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Grand Rapids officer who killed Patrick Lyoya charged with second-degree murder

A television display shows video evidence of a Grand Rapids, Mich., police officer struggling with and shooting Patrick Lyoya on April 4, after what police said was a traffic stop. (Grand Rapids Police Department) (AP)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — A police officer was charged with second-degree murder for shooting a Black man in the back of the head during an April traffic stop, authorities announced Thursday.

Kent County prosecutor Christopher Becker said he had concluded that Grand Rapids police officer Christopher Schurr was not acting in self-defense and intended to kill when he fired a shot at Congolese refugee Patrick Lyoya, 26. The officer, who has been on paid leave since the April 4 incident, turned himself in and will be arraigned Friday.

Graphic footage of the shooting, released by police amid protests on city streets and the state Capitol, drew national attention as discourse has intensified about the rarity of prosecuting police officers for on-duty police killings. The shooting, seen by many as another example of police using excessive force against Black men, heightened tensions between officers and the Black community in Grand Rapids, where police for years have been accused of mistreating people of color.

Filing the murder charge was a “major decision,” Becker said, and one made after a thorough review of a Michigan State Police investigation into the shooting. He said he hoped it sent a message to the public that “we take these cases seriously.”

“Everybody thinks, you know, the prosecutors are essentially an arm or just a branch of the police, and we’re not,” he said during a news conference. “We are our own entity. We have a duty to enforce the law, be it on police or the public.”

Patrick Lyoya’s father, Peter, said the family had not expected Schurr to be charged.

“We are feeling a little bit of relief for what we have heard,” he told The Washington Post through an interpreter. “But to say that we are really comforted — no, it won’t be until the officer is arrested and brought to justice. That’s when we will really feel that relief.”

The local police union did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Following the charging announcement, Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Winstrom said he would recommend to the city manager that Schurr be terminated.

“I respect the prosecutor’s decision,” he said in a city news conference Thursday. “I don’t have any reason to believe Mr. Becker made the wrong decision.”

Lyoya’s parents, who had demanded justice for a killing they said amounted to an execution, were informed of the charge before the public announcement. Their attorney, Ben Crump, praised the prosecutor’s decision in an interview with The Post on Thursday.

“I think the biggest thing about today is that the prosecutor confirmed what we all knew was the charge — that this officer engaged in unnecessary, unjustifiable use of force when he executed Patrick Lyoya, an unarmed African immigrant, for a minor traffic violation.”

The family, speaking to reporters through an interpreter after Becker’s announcement, repeated their calls for all demonstrations to remain peaceful. The interpreter described them as “absolutely devastated by the death of their son and their brother” and added that “the last thing they want is anyone else to get hurt.”

Family of man shot by Michigan police say son was ‘killed like an animal’

The traffic stop that ended in Lyoya’s shooting began with Schurr noticing that his license plate did not match the car he was driving. Videos released by the Grand Rapids Police Department days after the shooting captured what happened next.

In the footage, taken from various vantage points, the White officer stops Lyoya’s sedan just after 8 a.m. along a leafy residential street. Lyoya steps out of the car, appearing confused.

“What did I do wrong?” he asked.

After a brief exchange over whether Lyoya had a license and spoke English, Lyoya closed the car door and started walking away. Schurr, 31, grabbed him. Lyoya broke free and ran away as Schurr yelled, “Stop!”

The two engaged in a struggle across a front lawn in the neighborhood, and Lyoya appeared to grab the officer’s Taser. While Lyoya was facedown on the grass, the officer yelled at him to “Let go of the Taser.”

Within seconds, Schurr fired his pistol. Police officials confirmed that Lyoya was shot in the head.

The Grand Rapids Police Department released video from April 4 that showed a police officer shooting Patrick Lyoya, a 26-year-old Black man. (Video: The Washington Post)

An autopsy by the Kent County chief medical examiner confirmed that Lyoya died of the gunshot wound, and that his blood alcohol level was 0.29, more than three times the state legal limit to operate a car.

Family members said the video showed that Lyoya was not posing a threat when he was killed. They described it as difficult to watch, with Lyoya’s brother, Thomas, calling it “the most horrifying thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Lyoya’s parents, Peter and Dorcas, viewed the United States as a safe haven after fleeing violence in Democratic Republic of Congo and were stunned by their son’s death at the hands of an American police officer. They called for Schurr to be fired and face criminal charges.

“My life has come to the end,” Peter Lyoya said in April. “My life was Patrick, my son. I was thinking that Patrick would take my place. And to see that my son has been killed like an animal by this police officer, and to see this video they showed, I see that I have no life.”

Police identify officer who killed Congolese refugee in Michigan

Schurr had been repeatedly commended by the Grand Rapids Police Department for his ability to chase suspects down on foot, according to records released by city officials after the shooting. Schurr was also cited twice for minor issues, such as damaging a police car, but did not face discipline, according to the Detroit Free Press.

In an April 26 statement, the Grand Rapids Police Officer’s Association defended Schurr’s record, noting his community involvement, including mission trips to Kenya. The union predicted a review of the shooting would “show that a police officer has the legal right to protect themselves and community in a volatile dangerous situation such as this.”

The shooting and the release of the videos inflamed tensions between the police department and Black residents of Grand Rapids, a city of about 200,000 that was once a hub for furniture manufacturers and is now home to a burgeoning medical sector. The police department has been accused of racial bias, and several recent incidents have sparked widespread anger, including two 2017 cases in which officers drew guns on Black youths between the ages of 12 and 14 and handcuffed an 11-year-old girl.

Cle Jackson, president of the Greater Grand Rapids NAACP, said Thursday that the decision to charge Schurr sends a “loud message” and called it a “step in the right direction.”

“There have been too many incidents where Black and Brown lives have been lost at the hands of law enforcement, whose No. 1 priority should be to protect all citizens,” Jackson said.

The Lyoya family had come a long way in search of stability. After fleeing war-torn Congo, they spent more than a decade in a refugee camp in Malawi. In 2014, they won entry to the United States and landed in western Michigan, where Peter and Dorcas Lyoya worked odd jobs and shared a modest apartment with their six children.

For Patrick Lyoya, the American Dream became the American nightmare

Patrick, the couple’s oldest son, had a full-time job as a factory worker at a vehicle manufacturing plant in Grand Rapids. While he had sometimes struggled to find his way after arriving in the United States, he had big goals for himself — such as buying a house for his mother.

“His biggest dream was to be able to purchase a home for his mom or build a home for his mom so she could be able to say, ‘My son, I brought you to America and now …’” Patient Baraka, a fellow Congolese refugee and family friend, told The Post last month. “And that’s why they are so broken. Because he represented hope for them.”

Lyoya’s parents have spoken of their shock at losing their son to an American police officer.

“When we came here to the U.S., we knew that we [ran] away from war and violence, and we came here to America, to a safe haven,” Peter Lyoya said through an interpreter at his home. “What is so surprising and astonishing is that I lost my son here, in America.”

There were calls for change at Lyoya’s funeral, along with pleas that his death not be in vain. He was eulogized by the Rev. Al Sharpton, called an American of great distinction by Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) and mourned by a crowd of more than 1,500 whose members were often on their feet, some with fists raised.

“This is not just an issue that affects Grand Rapids,” Crump, the civil rights attorney that represents the family, said at the time. “This is not just an issue that affects the state of Michigan. This is an issue that affects all humanity. Because Patrick was a human being, and Patrick’s life mattered.”

Easter reported from Grand Rapids. Shammas, Bella and Kornfield reported from Washington.