, the - this all started with a call for a - for officers to come to take a burglary report. She called them to her apartment to say someone had been in her apartment and stole - stolen some things. Usually just one officer shows up for a call like that. It's Sunday morning. But in this case, two showed up, and that's where this case was already kind of different because she was already in their system as a potential danger to officers. You can get a sense of that when you listen to this audiotape we now have from the dash cam system on their squad cars. The two officers are talking with each other about a previous encounter involving her at this apartment.


UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #1: Wait. Is this the one with, like...


UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #1: ...The three kids?

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #2: Yeah, yeah. But this gal - she was the one making all these weird statements about her and her daughters are going to turn wolves and...

KASTE: It's kind of hard to hear there. It's a scratchy recording. But they're talking about this previous incident where she was saying bizarre things about turning into a wolf, or her children would turn into wolves. And in that incident, we now know she also threatened officers at that time with a large pair of scissors. And during that confrontation, apparently the officers drew their weapons. But at that time - this was about two weeks ago - they were able to talk her down without shooting her.

CORNISH: So there was a previous confrontation, but now you have police going in, essentially preparing for the possibility of trouble. How come it didn't end as before? Like, why did it end with Lyles being shot?

KASTE: Well, that's the pressing question here. This is going to be examined by multiple entities, it should be said - the police department's own special force investigation team, then something called the Office of Professional Accountability. And there may even be a county coroner's inquest here. And what they're going to be looking at most likely here is whether the officers had a chance to de-escalate the situation, whether they had the time or the space to do it.

If you listen to this audio, there's some indication that they may not have had a lot of time. So far what you hear when you kind of listen to the part where they're now at the apartment, they're taking the report, things seem to have changed tone very abruptly. She's talking to them very normally about what got stolen. She mentions a stolen Xbox. There's this four-second pause, and then you hear a commotion. You hear her say, you ready? She uses an expletive to presumably address the officers. And you hear the cops react.


UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #3: We need help. We have (inaudible).

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #4: Hey, get back. Get back.

KASTE: And at that point, there's a commotion here. We're not going to play the whole thing 'cause it contains the sound of the gunfire that killed her. But there is this increasing sort of escalation in tone. Get back. Get back. And they shoot her.

CORNISH: It's also not clear whether she actually attacked the officers, right?

KASTE: We don't know anything about her stance, about what she did with the knife that she supposedly was holding. The police have not described the knife in any detail. We do know that there may have been children present. We hear their voices in the background or at least one child's voice. It's not clear, though, how that may have influenced their decision on whether to deescalate or how to handle the situation.

CORNISH: Martin, you've reported on the Seattle Police before in part because they've been in a process of reform, one of federally monitored consent decree. So how does that affect what's going on here?

KASTE: Well, they're going to be looking at this very closely 'cause this is what it was all about. This whole process for Seattle started when a elderly Native man was shot for holding a knife downtown. Now we have this situation again - someone holding a knife with cognitive problems. It'll be looked at closely.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Martin Kaste in Seattle. Martin, thank you.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.

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