On Wednesday, police in Grand Rapids, Michigan, released body camera footage that showed an officer fatally shooting Patrick Lyoya, a Black man. The officer had Lyoya pinned to the ground with a knee on his back when he fired his weapon.
The footage was released after demands from activists and Lyoya’s family, but there are still plenty of unanswered questions about Lyoya’s death. Who was the officer, and what history, if any, does he have of violence against civilians? Why did the officer’s body camera go dark just before the end of the fatal encounter? What grounds did the officer have for interacting with Lyoya in the first place?
Lyoya, 26, was a Congolese refugee and came to America in 2014 to escape violence. On April 4, he was sitting in his car, parked by a curb, when the officer approached him and asked for identification.
The officer said Lyoya’s license plates were not registered to the vehicle he was driving. Lyoya tried to flee on foot, and the officer and Lyoya struggled on the ground. The officer tried to give Lyoya an electric shock, but Lyoya grabbed the stun gun, attempting to keep from being struck.
The officer then grabbed his gun and appeared to fire a shot into the back of Lyoya’s head or neck, killing him.
Demonstrations have taken place outside the Grand Rapids Police Department for days, with protestors demanding more information and for the police officer to be charged. The officer, a seven-year veteran, has been placed on paid leave.
“They need to release the cop’s identity. They need to hold the cop accountable for every action that he did, because we’ve seen the whole video,” Lyoya’s cousin told local media. “I feel disgusted that he’s home right now sitting home watching TV and still getting paid.”
A Shaky Beginning, A Fatal End
Experts aren’t sure that police should have engaged Lyoya in the first place, since his car was parked and he didn’t appear to be committing any crimes, aside from the alleged license plate discrepancy.
Scott Roberts, senior director of criminal justice and democracy campaigns with the civil rights group Color of Change, said that was a flimsy excuse for the police officer to interact with Lyoya and ask for identification.
“I would consider that a pretext stop,” Roberts said, referring to a common police practice where officers pull over someone under the guise of a minor violation with the intent to further investigate the person.
David Gans, director of the Human Rights, Civil Rights and Citizenship Program at the Constitutional Accountability Center in Washington, D.C., noted that besides being a form of harassment, these traffic stops can turn deadly very quickly.
“This is a horrifying killing. It is a reminder that so often, what begins as a traffic stop turns deadly and ends with a Black person brutally killed by police,” Gans told HuffPost.
“It is clear you cannot shoot an arrestee because he or she is trying to flee the scene,” he said. “In a traffic stop, you cannot shoot the individual because they may have resisted arrest. That is so disproportionate to the circumstance.”
In the mid-1990s, the Supreme Court greenlighted the practice of pretext stops in a unanimous ruling that said such stops are constitutional as long as probable cause exists on any violation, and “even if a reasonable officer would not have stopped the motorist absent some additional law enforcement objective.”
There is a clear racial bias in how these stops are applied. Researchers from Stanford University and New York University analyzed almost 100 million traffic stops in the U.S. and found that Black people were up to twice as likely as white people to be pulled over by police ― even though as a group they were less likely to have drugs, guns or other illegal items. Black drivers were stopped less frequently after sunset, which the researchers suggest is because police officers couldn’t apply bias when drivers were harder to see.
That kind of bias is apparent in Grand Rapids. A 2017 study found that Grand Rapids police were twice as likely to pull over Black drivers as they were white drivers. Parents of five Black children were outraged that same year after their sons, ages 12 to 14, were stopped by Grand Rapids police and held at gunpoint.
The department followed up by hiring a policing consulting firm to give recommendations on fixing the department’s internal issues.
If the officer who killed Lyoya is eventually charged, there’s a good chance he will claim self-defense and cite Lyoya putting his hands on the stun gun. The body camera footage shows the officer attempting to deploy his stun gun, and Lyoya trying to block it from striking him.
But Roberts didn’t see evidence of ill intent on the video. Lyoya “did not try and take [the stun gun] and use it against the officer,” Roberts said. “He never tried to strike the officer.”
The body camera footage cuts off moments before the police officer fires his weapon into the back of Lyoya’s head or neck. Police said Wednesday the camera was “deactivated.” Police officials speculated that it could have happened while the officer and Lyoya were in a struggle on the ground.
But the lost footage deprives the public — and prosecutors — from seeing a close-up view of what happened immediately before the officer’s fatal action. The actual shooting was only captured by a bystander with a cellphone standing several feet away from the officer and Lyoya.
A Lack Of Transparency
Jennifer Kalczuk, a spokesperson for the Grand Rapids Police Department, told HuffPost it is not the department’s practice to name suspects until they have been charged with a crime.
But most police departments in the state do name police officers who kill civilians, according to Samuel Sinyangwe, an activist and policing analyst. He compiled data on Michigan police agencies in cases where officer’s names were found, in incidents from 2017 to 2021, through the Mapping Police Violence planning team.
Not knowing the officer’s name makes it difficult to determine whether he had been violent toward civilians in the past. Even if his name is released, state laws may make it hard to get that information.
Police disciplinary records are largely limited in Michigan. Records would mostly show suspensions, terminations or any other form of severe discipline. Michigan is one of 38 states where unsubstantiated complaints or active investigations of police officers are confidential.
The Michigan Freedom of Information Act also exempts law enforcement records from being made public, unless there is a high public interest in a particular case.
“Grand Rapids has been less transparent than most,” Sinyangwe told HuffPost. “They don’t publish use of force data online, so understanding the pattern is very difficult because they lack transparency.”