Photo by Katherine Hood on Unsplash

Another Unnecessary, Criminal Tragedy

Immigrant from Democratic Republic of the Congo should not have died

As I sat in the peace and safety of my bedroom, I watched the excruciating, three-minute long video unfold, as an unarmed immigrant from the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo was fatally shot in the head by a Michigan police officer after refusing to follow the officer’s orders to submit for a minor motor vehicle complaint.

The deadly confrontation quickly devolved after Grand Rapids, Mich. Police Officer Christopher Schurr pulled over a car driven by Patrick Lyoya because the car’s license plates did not match the vehicle. I watched paralyzed in anger and sorrow because I knew how it would end and I knew it could have been avoided but I was powerless along with the other 335,471 people who have seen the three-minute video and left 4,190 comments, so far, after police released streaming videos of the incident on April 13.

The police released one video from the officer’s dashboard and body-worn cameras, another taken by a passenger in Lyoya’s car and a third from a neighbor’s home security camera.

The traffic stop was routine in a city were car thefts have tripled in four years. But stopping cars with African American drivers raises the question of racial profiling, use of excessive force and the overpolicing of traffic stops. A New York Times investigation last fall found that in the previous five years police officers had killed more than 400 motorists who were neither wielding a gun or knife nor under pursuit for a violent crime.

The Times reported that in separate incidents five years ago, Grand Rapids police officers aimed their weapons at five unarmed Black preteen and teenage boys and handcuffed an 11-year-old Black girl in a case of mistaken identity. A traffic study released that year showed that Black motorists in Grand Rapids were twice as likely to be pulled over as white drivers.

Grand Rapids has never had a fatal police shooting against an unarmed African American. But it is the childhood home of Breonna Taylor, the Black emergency room technician who became a national symbol in protests against police violence after she was killed by Louisville, Ky., officers in March 2020.

A story in the New York Times recounted how the paths crossed with deadly finality between Schurr, 31, a white officer and Lyoya, 26, an African American. It was a rainy morning on Monday, April 4, when Schurr was in his police cruiser and pulled over Lyoya’s silver sedan in a non-descript, suburban neighborhood. Lyoya pulled over and got out of his car when Schurr started walking toward him and was yelling loudly to get back in the car and again, get back in the car. Lyoya followed the order but as Schurr approached, he again got out of the car.

“What did I do wrong?” Lyoya asked.

“The plate doesn’t belong on this car,” Schurr replied.

Lyoya may have not fully understood the officer because while he said he spoke English, a Swahili interpreter had been requested for him in court hearings.

Then things got very bad, very quickly as Lyoya began to walk away and ignored Schurr’s order to stop. After a foot chase, Schurr pulled out his Taser, firing it unsuccessfully twice. The officer then managed to get a wriggling Lyoya facedown on the ground and sit on his back all while Lyoya was trying to wrest away the officer’s Taser. Two seconds after shouting for the last time for Lyoya to let go of the Taser, Schurr shoots him, fatally, in the back of the head.

After reading many of the comments left by viewers, I came away with several observations that could have avoided the use of deadly force. Schurr should not have gotten into a physical confrontation over an innocuous motor vehicle violation. Lyoya spoke some English but may have misunderstood the officer’s comments or intent. But even if he did understand, the officer’s life was not in danger and there was no reason for the confrontation that led to the killing.

But the tussle ensued, and neither man would surrender. At one point, Lyoya is seen trying to take away Schurr’s Taser, apparently causing the officer to fear for his safety. If so, Schurr should have backed away and not used his gun. Tasers are not lethal. Instead of reaching for his service gun, Schurr should have reached for his radio t call headquarters. The officer should have radioed and waited for backup to arrive. Even if Lyoya left the scene he could easily be tracked and arrested later without incident. If a confrontation was unavoidable, two officers would have been able to overpower Lyoya without using deadly force.

And now, the lawyers will gather, the courts will listen, the experts will recommend but nothing will bring back Lyoya, whose only crime was that he would not follow an officer’s instructions regarding a minor traffic offense. Nothing will bring back the man whose family was able to flee the deadly conflict in the Democratic Republican of Congo, only to spend 11 years in an overcrowded, refugee camp in Malawi where health care was minimal. The family was able to immigrate in 2014 to Michigan, where they looked for a better life.

Many of the on-line comments about the incident said the shooting was “unjustified” because the officer was kneeling on Lyoya’s back when he shot him. One said the incident was an “execution” and others pointed to poor police training. Another comment was that the “​Cop just gave up trying to handle the situation.”

“An arrest is more important then waiting for back up… why choose to fight the dude and then shoot,” posted one viewer.

“Police biggest gang in America,” said another post.

“He didn’t have to die,” said another.

“Resisting arrest and grabbing a taser is NOT a reason for murdering someone,” according to a post.

Some said the shooting was justified, as one said, “The cop can’t let the criminal tase him, then he would take his gun.”

Another said, “​yeah forget law and order. We should remove all these cops and let things go to their natural Kang state like Liberia or South Africa.”

More than a few comments blamed Lyoya for not cooperating with police.

“The dude would be alive if he cooperated. Not hard to comprehend,” said another.

“Sometimes, it’s the suspect that escalates the situation. This suspect rapidly — very rapidly — escalated the situation, and for no reason,” a commenter said.

Another writer who said he is a police officer, had a long response, worth repeating here. It read:

“Hot take here, but what if we all took a step back and realized wrong things happened on both sides? It’s not a good idea to run from or resist police, even if you’re innocent, and the longer you continue to struggle against them, the higher the chances of something bad happening.

However, as a police officer, it is also wrong to pull out your gun mid-struggle and point-blank point it at someone’s head. None of us know if it was an accident or not, but it’s very clear that tensions were high, and this cop incorrectly thought it would be a good idea to detain him with one hand and point a gun at his head with the other.

The Taser is single-use, and was discharged, so there was no threat of the police officer being Tased, and I don’t think there’s any valid argument for saying he could have used the 2 pound, all plastic Taser as a weapon to bludgeon the cop with. If the officer was going to choose to give up a hand on Mr. Lyoya, it should have been to reach for his radio for backup and continue to restrain him.

I can believe that it was an accident. I can envision a scenario where the policeman thought feeling cold steel against the back of his head would convince Mr. Lyoya to be compliant, and from there he could restrain him with handcuffs. This is what I hope the intention was. But I can also believe that this officer is clearly poorly trained, and he thought Mr. Lyoya could be a threat to his safety, and he was running out of strength to continue detaining him, and felt backup would not arrive in time, and believed that Mr. Lyoya put up enough of a struggle for long enough that it could be justified to shoot him.

I don’t think we live in a world where white police officers are champing at the bit to shoot a black individual they just pulled over. I’m sure there’s the bad eggs, but in many situations we see the officer go straight for the gun while this one, according to the dash cam footage, seemed to lower his guard once it seemed they were cooperating. He began confrontation with hand on his hip or on his taser, ready to draw if need be, as they are trained to when walking into an unusual situation.

After the driver moved to obtain his driver’s license, the hand immediately dropped and the officer stood fairly relaxed with both hands at his side. He calmly explained the issue to Mr. Lyoya, and Mr. Lyoya began to walk away from the officer to go around the car. I tried understanding the audio from the dash cam footage of the conversation between Mr. Lyoya, but it’s extremely hard for me to understand what exactly they’re saying, but it sounded as if the passenger said “you must have left it at…” and I have no clue what Mr. Lyoya said before closing the door and beginning to walk.

Whether he intended to run or not is moot. It’s standard practice to speak very directly to the officer about your intentions. He should have turned to the officer and asked if he may get back into his car to search for the license, or if he could go around the side to search the glove box from outside the car.

This isn’t Black vs White, and this isn’t a black and white situation. There’s a different discussion to be had surrounding police biases and racial profiling of black people that I am not well informed enough to speak on but can sympathize with the argument that there is a bias and racial profiling does occur, but that does not apply here in a discussion that strictly looks at “What led to the officer pulling his gun, why did he shoot it, and was it justified?”

If Mr. Lyoya was completely innocent, he handled the situation extremely, extremely poorly. His actions led to, at the very least, disobedience and recklessness that even people of the black community do not advise doing, and at worst, add to the idea that he’s not innocent of the infraction/crime. Mr. Lyoya was extremely incommunicative except when it pertained to what he did wrong, and that did not help the situation at all.

I believe the officer handled the situation fairly well up until the point of the struggle. Someone more versed than me can point out his flaws in his method of restraint, but I don’t think it was unwarranted given that Mr. Lyoya began to run. He went for his taser instead of his gun, unlike some of the shootings we’ve seen. I have zero clue what that cop was truly thinking when he pulled out his gun and pointed it at Mr. Lyoya’s head. I hope this truly was an accident, but it’s undoubtedly a very stupid move on the officer’s part, and proper training should have absolutely never made this a possibility. All signs to me point to the fact that this cop is truly under trained and inexperienced in these matters.

The officer should absolutely be punished for the recklessness of his actions, but I hate to see people who treat these matters and read these headlines as if it said “Police officer initiated a fight with an innocent black man and shot him in the back of the head because he felt like it.” I’m certain there an extremely, extremely small amount of racist cops who dream about getting away shooting people of other skin colors out of pure hatred, but this cop reached for his taser first. This wasn’t his pipe dream.

I don’t think he’s proud of or happy with what he did at all. He’ll defend himself to protect himself, obviously, but we all know that a life was just unnecessarily stolen from someone, and I think the takeaway should be that police need much better training. I am not a fan of removing the pistol from the police’s immediate arsenal, as it is still a dangerous job, but they 100 percent need to learn, understand, and exemplify that their weapon is only to be resorted to when their lives or others’ lives are in danger, not as a tool to express authority, especially over an unarmed person (2 lb plastic taser with no shot does not make him armed).

I’m sorry for Mr. Lyoya and his family. I hope his death can at least serve a purpose in reforming practices used by police, and serve as a cautionary lesson against resisting an undertrained force with lethal weapons. There’s so much to learn from the gray area. Please don’t see or parrot things from one side or the other, and show a capacity for empathy and nuance.”

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