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Bridge Michigan
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Emails: Jocelyn Benson chastised staff for withholding Lyoya driving records

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a first-term Democrat, wrote staffers an email criticizing their decision to withhold driving records of a Black motorist killed by police, emails show. (Bridge file photo)

A short-lived effort to prevent the public release of driving records of a Black motorist killed by police was “unfortunate” and "wholly avoidable," Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told staffers following a backlash over the incident.

After Patrick Lyoya was shot by a Grand Rapids police officer during an April traffic stop, the Secretary of State provided Lyoya’s driving record to three media organizations before issuing a statement saying it would end the long-standing practice of releasing such information.

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Benson appeared to initially sign off on the policy, which said the department would no longer provide records about “victims of violence” to the media. In an email to a top aide shortly after 1 p.m. on April 15, Benson wrote the statement “all makes sense to me.”

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She reversed course seven hours later, after the policy shift was widely criticized.

“It is not the role of the department to take a position on a matter that is the subject of an ongoing investigation,” Benson wrote at 8:10 p.m. that night.

“Unfortunately in my view the above statement significantly harms the credibility of a department that values being nonpartisan, transparent, and above the political fray,” added Benson,  a first-term Democrat who is up for reelection in November.

Bridge Michigan obtained the emails through a Freedom of Information Act request that comes as Benson and her staff review policies about the release of driver records. 

Michigan law allows for personal driving records to be purchased by certain entities, including news organizations. Staffers initially released Lyoya’s records to WOOD-TV, the Associated Press and the Detroit Free Press.

A Free Press story mentioning that Lyoya’s license was revoked prompted a discussion between Secretary of State staffers over how to handle future media requests. The department referred a request for similar records from The Detroit News to the state police, according to emails obtained by Bridge.

In an email to Benson at 11:33 a.m. on April 15, Chief External Affairs Officer Jake Rollow  suggested the decision to release the records at all was “bad practice, as the mention of (license) revocation is not the reason Lyoya was stopped, nor does it justify him being killed, as one might insinuate from the inclusion of the detail in the story.” 

“It is possible that the Detroit News and/or other outlets would then request the record through FOIA, which we would deny, and then by lawsuit, which we believe we could win (although it is not a slam dunk),” Rollow wrote. 

Lyoya was shot in the back of the head on April 4 by officer Christopher Schurr after what started as a routine traffic stop over an apparent discrepancy between the license plate of the car he was driving and the car’s registration. 

After a short encounter outside Lyoya’s car, the Congolese immigrant fled on foot, but Schurr chased and tackled him a few feet from his car, video footage shows. The pair scuffled for about 2 minutes and appeared to spar over control of the officer’s Taser before Lyoya was shot while Schurr was on top of him.

The Detroit News this week reported that autopsy reports show Lyoya was severely intoxicated during the incident and quoted an attorney for his family saying that was irrelevant to his death.

The Secretary of State’s statement refusing to release Lyoya’s record prompted an outcry from journalists, media organizations and transparency advocates.

Later that night, Benson released a statement clarifying the department would not make any immediate policy changes, but would continue to review its practices.

On April 16, Benson called for a mandatory meeting with several top communications staffers “to discuss the breakdown in procedures and protocol that led to yesterday’s unfortunate and wholly avoidable series of events regarding the department policy of release of drivers records.”

“I have no doubt that each step that was taken yesterday was done with the best intentions in mind and with an eye towards doing the right thing and furthering truth, equity and justice,” Benson’s email read. “However errors in judgment and mistakes were made and we need to discuss them as a team to ensure we are aligned moving forward in this challenging time and that errors like this do not happen again.”

In a memo accompanying the document release, Rollow said he “mistakenly rushed what should have been a more deliberative process and failed to sufficiently brief Secretary Benson of the various ways to analyze the proposed policy change.”

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The Michigan Association of Broadcasters, the Radio Television Digital News Association and the Michigan Press Association wrote in a joint letter to the department that it was a “dangerous precedent” for a state agency to deny access to information. 

“While shocked and saddened by the death of Patrick Lyoya and the events in Grand Rapids, we’re against using that tragedy to curtail the rights of the media and of all Michiganders to public information,” the letter read. 

In another email, Benson expressed support for meeting with the media outlets, including Bridge Michigan, to discuss what transpired and how to move forward. 

That meeting is set for Monday.

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