Civil and Human Rights

Patrick Lyoya’s Death Casts A Light On How Police Mishandle Traffic Stops

On April 4, a police officer shot Patrick Lyoya at point-blank range in the back of the head during a traffic stop in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Two months later, Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker announced he was charging the officer, Christopher Schurr, with second-degree murder — making Schurr the first officer from the Grand Rapids Police Department to be charged with felony murder in the shooting of a civilian.

The shooting, filmed by a witness, ignited outrage on social media. Lyoya’s death didn’t spark the same nationwide outrage as the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, but it raised tensions in Grand Rapids and underlined the often-dangerous role police can play in minor traffic stops.

Schurr said he pulled over Lyoya, a 26-year-old Black man, because his license plates were expired. Lyoya attempted to get away, and after a brief struggle, Schurr pulled out his gun and shot Lyoya in the back of the head while kneeling on top of him.

Jack Glaser, a professor focusing on racial bias and law enforcement at the University of California, Berkeley, said body camera footage of the traffic stop shows Schurr approaching Lyoya aggressively.

“You can go back and say the stop itself started on a bad note and was probably unnecessary,” Glaser told HuffPost. “The officer is very aggressive and moved in quickly and really contributes to a fraught situation where he is trying to get compliance and Mr. Lyoya is confused.”

Minor Infractions, Major Consequences

In the wake of recent police killings and shootings of people of color, the Police Reform Commission in Washington, D.C., proposed to the city council last year that police should no longer be responsible for addressing traffic violations. The commission suggested the Department of Transportation should handle them instead.

In March, Los Angeles police approved new limitations on pretextual stops, or traffic stops in which officers pull someone over because they suspect they’ve committed another crime. If officers do make the stop, they will have to record it with a body-worn camera and state why they think a more serious crime occurred.

In December, Pittsburgh banned traffic stops for minor violations — like broken taillights or headlights or improperly placed license plates — after the city council approved legislation it said should reduce traffic stops of people of color.

Police have killed more than 400 motorists in the last five years who did not have a gun or knife and were not pursued for a violent crime, according to a 2021 New York Times investigation. More than three-quarters of the victims, like Lyoya, were trying to flee the stop.

“We see this again and again, and there is not a good reason why armed police officers should be responding to enforcement,” Samuel Sinyangwe, a policing analyst who founded the police scorecard and maps police violence, told HuffPost.

Many other policing experts agree. David Gans, director of the Human Rights, Civil Rights, & Citizenship program at the Constitutional Accountability Center, told HuffPost that police involvement in traffic stops is leading to “horrific” outcomes.

Gans drew comparisons between Lyoya’s case and the killing of Philando Castile, a Black man who was killed in front of his child after he was stopped for a minor traffic violation in a suburb of Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 2016.

“In the last number of years, we have seen time and time again how traffic stops end up with police killing unarmed Black men and women,” Gans said. “Jurisdictions are recognizing that.”

Lansing is the only police department in Michigan to rethink how it allows officers to handle minor traffic violations. Cle Jackson, the president of the Grand Rapids NAACP, said his city should follow suit in the wake of Lyoya’s death.

“For minor traffic infractions, I don’t think officers should be making stops related to that nature,” Jackson told HuffPost. “At the end of the day, no one should lose their life. It should not escalate to that level.”

Seeking Policy Changes

After the footage of Lyoya’s killing was released, some lawmakers demanded more accountability for state and local law enforcement, and his family members are planning to file a civil lawsuit after they receive details from a Freedom of Information Act request.

Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) introduced the OATH Act, which would set up a pilot program that increases funding for police body camera training. For reasons that remain unclear, Schurr’s camera turned off shortly before he killed Lyoya. Police officials have theorized that the camera was knocked off while Schurr pinned Lyoya down.

“While body-worn cameras are intended to be a tool for accountability, there have been too many instances where BWCs have been mishandled. And oftentimes, footage that is captured is reviewed only after an incident occurs,” Lawrence said in a press release after introducing the legislation in April.

Michigan also announced it would restart its pattern and practice investigation into the Grand Rapids City police department — which would address the tactical approach officers take in policing the community. The investigation will examine whether officers are purposely and disproportionately over-policing Black residents and other residents of color.

Meanwhile, all eyes will be on Schurr’s trial.

Schurr has been fired from the Grand Rapids Police Department. He’s the first officer from the department to be criminally indicted on a murder charge, according to the Kent County Prosecutor’s office. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

For police accountability advocates, the decision to charge Schurr came as a surprise, especially since the department initially refused to release his name after the shooting.

Miriam Aukerman, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, said withholding Schurr’s name was “damaging to the integrity” of the investigation. Police Chief Eric Winstrom decided to release his name more than two weeks after the shooting because it was already publicly circulating.

The NAACP’s Jackson hopes to see accountability for Lyoya’s death, but struggles with the 26-year-old being another person killed by police.

“Now Patrick is a part of that class of alumni who have been slaughtered in the streets by an officer who was trigger-happy and could have totally defused the situation,” Jackson said.

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