America's Long, Disturbing History of Black People Calling the Police and Ending Up Dead

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This past Sunday morning, Seattle police responded to a 911 call from 30-year-old Charleena Lyles reporting an attempted burglary at her home. Shortly after police entered her apartment, Lyles was dead—officers fatally shot her while three of her children were present. It’s unclear what led to the rapid escalation and deadly use of force. Officers said that Lyles, a diminutive woman and a mother of four, including a special needs child, brandished a knife at them. She was pregnant at the time of her death.


The rapper Cam’ron once infamously told Anderson Cooper that even if he were living next door to a serial killer, he would sooner move than call the police. Black people in America are more likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods than poor whites and Hispanics. Statistically, if you live in an impoverished neighborhood, you are less likely to call the cops despite experiencing a far higher rate of violent crime. Residents of neighborhoods with high crime rates are only slightly more likely (21%) than residents of affluent neighborhoods (19%) to notify the police of crimes.

Even beyond the hood ethos of “no snitching,” black people know that the motto to protect and serve often doesn’t extend to everyone. It’s why that imperative to maintain a code of silence around criminal goings-on, a key tenet of hip-hop culture that began with a few choice lyrics in the ‘90s and has since grown into a full-blown campaign with affiliated apparel, has flourished. It’s not only a matter of ideology, but of survival.

Engaging with the police is a last resort for many black Americans, and even then, we have to confront whether the reason for calling would justify the risk of being evicted (domestic violence victims often face housing insecurity from landlords frustrated with police being called to their properties), brutalized, or worse. After a high-profile incident of police brutality, black people are even less likely to call for help from authorities in the event of a crime. This phenomenon is so prevalent that it now even has a name: the Jude effect. Named for Frank Jude, an unarmed black man who was severely beaten by police in Milwaukee in October 2004, the sharp drop in calls to police can last up to a year after a widely publicized incident of brutality.

Charleena Lyles was not the first black person to call the police for help only to be met with deadly force. Black people across the country have encountered the same outcome regardless of age or class.

Just after Christmas last year, 19-year-old Quintonio LeGrier called 911 three times before a responding officer shot him dead after LeGrier allegedly swung a baseball bat at the cop. Chicago police also shot his neighbor in the process and apologized for a death they characterized as a tragic accident.

Last September, 21-year-old Tawon Boyd called the Baltimore police in a confused and intoxicated state. Responding BPD officers punched and restrained Boyd, who they said was resisting arrest. Boyd died three days later.


Later that same month, Alfred Olango, a 38-year-old Ugandan refugee living in El Cajon, California, was shot and killed after his sister, concerned for his mental well-being in the wake of a close friend dying, asked that authorities place an involuntary psychiatric hold on him. Uniformed officers shot him, claiming he took a shooting stance. He was holding a vape.

In the fall of 2011, Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., a 68-year-old veteran of the Marine Corps and retired correctional officer, was fatally shot in his home in White Plains, New York, after accidentally triggering a medical bracelet he wore for a heart condition. He repeatedly told the responding officers through a locked door that he didn’t need assistance. They broke down the door, tasered him, and shot him dead after they said Chamberlain grabbed a knife.


In December 1998 in Riverside, California, 19-year-old Tyisha Miller and a friend had car trouble on their way home late at night. Her friend found a ride from a stranger and went home to go call Miller’s cousin for help. Miller stayed behind to guard her vehicle. She rolled up the windows, locked the doors, and dozed off with a gun in her lap for protection. When her cousin arrived at the scene, she found her unresponsive and foaming at the mouth. Miller’s body was shaking, according to her cousin, who then called 911 for help. Police responded to the call, and claimed initially that when Miller awoke with a start, clutching her gun, she opened fire, and they returned, killing her. Later, however, police would walk that back, saying they “weren’t as absolute that a round was fired.”

Some of the first organized police in the U.S. were slave patrols and night watches to ensure the enslaved remained property and did not rise up against their masters. And when it comes to the legacy of lynching, which spanned centuries, police rarely protected against and often supported the heinous acts. More than half of lynchings were carried out with police participation, and those who didn’t participate “either condone[d] or wink[ed] at the mob action,” writes sociologist Arthur Raper in his seminal 1933 study of lynchings.


Local police departments also historically capitalized on white mob violence. In the late 1860s, in the aftermath of the Civil War, white police officers—backed by frenzied, armed mobs—attacked and killed scores of black people in Southern cities like Memphis and New Orleans. Federal troops were sent to restore order as Reconstruction officially began.

In the 1960s, before the gains of the Civil Rights movement were solidified, police were often not-so-secret members of white supremacist orders like the KKK. Activists like the three young men slain in the Orangeburg Massacre, students shot and killed by police in a 1968 protest on the campus of South Carolina State University shortly after integrating a bowling alley, became martyrs for the cause.


Over the years, organizers have crafted underground methods and strategies to help those vulnerable to police—black Americans and LGBTQ, mentally ill, and undocumented people—find ways around calling the cops. There are guidelines for bystander intervention, and accountability processes that offer restitution outside of policing and criminalization. But these initiatives are often underfunded and understaffed. And there’s always concern of vigilantism, too.


The call that ultimately led to Charleena Lyles’ death was not the first time she had summoned the police to her home. In an audio recording released by police, the responding officers can be heard discussing a prior incident on June 5 at the apartment, which resulted in a “hazard information” designation. The incident report makes clear that Lyles was suffering from a mental break at the time, and that she was armed with scissors. She was arrested and spent 12 days in jail on a harassment charge because she was unable to make bail.

Police had also been dispatched to Lyles’ apartment at least two other times in the past on domestic violence calls. Her family has shared that she was terrified of losing her kids to Child Protective Services because her abuser—the father of two of her children—had put the kids in danger while repeatedly assaulting Lyles, knocking out her teeth. She had permanent scars from the abuse. CPS deemed the home environment unfit for the children.


Lyles eventually obtained a protective order, but her sister says that her mental health issues resulted at least in part from trauma due to domestic abuse and the strain of potentially losing her children. She had been fighting to prove to a judge for the past year that she was a fit parent. It’s plausible that when she called 911, she may have thought that the burglar was her abuser, a man who had a history of showing up uninvited to assault her.

When we consider Lyles’ many identities—black, female, poor, mentally ill, previously incarcerated—it becomes apparent that she was particularly vulnerable to police aggression. Her death is nauseating and unjust, but also part of a long history of black people asking for help and receiving lethal violence in return.