“This moment,” Payne said, “is an important turning point in our department’s relationship with our community.”
Less than two years later, an officer’s fatal shooting of a 26-year-old black man has returned protesters to the city streets and revived long-standing concern over police work in Grand Rapids, a budding city of 200,000 where colored people make up about 35 percent of the population.
For some, the assassination of Congolese refugee Patrick Lyoya on April 4 shows that previous efforts have fallen short and that the agency still needs major reforms. In recent years, it has been accused of using unnecessary force against blacks and Latinos, prompting an investigation by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.
“Even through covid and what we’ve seen in the last few years, there have still been a lot of worrying incidents when it comes to police interactions with residents,” said LaKiya Jenkins, CEO of the neighborhood revitalization group LINC UP. She added: “I do not know if we have ever left first place, unfortunately.”
Lyoya’s fatal encounter with an unidentified Grand Rapids police officer was captured in several videos released by the agency last week. The footage showed the officer stopping Lyoya’s car and telling him that his license plates did not match his car. Lyoya stepped out and looked confused and did not seem to follow the officer’s instructions until the officer grabbed him. The two fought cards, then Lyoya ran to the lawn of a house about 20 feet away.
The officer knocked him to the ground, and Lyoya got up again. They fought for control of the officer’s Taser and ended up on the ground with the officer on top of Lyoya and Lyoya face down as the officer pulled out his gun. He shot Lyoya in the back of the head in what Lyoya’s family has called an “execution”.
Some local officials were uneasy about the footage. Kent County Commissioner Robert S. Womack, who represents the southeastern neighborhood, home to many of the city’s black residents, met with Lyoya’s loved ones and plans to lead a march to the state Capitol this week demanding change.
“I do not believe that one officer should reflect the entire force, because we have a lot of police officers who do an amazing job every day,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. “But I believe that justice scales are being looked at at this time.”
Michigan State Police are investigating the shooting; the officer who fired the shot has been put on paid leave. From there, the Kent County Prosecutor will review the results to determine if the charges are justified. Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Winstrom, who took over when Payne retired from a 34-year career in March, described the incident as “an absolute tragedy” during a press conference last week. The agency refused to make him available for an interview, but shared a prepared statement in which he promised to increase community confidence.
“Even before I officially started in this job and in the first weeks of my tenure, I had numerous conversations with local organizations and community leaders to help me understand past concerns and look for ways to build trust,” Winstrom said in the statement. . “My commitment to transparency and accountability is not just in response to this tragic event, but how I intend to lead this department.”
Grand Rapids City Manager Mark Washington and Office of Oversight and Public Accountability Director Brandon Davis were not available for comment, a city spokesman said.
Miriam Aukerman, a senior lawyer at the ACLU in Michigan based in Grand Rapids, said Lyoya’s death “could not just be prevented, it was predictable,” referring to the police department’s “long history of racist policing.” A study commissioned by the city conducted between 2013 and 2015 showed that black drivers were twice as likely to be stopped as their white counterparts, and a number of cases in recent years have raised concerns about how the department treats black and brown residents.
In 2017, officers with drawn weapons detained five blacks teenagers and preteens who were on their way home from playing basketball. Videos obtained by the Grand Rapids Press showed one of the boys crying on the ground with his hands over his head while another asked, “Can you please put the gun away?”
Police said the boys’ clothes matched the description of a group of teenagers who had been fighting at the basketball courts. A witness said one had a gun. But officers eventually determined that the detained youths, all between the ages of 12 and 14, were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and handed them over to their desperate parents.
“I’m sorry, I do not mean that there is no disrespect, but you must all understand that it is my baby,” a crying mother, Shawndryka Moore, told police in the footage. “We have nothing to do with the police. I have no fees. We do not. All these things that are going on in this world – I worry about my children every day.”
Later that year, an officer aimed a gun at an 11-year-old black girl, Honestie Hodges, and handcuffed her as she screamed in terror. The incident threw a harsh national spotlight on the agency and led to a new policy of interactions with young people. Nicknamed the “Honesty Policy”, it encouraged officers to use “most reasonable and least restrictive” methods available.
Even more incidents followed. In 2018, a 12-year-old black girl was handcuffed under arms. An officer shot at a 14-year-old black boy playing with a BB gun; the bullet hit a tree. A U.S. citizen and veteran, Jilmar Ramos-Gomez, spent three days in a jail after a police captain reported him to immigration officials. (The Grand Rapids City Commission eventually paid $ 190,000 to settle the case.)
In 2019, videos surfaced showing an officer hitting a black man in the leg 30 times to get his compliance. The officer was later fired and the city settled a $ 125,000 lawsuit over the incident. In the same month, an officer ordered two Latino teenagers to the ground with weapons after they refused to show their hands.
In response to these 2019 cases, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights opened a preliminary investigation into more than two dozen individual complaints against the Grand Rapids Police Department to investigate whether the agency had a “pattern and practice of discrimination and inequality.” Due to insufficient resources, the Civil Rights Department did not complete its investigation. In the wake of Lyoya’s killing, Michigan Department of Civil Rights spokeswoman Vicki Levengood said the agency has been in talks with the State Attorney’s Office to cooperate to end it.
“There are a lot of police departments that have issues around violent reactions to non-violent issues around targeting black and brown people,” said Aukerman, from the ACLU. “This is a society where these problems are very well documented and yet ignored.”
Frustrations boiled over in the summer of 2020. After Floyd’s death at the hands of law enforcement in another city in the Midwest, protests erupted in Grand Rapids. Peaceful daytime demonstrations became devastating from one day to the next, causing reported damage of $ 2 million and leading to nearly two dozen arrests.
Officials promised reforms. Washington, Grand Rapids’ first black mayor, announced operational changes that included bans on chokeholds and demands that officers exhaust all alternatives and give verbal warnings before using lethal force. He noted that the city had set up offices focusing on justice and public oversight, and launched an online dashboard showing citizen complaints.
And they laid out their new law enforcement plan, which emphasized neighborhood-based policing, public accountability, and the ability to build a mental health team and a community relief team to help respond to some calls for service.
In Grand Rapids, as elsewhere in the country, some activists called for police funds to be diverted to community programs. The city’s charter requires 32 percent of general funding to go to the department, and officials said cuts should be carefully considered. City officials redistributed $ 400,000 of the $ 55 million police budget for communications and surveillance, making $ 1.1 million in cuts earlier that year as the economic effects of the pandemic shrank the overall city budget. Payne said the department had little left to cut beyond the staff, which numbered 297 sworn officers.
Although the proposed plan would not define the department, Payne said at the time that it “would fundamentally change police work in Grand Rapids.”
Cle Jackson, president of the Greater Grand Rapids branch of the NAACP, said he approached the earliest stages of the effort with optimism: “It would somehow defeat the purpose if you went in and said, ‘Nothing will change ‘,” he said. But Jackson and other local activists said the relationship has remained strained and more community building and accountability is needed.
That feeling has become more intense in the wake of Lyoya’s death. On the fringes of a protest that formed in the center after police released the footage, Aria Blackford said she had not been able to get herself to watch. While chants erupted from nearby buildings, the black woman said she was appalled by the news of yet another police shooting in America.
“In my mind, it’s just something that – wow, it’s happening again,” she said. “This is something we’ve been through several times before, something that’s been treated so many times and still something that happens so ignorantly.”
Shammas reported from Washington and Easter from Grand Rapids.