GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – The video shocked residents: A police officer wrestling on the ground with a Black man who had fled from a traffic stop, then pulling out a gun and firing a single round into the back of the man’s head, killing him.
Over the course of two months, since that April 4 killing of Patrick Lyoya in Grand Rapids, Mich., Protesters had marched through downtown, interrupted City Commission meetings and demanded that the officer who fired the fatal shot, Christopher Schurr, face criminal charges.
On Thursday, Christopher Becker, the Kent County prosecuting attorney, charged Officer Schurr, who is white, with second-degree murder.
“What this family hopes for is that more sooner than later – like now, today – that police officers understand that what they got away with in the past they can not get away with anymore,” said Ven Johnson, a lawyer for the Lyoya family.
It remains relatively rare for American police officers to face charges for on-duty killings, although such cases have become more common in recent years amid public outcry over police conduct and the proliferation of cameras that can either confirm or conflict with an officer’s account. Even when charges are filed, cases can be hard to prove in court. Officers are given a wide berth to use force under the law, and jurors have been known to be sympathetic when police officers assert that they feared for their life.
Mr. Becker, who in recent weeks had rejected calls from activists to hand over the investigation to a prosecutor outside the county where the shooting happened, declined to discuss his charging decision in detail, but said he believed there was a strong case for the murder charge. Mr. Becker said he had waited to finalize a decision until after the completion of a Michigan State Police investigation, which he had presented with last week.
“Obviously I would not charge it if I did not think I could prove it,” Mr. Becker said.
Mr. Becker said Officer Schurr had surrendered to the authorities on Thursday and was likely to be arraigned on Friday. An attempt to reach a lawyer believed to represent Officer Schurr was not immediately successful on Thursday. The Grand Rapids Police Officers Association, which previously released a statement defending Officer Schurr, could also not immediately be reached.
“As tragic as this case is all the way around,” the organization said in April, “we feel a thorough review of this entire situation will show that a police officer has the legal right to protect themselves and the community in a volatile dangerous situation such as this. ”
Officer Schurr, who grew up near Grand Rapids and has worked in law enforcement for about seven years, could face up to life in prison if convicted of second-degree murder.
The death of Mr. Lyoya, an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo, worsened longstanding tensions with the police in Grand Rapids, a city of about 200,000 people where 18 percent of residents are Black. The case also renewed a national conversation about when officers should face charges for on-duty killings. The law allows police officers to use deadly force when they have a reasonable fear of death or great bodily harm.
Mr. Lyoya was pulled over on the cold, rainy morning of April 4. After stepping out of his car, videos released by the police show, Mr. Lyoya appears confused as the officer tells him to get back in the vehicle. Officer Schurr asks him 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, Officer Schurr grabs Mr. Lyoya, who pulls away and starts to run, the 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 in Officer Schurr’s hand.
Midway through the struggle, the officer’s body camera stops filming. Chief Eric Winstrom of the Grand Rapids police 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, Officer Schurr 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.
Though he did not discuss the evidence in detail on Thursday, Mr. Becker said he had waited to announce his decision until receiving a forensic report on Officer Schurr’s Taser. Details of the report were not made public.
After the shooting, and again on Thursday, city officials pledged to learn from the encounter and evaluate Police Department policies. Chief Winstrom said he would submit a letter to the city manager recommending that Officer Schurr be suspended without pay, a step toward possible termination.
“This tragedy has shaken our entire community,” Mayor Rosalynn Bliss said.
Mr. Lyoya’s parents said he was a good son who provided some financial support to his family and sometimes came by their home on weekends to help his siblings. He held a range of jobs over the years, including at a turkey processor and an auto parts manufacturer.
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But Mr. Lyoya had struggled since arriving in Michigan. He had been arrested more than a dozen times, mostly for misdemeanors involving cars, and he also faced three charges for domestic violence. At the time of his death, Mr. Lyoya was on probation, his driver’s license was revoked and there were two warrants out for his arrest, including one for a domestic violence charge three days earlier. He had told friends he was trying to get his life together.
Peter Lyoya, Patrick Lyoya’s father, said he found out about the charging decision in a phone call with the prosecutor before the announcement.
“We do not really hope for what is coming ahead,” Peter Lyoya said. “We have lost Patrick. Patrick is not coming back. Our hearts are still broken. ”
Mr. Becker said he consulted outside use-of-force experts before deciding to charge Officer Schurr. He said he had been aware of the intense public interest in the case, both from those who wanted charges and those who did not.
“The general consensus is, I think, that there’s a huge amount of community pressure that thinks I should charge him – and if I do not charge, something’s going to happen,” Mr. Becker said. But he added that he received an email from someone urging him not to prosecute the officer just before he announced his decision. “There’s a lot of people who think this should not be charged,” he added, “and so I’m very mindful of that.”
After the shooting, city officials released records showing that Officer Schurr had been commended more than a dozen times and cited twice for minor issues, like damaging a police car, that did not result in any discipline.
His killing of Mr. Lyoya was far from the first encounter in Grand Rapids to lead to calls for changes to police policy.
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.
Outside the Grand Rapids Police Department on Thursday, Najee Brown, 29, said the charging decision was a pleasant surprise.
“It’s shocking,” said Mr. Brown, a Black resident of Grand Rapids who said he hoped the decision would serve as a warning to other officers.
“I think it’ll scare the other cops that plan on being aggressive like that,” he said.