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Grand Rapids police faced years of racial bias complaints before fatal shooting

wide shot of the shooting of Patrick Lyoya
Grand Rapids city officials have spent more than five years dealing with community complaints and changing policies about race and police before the April 4 shooting of Patrick Lyoya during a traffic stop. This image was taken from a video of the stop. (Screenshot)

June 9: Grand Rapids officer facing 2nd-degree murder charge in Patrick Lyoya shooting
April 25: Grand Rapids Police release name of officer who killed Patrick Lyoya

Grand Rapids joined the long list of American cities where a Black motorist died at the hands of police on April 4, when an officer shot a Congolese immigrant in the head during a struggle following a traffic stop.

The death of 26-year-old Patrick Lyoya followed years of warnings by community residents over the city police department’s treatment of Black residents — and efforts by the city to improve that relationship.

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Police released four videos of the traffic stop and incident on Wednesday, and officials warned of tough days ahead amid a Michigan State Police investigation into the shooting by the unnamed officer. 

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“The public has my commitment to get through this together. There will be understandable expressions of shock, of anger and pain,” City Manager Mark Washington said during a media conference.

Lyoya was pulled over because his car  allegedly had an improper registration. He was unarmed, but a scuffle erupted after he got out of his vehicle. During the video, the officer is heard telling Lyoya to let go of the officer’s Taser before the shooting.

Warning: The video contains graphic content. 

Long before Lyoya, city officials acknowledged that all was not right with the Grand Rapids Police Department.

Here is a look back:

  • In March 2017, police officers pulled over and aimed guns at a group of five young unarmed Black boys. The incident was followed by heated community discussions at City Commission meetings. Former Chief of Police Dave Rahinsky, who has since retired, apologized to the boys, their families and the Black community, but he maintained that officers followed protocol. 
  • The next month, a traffic study was released that showed Black motorists in Grand Rapids were twice as likely to be pulled over as white motorists despite the fact that the city’s Black population was around 14 percent at the time. 
  • As a result of the traffic study, the department hired consulting firm 21st Century Policing to evaluate its policies and procedures and find and remove examples of implicit bias. Some of the recommendations the firm made were to increase cultural competency training for officers and host discussions between the community and police. 
  • In December 2017, the police faced scrutiny when an officer pointed a gun at an unarmed 11-year-old Black girl before searching and handcuffing her. This incident led to the department adopting a new youth interactions policy that was implemented to protect other children from unnecessary police force.
  • In 2018, there were two more incidents of police officers either pointing guns at or handcuffing unarmed Black and Brown children, prompting the department to update its youth interaction policy just a year after it was created. Police made changes to how youth would be handcuffed, when a child would be put in a police cruiser, and when officers should draw a firearm. 
  • In November 2018, citizens criticized the department after a police captain called U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on U.S. citizen and Marine combat veteran Jilmar Ramos-Gomez, even though he was carrying multiple forms of identification that proved he was an American citizen. 
  • In 2019, the American Civil Liberties Union and Michigan Immigrant Rights Center filed civil rights complaints against police for the situation with Ramos-Gomez and an unrelated incident where police officers pulled over two unarmed teens, one of whom was a 15-year-old of Mexican descent.  
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  • The complaints led the Michigan Department of Civil Rights to host two public hearings during which residents voiced concerns about the way Grand Rapids police treat Black and Brown people. The state opted against opening an investigation.
  • In late 2019, a city-sponsored survey found 3 in 10 Grand Rapids residents didn’t trust the police department. Unlike the traffic study from 2017, this was an anonymous online survey only. 
  • In May 2020, the police budget was increased by $700,000 to $61 million despite calls from some activists to decrease funding to police. (Budgets to many other police agencies nationwide also increased around this time as well.)
  • Later that month, the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis led to several days of protests in Grand Rapids, including some that resulted in property damage, broken windows and police dispersing crowds with tear gas and flash bangs. 
  • Following the protests, Grand Rapids officials said they are willing to make police reforms to make the department more accountable and safer for residents. At the time, many activists were still calling for the department to be defunded to better invest in community services.
  • On the morning of April 4, 2022, 26-year-old Congolese immigrant Patrick Lyoya was shot and killed by a Grand Rapids police officer. Chief Eric Winstrom said the investigation, which is being handled by the Michigan State Police, is ongoing. Winstrom wouldn’t give the name of the officer who killed Lyoya, but said the officer was “in shock” following the incident.

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