This man was killed by Seattle police. You probably didn’t hear his story
You know about Charleena Lyles, the mom of four who was shot by Seattle police a week ago.
Last fall, a similar shooting happened the day when the Jungle, a homeless camp, was shut down. Police shot a man named Michael Taylor.
Like Charleena Lyles, he was allegedly holding a knife. And in both cases, officers had warning that mental health issues might complicate the encounter.
People were stressed out that day. We were there, and so was social worker Michael Volz, pleading with police officers to bring in crisis counselors. Later, Volz, who uses the pronoun they, told me what they said to police: “It seems you are very ill equipped to handle this situation.”
Volz was concerned because many of the people being forced out of the Jungle struggled with mental illness and addiction. They said they told Sgt. Heidi Tuttle, the officer in charge, “'These people are in crisis. You need crisis workers out here to help them.'" According to Volz, the sergeant said police had it under control, and that crisis workers were on standby.
But the mood was tense. Police and teams from Union Gospel Mission met briefly to coordinate but then split up and operated separately.
KUOW Producer Ann Kane and I walked through the Jungle on a dirt trail, observing all this.
Then these two guys walked towards us and blocked us on the trail. One threatened us, saying he’d mess us up if we didn’t give him 10 bucks right now. I pulled out the money and handed it over.
“I should have asked you for a hundred,” he joked.
Then he seemed to have second thoughts, and he tried to give it back. “I give you your money back," he offered as we passed. "No, please. This isn’t a robbery. Please ...”
But we walked on. The encounter passed so quickly, we didn’t take the time to dissect what was happening. I just wanted out of there.
Through all of this, the second guy pretty much stayed out of it. That guy was Michael Taylor.
About an hour later, Taylor found us to apologize. My coworker and I were standing near police, at an entrance to the Jungle, but that didn't deter Taylor from walking up to us.
He was hard to understand, so he had to repeat himself a few times. But I understood his message: I apologize. That guy I was with was out of control. I’m not like that. I don’t do things like that to people.
At the time I found it strange, that he’d sought me out to apologize an hour after he’d watched a guy take my money. But then I read a remembrance his father shared with the South Seattle Emerald about how his son Michael had suffered from "delayed response syndrome." It’s a condition that sometimes rendered him unable to make good split-second decisions. He needed a little extra time to think things over.
Thirty-five minutes after Taylor apologized to me, the police found him with a knife in his hand, facing another man.
They shot him.
“You know, we’re called to a scene that’s in chaos, and it’s critical that we make a split-second decision to keep everybody safe right there," said Joe Winters, who teaches police de-escalation techniques at the police academy south of Seattle. It's called Crisis Intervention Training.
Winters walks police through scenario after scenario, so that when they encounter a situation in the real world, they just know what to do. “If I came to a scene where an individual had a knife," Winters said, "I would be like, ‘Drop the knife, now!’”
The force of his voice, commanding me to drop the knife, almost blew out my recorder.
Then, in a softer tone, he said, “Once I realized I got his attention, I’d be like: ‘Okay now, this is what we’re gonna do. You’re gonna put the knife on the ground slowly, you’re gonna turn around and put your hands behind your back.'
“As you can see, I’m still having that authority, but I’m not screaming at them," he said. "I’m not yelling. I’m not adding to that chaos, and keeping it, you know, whirling around like a tornado.”
Winters says social workers and scientists have worked hard to make this de-escalation more effective. “We have come so far. You know, years back, we resorted to yelling at people. And as they got louder, we got louder.”
There’s a moment, in the police report obtained by the Seattle Times, when Sgt. Heidi Tuttle shouted at Taylor and then had to assess his response.
Taylor can be hard to understand. Sgt. Tuttle interpreted Taylor’s words as something about refusing to put the knife down.
She read his lack of expression as fearlessness. And when Taylor looked from one officer to the other, Tuttle thought he was “assessing which one he wanted to lunge towards.”
The man Taylor was fighting with said Taylor took a few steps toward the officers. When that happens — when an officer commands somebody to drop their weapon and they don’t do it, “We may have to go to lethal force,” Winters said.
I pushed Winters on this. Why can’t you just shoot somebody in the leg? Why do you have to shoot to kill?
“Have you ever fired a weapon?” he asked me.
“Have you ever handled a pistol or a rifle before?”
“Okay, it can be a very difficult thing to handle a pistol and be able to hit your target in a split second decision,” he said. “We do a lot of firearms training. You’re taught just to hit center mass. In a split second, trying to aim for an arm, you can probably think that you may miss. We’re not sharp shooters.”
Winters said there’s always a temptation to second guess the decisions officers make.
“Trust that our officers and deputies are being trained well to go out and assess split second decisions and make the appropriate decision for a good outcome," he said.
Here’s another similarity between Charleena Lyle’s shooting and Michael Taylor’s shooting: Neither case had a good outcome.
Remember how Michael Volz, the social worker, said they pleaded with Sgt. Tuttle, the officer in charge, to send in crisis workers? Sgt. Tuttle ended up shooting Taylor.
Volz said they were furious inside. “I was just talking to you. I was standing right there, hours earlier. And then you shot and killed somebody after brushing me off,” they recalled thinking.
But for all Volz’s frustration, they said we can’t blame everything on the police. Volz said we don’t spend money on mental health or addiction like we need to. Then we ask officers to pick up the slack.
“They’re being trained to shoot to kill, they’re being trained to talk people down... suicide… I mean, what the hell do we want people to do? They can’t be everything.”
One more thing about cases like Michael Taylor and Charleena Lyles: Sometimes it takes a long time to get closure.
Eight months have passed since Michael Taylor was shot. The inquest into his shooting begins Tuesday, June 27.
Correction, 1 p.m., 6/26/2017: An earlier version of this story misstated the race of the police officer who shot Michael Taylor. She was not white.