BRandon Davis holds a challenging position in Grand Rapids. A new office was created by Davis in 2019. It is meant to increase scrutiny and accountability of officials. Police are also included in this charge.
He’s also a Black American man, a lawyer and well aware of the particularly rocky policing landscape—recent and past—in this Western Michigan city of almost 200,000, about an hour’s drive from the shores of Lake Michigan. In fact, his role at the Office of Oversight and Public Accountability wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the prodding of local activists and a city manager, also Black, who have spent years demanding the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) abandon programs and practices that have been shown to target Black and Latino residents in extreme ways. It is here that the funding for the police department is written into the city charter. For nearly a decade, every police cruiser was equipped with Colt M4 semiautomatic rifles. When Grand Rapids’ first Black police chief retired earlier this year and was replaced by Eric Winstrom, an experienced officer from Chicago, who is white, few would have predicted that things might have been about to change. Officials and activists have been fighting for reform for decades and feel stuck every time they try.
In the aftermath of Patrick Lyoya’s April 4th death, a 26 year-old Congolese refugee was shot to death by a police officer in a traffic stop. Davis, who is also a public official, and one of many Black Grand Rapids residents, has spoken out about his feelings of exhaustion, anger, and the familiar routine.
“Although I’m an oversight professional and an attorney and obviously am trained to deal with this type of work,” he says, “I’m angry just like the rest of our community. I’m grieving like the rest of our community. As a Black man, the fact that another Black man is dead at the hands of police it’s still hurtful. It’s still traumatic.”
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Some city officials—like Davis and like Western Michigan’s mostly white community of activists and advocates—find themselves exactly where they long suspected that this city was headed: in the national spotlight after a fatal police shooting. Researchers who examine policing in the United States highlight the unusual volume of complaints from Black residents and Grand Rapids police officers. And yet a slew of lawsuits and studies suggest that aggressive policing has persisted—and to such a degree here that words like “terror” and “siege” often come up in relation to the topic. In conversations about Lyoya’s death, sadness is generally not accompanied by shock or surprise. There are two main questions: what happens to the officer and how Winstrom will handle the new role as police chief.
“This was a death that we all knew was coming,” says Miriam Aukerman, a senior staff attorney with ACLU of Michigan. “We didn’t know who it was going to be but we knew it was coming because there have been so many horrible, horrible violent incidents against people of color in this community.”
Actually, similar statements were made by people who had been closely monitoring the policing of this area for a long time.
“Given some of the history against Black and brown folks in this area over the years, we knew it could potentially happen one day,” echoes LaKiya Thompson-Jenkins, executive director of LincUp, a nonprofit organization pushing for police reforms in Grand Rapids. Lyoya was gunned down and murdered in her neighborhood of Southeast Grand Rapids. “If you are in that neighborhood you are going to see a vast police presence,” she says.
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When asked questions about police, Grand Rapids residents were familiar with two programs.
The first, known to some as the trespass letters program, involved police collecting business-owner signatures on pre-written “intent to prosecute” letters that made it easier for officers to declare people idling near businesses in violation of trespassing laws. According to police, the letters gave police an opportunity to avoid crimes such as public urination and drug sales. The Michigan Court ruled in 1997 that the letters failed to meet the legal criteria for probable cause necessary to search and arrest individuals. In 2013, the ACLU brought suit against the ACLU over continued operation of the program with two plaintiffs. A white man suffering from chronic hip pain had been detained while stretching his legs at an oil station. The other man was a Black man and was taken into custody for sitting outside a bar. While a friend occupied a space in a line just inside the doors, the man in black was being held in his vehicle. Grand Rapids Police agreed to cease the practice in 2017. In 2017, the Grand Rapids Police settled and agreed to end the practice. However, the federal judge ruled that it was illegal. He also said that qualified immunity protected the officers who were involved. The ACLU also presented evidence that Grand Rapids’ black residents were nearly twice as likely than whites to have the program stopped.
The second program, known colloquially as “stop, photograph, and fingerprint,” was supposed to function like Grand Rapids’ version of New York City’s infamous Stop and Frisk program. A federal court declared that the former had been used in an illegal manner in 2013. Police referred to it as a measure of prevention against crime. It involved the collection of fingerprints and photos from approximately 1,000 people each year. While most people were not charged with any crime, the police did keep this information because they knew that it could be used to identify crime-scene evidence. According to data from the ACLU, many of the victims were teens, with 70% being Black. Grand Rapids has a population of 18% who identified as Black according to the most recent census. Grand Rapids is part of Kent County. The State Court of Appeals and Kent County Court of Appeals sided with the police in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU. This case is currently pending before Michigan Supreme Court.
“Both of these programs were designed essentially as fishing expeditions,” Aukerman argues. “Unsurprisingly, the data shows that both of these programs resulted in very disproportionate stops and in the case of the trespass program arrests of Black people ….It’s the kind of over-policing that is the reason that people of color are terrified of the police.”
Grand Rapids Police and the union they belong to did not respond when asked.
Multiple bills were introduced at the state level in order to make changes in Michigan’s policing agencies. They were submitted in 2020 shortly after George Floyd died in Minnesota. However, none of them have been passed. A 2017 traffic stop study in the city found that Black drivers are twice as likely than any other driver to be pulled over. Thompson-Jenkins is Black and says that a subsequent traffic study was scheduled but delayed due to the pandemic. Never have been published the results of an investigation by Michigan Department of Civil Rights into the department. It began in 2019. John E. Johnson Jr., director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, who is Black, told TIME in an email that the department didn’t have the resources or staffing that would have been needed to thoroughly investigate patterns at the department’s patterns and practice. The agency currently has 29 complaints about discrimination. The department, “in the past and again in the wake of this tragedy,” he said, has asked the U.S. Department of Justice and the office of the Michigan Attorney General to look into the matter; Johnson said he could not comment directly on the Lyoya shooting because state police are still investigating.
There are also the everyday experiences, which haunt some Grand Rapids residents. In 2017, a 11-year-old Black girl was approached outside her home by officers holding guns. They were trying to find her aunt. As the mother and girl pleaded, officers handcuffed her and then put her in a police cruiser. The officers weren’t disciplined, but activists in 2018 successfully advocated for a change in policy regarding police interaction with children. This rule was named after the girl who died from COVID-19 at age 14. A U.S. citizen from Latin America was detained after an officer made him arrest. He was placed on a pathway to deportation, until a family attorney intervened. He was awarded a $190,000. Settlement by the department. In 2021, a Black man missed his mother-in-law’s wake after police pulled their weapons on him while he was waiting in a driveway, believing him to be a different man—one who had been wearing different clothing—who had just pulled a gun on a group of people.
Brandon Davis of the oversight department also keeps a memory of one incident. Through social media, he discovered about a March incident during which an officer was caught repeatedly hitting a man’s head in an arrest.
However, Davis says it’s important to note that those issues occurred under previous police chiefs. He believes that, despite activists’ frustrations with past experiences, an improved relationship between the GRPD and Black citizens is still possible. (Payne is the former chief of the GRPD who has risen through the ranks. Interviews before his departure, Payne described community policing and the improvement of police-community relations as his top priorities. He said that while police had contributed to racism systemically, they had accomplished work they could be proud of. He was among a few police chiefs who knelt during the protests following the passing of George Floyd in 2020.
“Past administrations were not as open,” Davis says. “And I don’t say that to speak disparagingly about anyone. But our new chief has expressed a much greater commitment to providing information and I believe him.”
Winstrom immediately called Davis the day Lyoya had been shot and asked him to arrive on-site. Davis’ office has the authority to gather information, identify problem patterns, and identify the legal reasons for changes in most police policy. Davis claims that his office will use all the power it has to do what it can.
However, if officers are given punishments, they will be recommended by the chief of the police. The city manager then makes any final decisions about officer discipline. Grand Rapids police officers have the option to appeal. However, Grand Rapids is unique in that they can often win and are able to consider only certain disciplinary records. Grand Rapids’ police union contract will go through a renegotiated process this year. The Kent County prosecutor—and in some cases, the state Attorney General—has discretion over whether or not to prosecute an officer for a crime. It is just the way it works. The Michigan State Police will be handling the Lyoya matter for the moment. Major incidents are not usually investigated by police departments in Michigan.
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Grand Rapids residents believe that the manner in which officials handled the Lyoya incident may have made matters worse. Winstrom has refused to release the officer’s name, saying only that the officer joined the GRPD seven years ago and that suspects’ names are not made public. Winstrom also did not make public the video of the Lyoya shooting for eight days, although Lyoya’s father saw the footage shortly after the shooting, a family spokesman says.
Some questions have been answered, but others remain unanswered. The released footage shows that at one point the officer’s body cam inexplicably turns off, for example, though it was functioning when, after a standing struggle over the officer’s taser, the officer yelled for Lyoya to drop the taser. (The actual taser can’t be seen in this video. The video that captures what happened next—with no audible warning, the officer firing a shot into the back of Lyoya’s head—was taken from a different vantage point. Lyoya instantly stops moving as a plume of gray smoke rises to the surface.
“The Michigan State Police…were called to the scene by the Grand Rapids Police Department on April 4th,” Special Lt. Michelle Robinson, a public information officer with the Michigan State Police, wrote in an email. “We are not releasing any additional information as it remains an active, ongoing investigation. We will do a complete investigation that will be given to the Kent County Prosecutor once completed.”
Robinson didn’t say how long this investigation might take.
Aukerman points to the difficulty of a thorough investigation without asking for feedback from members of public about their experience with this officer. That’s unlikely to happen if the officer’s name is kept secret. And so many activists, unlike Davis, remain unconvinced that this death might be the one that finally prompts some of the change they’ve been demanding.
Since Lyoya’s shooting death, Thompson-Jenkins, Aukerman, and others in Grand Rapids have begun calling for a federal investigation into the patterns and practices of the Grand Rapids Police Department. In a video of a traffic stop which happened about a year ago, Aukerman saw an officer punch a Black man in the face then say, “You’re lucky you didn’t get killed,” she says.
“And in retrospect,” she says, “you think, yeah, he was lucky.”
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