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Patrick Lyoya’s parents: Our hearts are broken. Grand Rapids mourns as well.

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Patrick Lyoya was shot and killed by a Grand Rapids police officer on April 4. His parents Peter and Dorcas Lyoya said their hearts are broken by the death of their first born son. They want to know the name of the officer who killed their son. (Bryce Huffman/BridgeDetroit)

GRAND RAPIDS — On the streets, there are marches, demands for change and an overwhelming sense of frustration. Inside, there are tears and calls for justice.

From peaceful protests downtown to a tearful press conference featuring the family of Patrick Lyoya, residents and civil rights leaders in Grand Rapids struggled to make sense of what they saw in video footage released Wednesday of the fatal police shooting of the Congolese immigrant during a routine traffic stop over an allegedly faulty registration.

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And many residents of the city of 200,000 said they have long feared such an outcome, following five years of frustrations and calls to reform the Grand Rapids Police Department that have resulted in few obvious changes in policies.

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“I didn’t believe here in America that there could be an execution-style killing by the police,” the 26-year-old’s father, Peter Lyoya said through a translator at a media conference Thursday.

“My son has been killed by a police officer for a small, small mistake. At the time I saw this video, my heart was really broken. Right now, my life has come to an end … I didn’t believe in this country that there was a genocide.”

The Lyoya family immigrated to the United States from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2014, fleeing a war but saying they found one instead against young Black men in the United States. Patrick was their first born son.

“When we ran away from war in Congo, I thought I came to a safe place, and now I am surprised that here my son would be killed by a bullet,” said Dorcas Lyoya.

Dorcas Lyoya
Congolese immigrant Patrick Lyoya was shot and killed by a Grand Rapids police officer on April 4. His mother, Dorcas Lyoya is "heartbroken" by the death of her son. She says her son didn't deserve to die. (Bryce Huffman/BridgeDetroit)

The family has retained civil rights leader and attorney Ben Crump, who is demanding the city release the name of the officer that has yet to be made public. He also called on the officer’s firing and for prosecutors to issue charges. 

The family plans a lawsuit.

State Police are investigating the April 4 incident that began when the seven-year veteran of the force pulled over Patrick Lyoya shortly after 8 a.m. Video released Wednesday shows he got out of the car, appeared confused when the officer asked for his license and then broke away from the officer.

After a brief chase, the officer tussled with Lyoya, repeatedly telling him to stop resisting and to let go of his Taser. The officer deployed the Taser twice, told Lyoya to let go of the weapon, then shot him in the back of his head as he straddled the motorist on the front of a yard.

“How many hashtags do they have to have before they finally say enough is enough?” Crump asked.

Ben Crump i
Attorney Ben Crump is representing the Lyoya family. Crump says Patrick Lyoya was unjustly killed by a Grand Rapids police officer for a simple traffic violation. Crump wants the police officer and department held accountable. (Bryce Huffman/BridgeDetroit)

The press conference came one day after hundreds gathered for protests — and followed years of calls to change tactics in Grand Rapids.

A 2020 survey of city residents found that Black residents had lower levels of trust in police than white or Hispanic residents, while a 2017 study found that Black drivers were twice as likely to be pulled over by Grand Rapids police as white drivers and more likely to be searched than non-Black drivers. The study was part of an effort to reduce bias in the department. 

BLM protest in Grand Rapids
Protesters gather outside of Grand Rapids Police Department in downtown Grand Rapids on Wednesday, April 13, 2022, following the release of a video taken on April 4, which shows the shooting of Patrick Lyoya following a traffic stop. (Daytona Niles/Bridge Michigan)

Later that year, the department issued a draft of a three-year strategic plan to reform the department aimed at boosting community policing, building community trust and decreasing crime.

“Honestly, I think we need to get (GRPD) out of our neighborhoods, because we're not safe with them there. And it'd be best that we start policing ourselves and with that video, again, we didn't see justice,” said Olabanji Olatunde, 19, a Grand Rapids native with the Royal Black Panther Party Grand Rapids.

“Justice looks like the officer being arrested. Justice looks like the police giving out the officer’s name. Justice looks like the death penalty. Anything, anything that can help the family to be at ease because what's taking place is horrible.”

Like others who spoke to BridgeDetroit and Bridge Michigan, Olatunde said he felt overwhelming sadness and frustration.

Grand Rapids resident Deandre Jones, 27, said his cousin, Darren Green Jr., was shot and killed by an Illinois state trooper in 2020 during a traffic stop. He said he it was “heartbreaking” to see the videos of the shooting of Lyoya — and police need more training and less militarized equipment.

“I believe we should be training these officers thoroughly in things like CPR and deescalation so they know how to actually save lives instead of ending them,” Jones said.

Experts on police use of force saw scant justification for how an apparent routine traffic stop ended so quickly in Lyoya’s death.

“My general take here is that there appear to be several opportunities for force de-escalation, but that didn’t happen. Why, I don’t know,” Michigan State University criminal justice professor David Carter told Bridge Michigan and BridgeDetroit.

Carter said it’s unclear from the videos whether Lyoya understood the officer’s statements about his license plate and car registration.

“I’m not sure the officer picked up on that,” Carter said.

“Then it escalated, and in the video you can hear in the officer’s voice, you can hear his frustration, you can hear fear and you can hear exhaustion. All that leads to stress and that leads to bad decisions.”

As police confirmed that the only weapons involved in the incident were the officer’s gun and Taser, Carter said: “I didn’t see anything in the video that appeared to be threatening to the officer’s life.

“Was the officer so exhausted that he felt his life was in danger? That’s the only thing I think they could be looking at.”

In Carter’s view, many police departments have made strides in recent years in training officers to resolve conflicts with the public short of violence.

He added: “It only takes one incident to shatter that trust.”

But Gregory Gilbertson, a former police officer and retired professor of criminal justice at Centralia College in Washington State, has a contrary view of modern police training. He sees it at the very root of avoidable police shootings.

“The risk threshold for some officers is so low these days that if they get any kind of physical resistance, they are going straight for the firearm. That’s how they are being trained.”

During his eight years as an officer, Gilbertson said he had several physical encounters with suspects he could not easily control. He concluded it was better to let the suspect go in some cases than let the situation escalate.

“If all this officer is stopping him for what is the wrong license plate and he runs away, you just impound the car. The kid takes off running. He should have let him go,” Gilbertson said.

As for the struggle that culminated in the officer’s decision to shoot Lyoya, Gilbertson said: “I never heard him say he’s reaching for my gun. I don’t know why he shot him.”

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The family’s attorney, Crump, said the officer “failed to follow basic training” and missed several opportunities to step back instead of escalating the situation.

“He was the one being violent. He committed multiple instances of violence against Patrick,” Crump said. “He kneed him multiple times, he punched him multiple times, yet Patrick did not retaliate. He was simply trying to get away.”

The decision whether to charge the officer for Lyoya’s death is in the hands of Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker, who has said he does not expect to make that decision this week.

Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Winstrom said Wednesday that decision boils down to this: “The test is going to be whether in the view of a reasonable police officer, whether that deadly force was needed to prevent death or great bodily harm to that officer.”

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