June 21, 2017

From the Executive Director's Desk

I have a lot of thoughts swirling around about Charleena Lyles. Whenever there is a story of someone being killed by police who had any mental health history, I prepare myself for the calls for comment our office will get the next day. I brace myself for headlines that refer to a community member with mental health issues as a "suspect" when they don't appear to have done anything wrong – and they aren't alive to tell their side of the story.

Let me start by saying this: Having a mental health issue, and being a black woman, should not be death sentences. Together, or separately. Charleena Lyles called 911 about a burglary at her apartment – where her children were with her – and by most accounts, opened the door with a knife in her hand. That seems a normal reaction to me, to arm yourself with whatever is available when you feel you and your children are in danger. When I was a child in Mountlake Terrace, someone tried to break in through the bathroom window of our apartment. I distinctly remember how scary it was, and my mom grabbing a baseball bat. It just seems so basic and human. At this point we have to acknowledge the elephant in the room: race and implicit bias absolutely affect our policing and our health care systems. How would the police response have been different if they were responding to a call at a house in Sandpoint and it had been a white woman who opened the door with a knife in her hand and her children in the room?

That Charleena Lyles was released from King County Jail a few days prior to this call should not be relevant to this conversation, other than how it affected the response of police, which was to double the number of officers on the call, and to highlight the correlation between jail time and mental illness. Since the 1960's, we have simply moved people from being housed in institutions to being housed in our jails (or on the street), which if you ask me, is not a "less restrictive environment".

As I read the description of some of the things she said during that first police interaction earlier in the week, I felt my heart sink. She is described as speaking "bizarrely" and saying things about how she wanted to "morph into a wolf". This is a significant red flag that, as a clinician, puts me on alert that someone with a mental health condition is decompensating. What might have happened if, instead of her going to jail that day, she had been taken to a hospital instead? What might have happened if we had a healthcare and justice system that saw her bizarre comments for what they were – a mental health warning sign?

When I see that video clip of Charleena Lyles' sister, Monika Williams, talking about the call that led officers to take Charleena to jail earlier that week, I feel deeply her anger, her frustration, and it fills me with rage and sadness. "She has mental health issues that nobody's trying to f**king address," she said. It is a refrain that I hear too often. People need mental health support and treatment and too frequently cannot get it until they are a danger to themselves or others, or they're in jail. This is especially true for people who have lower incomes, and for people of color. And it is unacceptable. 

Charleena Lyles. Say her name.

Ashley Fontaine, MSW

Executive Director
NAMI Seattle


There are some technical pieces of information that I want to address and add to our community's arsenal of knowledge, because to fight injustice we must be armed with factually accurate (often nuanced and not catchy or sound-byte-able) information.

In 2015, with the passage of the Doug Ostling Act, all peace officers in the state of Washington are required to have 8 hours of "CIT" training (departments have until 2021 to get to full training of their entire force). I put CIT in quotes because while 8 hours of training is certainly better than nothing, 8 hours – one single day – of training does not a Crisis Intervention Team make. The Memphis Model of CIT (the city where CIT originated back in 1988, after the Memphis police killed a man with mental illness and the community rightfully responded in outrage) consists of 40 hours and is generally viewed as the gold standard. As CIT International says, it's "more than just training". People mistakenly think that the T in CIT stands for training – it doesn't. It stands for Team. Crisis Intervention TEAM. Because CIT is supposed to be about developing community networks between law enforcement, mental health, and other social services, so that people in crisis can get the help and treatment they need – not about making police officers our first and last mode of response. However, we can't have a team when the mental health side that is supposed to provide care for people is so underfunded and understaffed as to have practically atrophied altogether. In Seattle proper, when you hear "CIT Certified" that means that officer has completed a full 40 hours of CIT training and not just the 8 hours now required by Washington State Law.

Many of you know that the Seattle Police Department has been under a consent decree by the Department of Justice (DOJ) since 2012, in response to SPD's record of excessive use of force and policies and procedures that the DOJ felt could result in discriminatory policing. In 2016 the Seattle Police Department was on target to receive 10,000 calls related to mental health crisis. Due to their being under mandate and court monitored by DOJ, we have the benefit of a lot of data collection and measurement – the SPD decreased their use of force in response to those mental health crisis calls significantly. In 2016, they shared data demonstrating that reportable use of force during mental health crisis calls was down to 2%. That's really remarkable, and I am glad to hear it. However, I can't say how or if that accounts for calls that aren't coded as mental health related when they come through the dispatcher, or how race plays into the remaining 2% of mental health crisis calls where force is used. These are critical questions that we must ask.