GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — After fiery protests shook this Midwestern city in the summer of 2020, the police chief unveiled a sweeping new plan with a lofty goal: to become the most trusted law enforcement agency in the United States.
“This moment,” Payne said, “is an important turning point for 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 city streets and reinvigorated long-simmering concerns over policing in Grand Rapids, a burgeoning city of 200,000 where people of color make up about 35 percent of the population.
To some, the April 4 killing of Congolese refugee Patrick Lyoya shows that previous efforts have fallen short and that the agency still needs major reform. In past years, it has been accused of using unnecessary force against Black and Latino residents, spurring an investigation by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.
“Even through covid and what we have seen in the last few years, there have still been a lot of concerning incidents when it comes to police interactions with residents,” said LaKiya Jenkins, executive director of neighborhood revitalization group LINC UP. She added, “I don’t know if we’ve ever left square one, unfortunately.”
Lyoya’s fatal encounter with an unidentified Grand Rapids police officer was captured in multiple videos released by the agency last week. The footage showed the officer stopping Lyoya’s car, telling him his license plates did not match his car. Lyoya got out, looking confused, and appeared to not follow the officer’s directives before the officer grabbed him. The two briefly struggled, then Lyoya ran to the lawn of a house about 20 yards away.
The officer knocked him to the ground, and Lyoya got back to his feet. They fought for control of the officer’s Taser and ended up on the ground, the officer on top of Lyoya and Lyoya facing down, when 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 troubled by the footage. Kent County Commissioner Robert S. Womack, who represents the southeastern quarter, 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 don’t believe that the one officer should reflect the entire force, because we have a lot of police officers that are doing a great job every day,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. “But I do believe that scales of justice are being looked at at this time.”
The Michigan State Police are investigating the shooting; the officer who fired the shot has been placed on paid leave. From there, the Kent County prosecutor will review the findings to determine whether charges are warranted. 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 news conference last week. The agency declined to make him available for an interview but shared a prepared statement in which he pledged to increase community trust.
“Even before I started in this job officially and in the first weeks of my tenure, I had several conversations with local organizations and community leaders to help me understand concerns in the past 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 spokesperson said.
Miriam Aukerman, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Michigan who is based in Grand Rapids, said Lyoya’s death was “not just preventable, it was predictable,” citing the police department’s “long history of racist policing.” A city-commissioned study conducted between 2013 and 2015 found Black drivers were twice as likely to be stopped as their White counterparts, and a series of cases in recent years have stirred concern over how the department treats Black and Brown residents.
In 2017, officers with guns drawn detained five Black 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, hands over his head, as another pleaded, “Can you please put the gun down?”
Police said the boys’ clothing matched the description of a group of teens who had been fighting at the basketball courts. A witness said one had a gun. But the officers ultimately determined that the detained youths, all between the ages of 12 and 14, were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time, and turned them over to their distraught parents.
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean no disrespect, but you all have to understand that’s my baby,” one crying mother, Shawndryka Moore, told police in the footage. “We don’t deal with police. I don’t have charges. We don’t do this. All this stuff that goes on in this world — I worry about my kids every day.”
Later that year, an officer pointed a gun at an 11-year-old Black girl, Honestie Hodges, and handcuffed her as she screamed in terror. The incident cast a harsh national spotlight on the agency and led to a new policy for interactions with youth. Nicknamed the “Honestie Policy,” it called for officers to use “most reasonable and least restrictive” methods available.
Yet more incidents followed. In 2018, a 12-year-old Black girl was handcuffed at gunpoint. 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 detention facility after an off-duty police captain reported him to immigration authorities. (The Grand Rapids city commission eventually paid $190,000 to settle the matter.)
In 2019, videos emerged showing an officer punching a Black man in the leg 30 times to get his compliance. The officer was later fired and the city settled a lawsuit over the incident for $125,000. In the same month, an officer ordered two Latino teenagers to the ground at gunpoint, after they refused to show their hands.
Responding to those 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 disparate treatment.” Because of insufficient resources, the civil rights department did not finish its investigation. In the wake of Lyoya’s killing, Michigan Department of Civil Rights spokeswoman Vicki Levengood said the agency has been in discussions with the state Attorney General’s office about collaborating to finish it.
“There are lots of police departments that have issues around violent responses to nonviolent problems around the targeting of Black and Brown people,” said Aukerman, of the ACLU. “This is a community where those 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 Midwestern city, protests erupted in Grand Rapids. Peaceful daytime demonstrations turned destructive overnight, causing a reported $2 million in damages and leading to nearly two dozen arrests.
Officials promised reforms. Washington, Grand Rapids’ first Black city manager, announced operational changes that included banning chokeholds and requiring officers to exhaust all alternatives and give verbal warnings before using deadly force. He noted that the city had created offices focused on equity and public oversight, and launched an online dashboard showing citizen complaints.
And they laid out their new plan for law enforcement, which emphasized neighborhood-based policing, public accountability and the possibility of building a mental health team and community assistance team to help respond to some calls for service.
In Grand Rapids, as elsewhere in the nation, some activists called for police department funding to be redirected to community programs. The city’s charter calls for 32 percent of general funding to go to the department, and officials said cuts needed to be carefully considered. City officials reallocated $400,000 of the $55 million police budget to communication and oversight and made $1.1 million in cuts earlier that year, as the pandemic’s economic effects shrank the overall city budget. Payne said the department had little left to cut besides personnel, which counted 297 sworn officers.
Although the proposed plan would not defund the department, Payne said at the time it would “fundamentally transform policing 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 kind of defeat the purpose if you went in saying, ‘Nothing is going to change,’ ” he said. But Jackson and other local activists said relations have remained strained, with more community building and accountability needed.
That feeling has grown more intense in the wake of Lyoya’s death. On the outskirts of a protest that formed downtown after police released the footage, Aria Blackford said she hadn’t been able to bring herself to watch. As chants boomed off nearby buildings, the Black woman said she was dismayed at the news of 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 gone through multiple times in the past, something that has been addressed so many times and still something that so ignorantly happens.”
Shammas reported from Washington and Easter from Grand Rapids.