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Cousin of Charleena Lyles says ‘culture of policing hasn’t changed’

Families that have lost loved ones to police violence all across the U.S., who are part of the Families United 4 Justice Network, stand in solidarity with the Lyles family during a vigil for Charleena Lyles, on the three year anniversary of her death, at Magnuson Park on June 18, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. Lyles, a pregnant mother of three, was killed by Seattle police after calling to report a burglary. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

Katrina Johnson is the cousin of Charleena Lyles, who was killed in 2017 in an encounter with police in her apartment in Seattle. Johnson has also been an organizer of some recent protests in Seattle, and is part of a new task force Gov. Inslee formed to address issues in policing and use of force.

KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross asked Johnson about her perspective on the CHOP area in Capitol Hill.

“I think it takes all different kinds of things to get the system to move,” she said. “I do not necessarily condone some of the events that have happened on or around CHOP, but I am not condemning CHOP for what they’re doing during this time.”

One of the reforms that has been suggested is finding a way to have someone other than an armed police officer respond to incidents of domestic violence, especially where mental illness may be a factor. This, Johnson believes, would have made a difference in her cousin’s case.

“I think that had someone who had mental health training been at the scene, I think my cousin would still be alive,” she said. “I do not think that just because you have mental health issues, you should be condemned to your death.”

Historically, she explained, social workers and mental health professionals have been able to deal with individuals who have been armed and successfully deescalate the situation without a loss of life.

“And they do not have badges and they do not have guns,” she added.

Ross says people have asked him why this is happening now. His answer: Now it’s all being filmed and posted on social media in real time.

“Absolutely,” Johnson agreed. “There has been harm in Black and brown communities since forever … It’s not a new thing. It continues to happen. The only thing that’s different is everybody else is seeing it play out, and not just what we’re saying, you get to see what we’re saying. You get to see the over policing. You get to see … how our Black and brown bodies keep falling to the ground.”

“But I mean, I think it’s even bigger than just Black and brown bodies because I don’t want to make any mistake about it, white people are being killed by law enforcement as well,” she continued. “[Black people] are being killed at a higher rate, and then indigenous people at a higher rate than Black people. But I think all people are falling victim to the police use of deadly force.”

This problem, however, will not be solved by simply having more Black cops, Johnson said.

“I think that wearing that badge and being blue supersedes their blackness,” she said. “… It’s the culture — the culture of policing hasn’t changed.”

There can be individuals who are Black on the police force, who see something wrong, and they’re the good cop, but they don’t say anything, Johnson explained.

“Or if they do say something, then no one’s watching their back while they’re out there in the field doing their police work,” she said. “And it comes back to the culture.”

“It’s not like there’s that one bad apple, … I think it’s all just rotten, and not because everybody wants to be rotten, because I have met some exceptional police officers, and I will never deny that. I have worked alongside them in my professional role.”

Johnson has worked as a project manager for the city’s groundbreaking Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program.

“For me, I think that as a whole, we have to begin to re-imagine policing for the situations that we’re dealing with now,” Johnson said. “Now, how we go about that, it’s going to be super complicated … but I do believe that they should have ongoing and continual psychological tests. I do believe that all officers should have ongoing and continuous training. Those were some of the things that 940 was supposed to be helping with, but obviously there are gaps within that as well.”

Whether or not the current effort for police reform has enough momentum to make a real difference, Johnson said will depend on the people who are involved in the discussions.

“That depends on if we have the right people with the right intentions, that are representing community at the table,” she said. “I think we will only find good solutions if we have a diverse array of people at the table, and that is not currently what I see happening right now.”

When people start talking about what policing looks like, she believes impacted families, people who have lost their loved ones to police use of deadly force, should be included.

“It has to be a collective of individuals and, no, everyone doesn’t always have to agree, but we still know why we are there and what the intent is,” she said. “And until we have opened up and let everybody come to that table that want meaningful change, I don’t think that we’re going to get anywhere. No one person or no one entity can represent a whole community.”

To hear the full conversation between Dave Ross and Katrina Johnson, tune in to the Ross Files podcast, available online here.

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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