The police in Grand Rapids, Mich., released videos on Wednesday showing a white officer fatally shooting Patrick Lyoya, a 26-year-old Black man, after a struggle during a traffic stop last week.
The officer, who has not been named, was lying on the back of Mr. Lyoya before he appeared to shoot him in the head. In the seconds before the shooting, Mr. Lyoya and the officer wrestled on the ground and seemed to be fighting for control of the officer’s Taser.
“When I saw the video, it was painful to watch,” Mark Washington, the Grand Rapids city manager, said. “And I immediately asked, ‘What caused this to happen, and what more could have been done to prevent this from occurring?’”
Even before the release of the footage, the case exposed longstanding tensions in Grand Rapids, a city of about 200,000 people where 18 percent of residents are Black. Activists aired their frustration and grief on Tuesday night during a City Commission meeting, speaking for hours about what they described as years of inaction on policing issues by Grand Rapids leaders.
The investigation into the officer’s actions was ongoing, officials said on Wednesday, and no charging decision had been made. Chief Eric Winstrom of the Grand Rapids police said he was not aware of any weapons other than the officer’s gun and Taser being found at the scene. Police body camera video shows the officer telling Mr. Lyoya that he is pulling him over because his license plates do not match his car.
A New York Times investigation last fall revealed that American police officers, over the previous five years, had killed more than 400 motorists who were not wielding a gun or knife or under pursuit for a violent crime. The Times found that police culture and court precedents significantly overstated the danger to officers at vehicle stops.
Police killings of Black men have dominated national discussions about law enforcement in recent years, particularly after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020 touched off protests across the country, including in Grand Rapids. Already this year, more than 250 people have been fatally shot by on-duty police officers nationwide, according to a Washington Post database, close to the pace from both 2020 and 2021, when more than 1,000 people were shot dead by the police.
In Grand Rapids, officials said that the police officer who fired the fatal shot joined the department in 2015. Mr. Lyoya immigrated to the United States from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2014 and had lived in Grand Rapids for about five years, according to the office of Ben Crump, a lawyer for the family.
“The video clearly shows that this was an unnecessary, excessive and fatal use of force against an unarmed Black man who was confused by the encounter and terrified for his life,” Mr. Crump said. He called for the officer to be fired and prosecuted.
The videos released on Wednesday show Mr. Lyoya driving through a residential area on the cold, rainy morning of April 4 when an officer pulls him over. Mr. Lyoya steps out of his car, the videos show, and appears confused as the officer tells him to get back in the car. The officer asks Mr. Lyoya whether he speaks English.
Mr. Lyoya responds that he does speak English, and asks, “What did I do wrong?” After a brief exchange about whether Mr. Lyoya has a driver’s license, the officer grabs Mr. Lyoya, who pulls away and starts to run, the video footage shows.
The officer tackles Mr. Lyoya in a nearby lawn, yelling “Stop!” as Mr. Lyoya appears to try to regain his footing. At one point, body camera footage shows Mr. Lyoya grasping for the Taser that is in the officer’s hand. Chief Winstrom said he believed that the Taser was fired twice during the encounter, but that it did not hit anyone.
Midway through the struggle, the officer’s body camera stops filming. Chief Winstrom said pressure was applied to the camera to turn it off during the struggle. It was not clear who applied that pressure or whether it was intentional.
Other cameras — from the officer’s vehicle, a nearby doorbell security system and a bystander’s cellphone — capture different portions of the encounter. Shortly before the fatal shot is fired, the officer yells, “Let go of the Taser.” Mr. Lyoya is facing the ground and pushing up, with the officer on top of him, in the moments just before the shooting.
Chief Winstrom called the shooting a tragedy but declined to say whether he thought the officer followed department policy or state law, citing the investigations into the case. The officer is on paid leave and his police powers have been suspended, officials said.
In a statement, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer expressed sympathy to the Lyoya family and called for any protests to be peaceful.
Investigation: Deadly Police Traffic Stops in the U.S.
Card 1 of 5
The consequences of traffic stops. A New York Times investigation in 2021 examined why traffic stops for minor offenses sometimes escalate into deadly encounters. Here are some key findings:
Common encounters turned fatal. Between 2016 and 2021, police killed more than 400 drivers or passengers who were not wielding a gun or a knife or under pursuit for a violent crime. Many vehicle stops begin for common traffic violations or questioning about nonviolent offenses.
There’s a financial incentive. Traffic stops are often motivated by hidden budgetary considerations. Many communities rely heavily on ticket revenue to fund their budgets, effectively turning their officers into revenue agents searching for violations to support municipal needs.
Overstated risks stoke fears. A presumption of peril has become ingrained in court precedents — contributing to impunity for most officers who use lethal force at vehicle stops. In dozens of encounters, officers stepped in front of moving vehicles or reached inside car windows, then fired their guns, claiming self-defense.
Police missteps created danger. Many courts focus only on when an officer pulled the trigger, but some argue that judges and juries should scrutinize the actions of officers before they opened fire. It is possible that dozens of deaths could have been avoided had police officers not put themselves in danger.
“The Michigan State Police will conduct a transparent, independent investigation of the shooting,” said Ms. Whitmer, a Democrat and former prosecutor. “Then, prosecutors must consider all the evidence, follow the law and take appropriate action on charges. Justice is foundational to safety, and without justice, we are all less safe.”
Mr. Lyoya’s death was the latest in a series of incidents that have strained relations between residents and the Grand Rapids police. In 2017, officers searching for a middle-aged woman wanted for a stabbing instead handcuffed an 11-year-old girl at gunpoint while she was leaving a house. Those officers were not disciplined. Months prior, other Grand Rapids officers held five innocent teenagers at gunpoint. And in 2020, local outlets reported, an officer was suspended for two days after shooting a protester in the face with a gas canister.
City data from 2020 showed that Black residents who responded to a survey said they had less trust in the Grand Rapids police than their white and Hispanic neighbors did.
A spokeswoman for the Michigan State Police, the agency handling the case, declined to say when the investigation might be finished and handed over to prosecutors for a charging decision.
Christopher Becker, the prosecuting attorney in Kent County, which includes Grand Rapids, last week urged the police to hold off on releasing the video until the State Police investigation was completed. Chief Winstrom, who took over as police chief last month, responded by saying he would release the video by the end of this week, though he did not set a date for that release until Tuesday afternoon.
Mr. Becker did not answer questions about the status of the case on Wednesday morning, but said he expected to release another statement later in the day.
The scene of the shooting, a residential street southeast of downtown, was quiet Wednesday morning before the video was released. A small memorial of flowers, candles and a teddy bear surrounded a tree near where Mr. Lyoya was shot. Downtown, concrete barricades were set up around the police station. In a public square nearby, protesters had started to gather by early evening, with cries of “Justice for Patrick” and “Shut it down.”
Kristina Rebelo and Steve Eder contributed reporting.