The Slatest

The Deadly Police Shooting That’s Roiling Michigan

How Patrick Lyoya’s death has sparked growing public demonstrations and political attention.

A woman leans and cries on the shoulder of another woman holding her, to her right.
Dorcas Lyoya (right), the mother of Patrick Lyoya, a 26-year old Black man who was shot and killed by a white Grand Rapids police officer following a traffic stop, on Thursday, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

On April 4, yet another Black American’s life was stopped much too soon by a police bullet, this time in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A week and a half later, amid growing public outrage and conflicting accounts of the incident, the Grand Rapids Police Department played grisly recordings of the shooting, taken from multiple sources and angles, in a press conference presided over by city officials. More than 21,000 viewers simultaneously tuned in to the YouTube livestream of the Wednesday meeting.

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The presser was the result of consistent, growing public pressure. When 26-year-old Patrick Lyoya—a refugee from Congo who’d lived in Grand Rapids for seven years—was shot to death by a still-unidentified cop, family members and city residents immediately demanded answers. Patrick’s father, Peter Lyoya, was given access to dashboard camera footage a few days after the shooting and spoke emotionally to local media outlets through a translator (he only speaks Swahili), claiming the recording contradicted initial police narratives about the killing. The local NAACP branch subsequently questioned the matter.

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This past weekend, a protest and candlelight vigil were held in Patrick’s memory; hundreds of Grand Rapids residents showed up, and Peter’s translator, a local pastor named Israel Siku, got a few of the marchers to re-create the incident as he’d viewed it in police footage. “It was an execution style,” he exclaimed, formulating a clear image of a cop holding Patrick on the ground, face down, and shooting him through the back of the head.

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By Sunday, Peter Lyoya had gained the counsel of attorney Ben Crump, who previously represented the families of Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. The following day, Michigan Sen. Gary Peters made a statement requesting a fair probe into Patrick’s death. On Tuesday, the broader NAACP “demand[ed] a full and transparent investigation” into the shooting. Another march was organized in Grand Rapids that evening, with more than 100 residents marching down to the GRPD headquarters as well as to the City Commission—which was holding its first meeting since the shooting—to express their dissatisfaction that the shooter had not yet been named. (This is due to the fact that he’s a suspect of investigation, although he’s been broadly identified as a white man who has served on the force for seven years and is currently on paid administrative leave. He has yet to be interviewed by fellow police and investigators.) Many of the city commissioners offered their verbal support for the protesters; the GRPD, meanwhile, had begun erecting concrete barriers around its building Tuesday evening before marchers arrived.

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Knowing that protesters and the family spent the days after the shooting demanding the tapes’ immediate release, GRPD Chief Eric Winstrom repeatedly emphasized his commitment to “transparency about use of force” during the Wednesday presser—which came just one month into his tenure as head of a department that’s faced numerous allegations of racist policing over the years. By way of demonstrating that commitment, he alluded to a city law that requires officer-shooting cases to be turned over to state police and county prosecutors, and claimed he’d made a “deal” to legally release the footage before the case concluded. Winstrom—who referred to himself as a “reform-minded” cop who’d left Chicago’s police force to effect “change” in the GRPD—further stated that he hoped Patrick Lyoya’s killing would be “the last one I ever have to deal with.”

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The disturbing footage Winstrom showed makes for all the direct evidence the public currently has on hand. Lyoya’s death was seen from four separate sources: a witness’s cellphone, the officer’s body camera, the cop car’s dashboard camera, and a nearby home surveillance system. Put together, the incident can be fairly described as follows.

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Around 8:11 a.m. on April 4, a police cruiser turned on its siren lights and followed a car with a mismatched license plate through an intersection in the southeast region of Grand Rapids.* The car’s driver, Lyoya, pulled over shortly after and stepped out of the car. “Stay in the car!” yelled the cop as he left the cruiser to confront Lyoya. The two stood outside Lyoya’s vehicle during the following exchange:

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Officer: Get in the car! Dude, I’m stopping you!

Lyoya: What happened?

Officer: Do you have a driver’s license? Do you speak English?

Lyoya: Yes.

Officer: Can I see your license?

Lyoya: What do you want?

Officer: The plate does not belong on this car. Do you have a license or no?

Lyoya: Yes.

Officer: Where’s it at?

Lyoya: Inside the car.

Officer: Get it for me.

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Lyoya reopened his car door to talk to his passenger (who remains unidentified), but then closed the door again. He started to walk away, and the officer yelled, “Nope, nope, stop,” then lunged to detain Lyoya, who broke free and ran around the car to the nearby sidewalk. The cop sprinted after him and called for backup; he quickly tackled Lyoya, slammed his head on the ground and struck him multiple times, and yelled at him to put his hands behind his back as Lyoya repeatedly cried, “OK!” Around this time, the body-cam footage showed the officer’s hands positioned in front of the camera lens, with some clicking noises and panting heard.

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The officer then stood up, positioning Lyoya upright and keeping his hands behind his back while dragging him along a house’s front yard. Lyoya was wriggling in the officer’s grasp while attempting to stand up; the cop yelled at him again to “stop resisting,” as Lyoya responded, “I did!”

As Lyoya and the officer got on their feet, the cop pushed Lyoya across the front yard of a house and yelled at him to stop resisting before striking him in the stomach with his knee. At that point, Lyoya’s passenger, who’d stepped out of the car to better film the incident, exclaimed, “Nah, he’s good, he’s not resisting, bruh! Nothing!”

Lyoya pulled away from the officer and asked, “What are you doing to me?” The cop had pulled out a Taser, which Lyoya grabbed with his hand and pushed away from his body as the Taser discharged. “Let go of the Taser!” the cop screamed.

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Shortly after, the body camera was deactivated. (Winstrom noted that it takes three seconds of holding down the power button to disable the body cameras, though he also said the deactivation could have occurred due to pressure from Lyoya’s body.) But other cameras were still rolling, including that of Lyoya’s companion. The cop and Lyoya fell onto the ground yet again as the latter tried to avoid the Taser. “He’s good! You can talk to him!” the passenger yelled as the officer.

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The cellphone footage provides the clearest depiction of the killing. As Lyoya struggled to keep away the Taser—which discharged again, although it did not hit Lyoya—the cop kept him on the ground, eventually turning him face-down and mounting him from behind. It was here that the officer shot Lyoya through the back of the head. After the firing, he got up, yelled at the passenger to get back, and panted into his walkie-talkie. Backup troops soon arrived on the scene.

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While there are still many questions, the grisly footage clears a few points of dispute regarding Patrick Lyoya’s death. For one, it’s clear that Patrick did not use a weapon, despite the GRPD’s claims that it didn’t know whether he was armed. Second, it’s clear that the police officer acted with the assumption of this being a traffic stop—but it’s not certain whether Patrick understood this fact. (His father, Peter, and interpreter Siku both claim that Patrick had actually stopped to check an issue with his car, not in response to the cruiser’s pursuit. However, Winstrom stated at the presser that the car did not appear to have been “breaking down” during the drive, as Peter had claimed.) Third, there was a physical altercation, but Patrick did not appear to attack the officer. When he was knocked to the ground a second time, the cop gained physical control to the point where he was able to grab his gun and fire a close shot.

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Ahead of the Wednesday presser, Patrick Lyoya had already been seeping into the national consciousness, but it’s likely this footage will inspire even wider recognition and fury. One questioner mentioned that Al Sharpton was coming into town; a reporter noted that the city was preparing for “several days of protests”; another one asked if this incident would become “Grand Rapids’ George Floyd.” Hundreds of protesters marched into downtown Grand Rapids after the conference to demand police accountability, and Lyoya’s family held a conference with Ben Crump on Thursday to publicly address the footage. Michigan gubernatorial candidates have also weighed in. The highly anticipated report from Michigan State Police is set to be released Friday.

Meanwhile, Peter Lyoya, who’d fled the conflict-riven Democratic Republic of Congo in 2014 along with Patrick, is now discouraging other refugees from “seeking asylum” in the U.S.: “I thought it was a safe place, but it seems like we are in danger even when we come here.”

Correction, April 14, 2022: This post originally misstated that the shooting took place in southwestern Grand Rapids. It was in the southeastern part of the city.

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