Stateside Podcast: Police Killing of Patrick Lyoya
A community is once again reeling and calling for police reform after a Grand Rapids police officer shot at the back of 26-year-old Patrick Lyoya's head on April 4, killing him.
Yesterday, the Grand Rapids Police Department released video footage of the struggle and shooting. The videos of Lyoya’s death provided some answers about what happened, and created some new questions.
Michigan Radio reporter Dustin Dwyer joined Stateside for an update from West Michigan. A longtime Grand Rapids reporter and resident, Dwyer covered past demonstrations against the Grand Rapids Police Department.
“Grand Rapids police had been saying that there was a lengthy struggle between this officer and Patrick Lyoya, and you see most of it on this video,” Dwyer said. “But the basic fact that the family said from the beginning is true. Patrick Lyoya was face down. The officer was on top of him, and he fired toward the back of Patrick Lyoya's head. He struck him in the head, and Patrick Lyoya died from that."
“The officer is trying to ask him for his license at the very beginning of the video, and you hear Patrick Lyoya say, ‘What did I do wrong?’ and he's acting confused. And the officer at one point asks if he speaks English, and Lyoya says yes. But the way he speaks throughout the video seems that he's acting confused throughout the entire thing,” Dwyer said.
“And you see, in these videos, Patrick Lyoya reach for the officer's Taser. And in one video, it seems that he's grabbing the barrel of the Taser as the officer is telling him to stop. So you see more of the context of how the situation escalated,” Dwyer said.
The footage is a combination of recordings from the officer’s body cam, a dashcam in the officer's car, a doorbell camera, and a bystander’s phone camera. The officer’s body cam was turned off about halfway through the situation. Grand Rapids police Chief Eric Winstrom said it was pressed and turned off during the struggle.
“So the only video we have of the shooting itself is a cell phone video taken by the other passenger in Patrick Lyoya's car,” Dwyer said.
Despite the context provided by video footage, a number of questions still remain.
“The number one question from the community is what is this officer's name. We heard the police chief yesterday say that's not going to happen until the investigation is complete. They don't plan to release the officer's name, even as the community continues to demand it.”
The officer was the only one at the scene when he tried to arrest Lyoya. The officer called for backup at the start of the struggle, but he shot Lyoya prior to its arrival.
After the shooting, Grand Rapids police say they have tried to pair up officers during patrols so that there are two officers to each car. Officials also said they will review their policies, particularly in relation to use of force.
“There's no imminent policy change that I'm aware of other than the patrol policy,” Dwyer said.
Lyoya’s death comes after repeated pleas for police reform from Grand Rapids residents. In recent years, there have been several incidents in which Black residents said they were targeted by Grand Rapids police.
Bridge Michigan reporter Bryce Huffman mapped out the years that preceded the murder of Lyoya in a recent article.
“I imagine that struggle goes back even further than what I recounted,” Huffman said. “I was really looking at this struggle in the last five years, and the incident that I think was kind of the inciting incident was, in March of 2017, police officers pulled over a group of five young, unarmed black boys and had guns aimed at them.”
He also pointed to another 2017 incident involving 11-year-old Honestie Hodges.
“When she was coming outside of her house trying to go to school in the morning, [the police] pointed the gun at her before searching and handcuffing her and throwing her in the back of a squad car.
Even in 2017, Huffman said, the warning signs were apparent.
“And this was an incident that I think, for anyone who was not alarmed by the five boys being pulled over, this one was especially alarming because there was just a girl with a backpack, like very clearly not a threat to anyone,” he said.
Activists said these were policing errors, and as they came into public view. The police department committed to some reforms, but advocates and activists were demanding more.
Calls for reform and defunding boiled over in the summer of 2020, after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. However, significant change did not come. Huffman pointed to the pandemic as a contributing factor, as city officials focused their attention on things like taking care of business owners.
“I think when the summer months waned, the efforts to defund the police weren't getting as much national and statewide attention. So even though local activists never stopped asking for those things, there was just less pressure on the city to make those changes happen immediately," he said.
“If they're very serious about addressing the issue, as they've said many times in the past, I think now is the time to really take a look at what types of reforms could change and prevent this kind of outcome from ever happening again," said Huffman.