The Grand Rapids police officer who fatally shot an unarmed motorist in the head April 4 after a routine traffic stop is facing a charge of second-degree murder, Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker announced Thursday.
The decision means prosecutors believe Officer Christopher Schurr exceeded accepted policing practice in his attempts to subdue Congolese immigrant Patrick Lyoya after Schurr pulled him over about 8 a.m. in a residential neighborhood on the city’s southeast side.
Schurr has turned himself in and will be arraigned tomorrow, Becker told the media at a 3 p.m. press conference, noting that he can’t discuss many details of the case.
“This case needs to be tried in a court of law and not necessarily the public,” said Becker, expressing support for Lyoya’s family for their patience and calls for peace following the death.
Second-degree murder is punishable by up to life in prison in Michigan and indicates that prosecutors do not believe the crime was premeditated.
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During comments to the media, Becker said he followed the facts of a Michigan State Police investigation into the shooting and didn’t issue the charge to “send a message.”
He noted that community opinion about possible charges was “split,” with many clamoring for charges and others urging him not to issue any.
“I hope the public (opinion) reflects the care and concern I took,” Becker said. “This is not a decision I took lightly, so we’ll see how the public reacts.”
As seen in video released by police, the 26-year-old Lyoya fled on foot after a brief encounter with Schurr outside Lyoya’s car, but Schurr chased and tackled him a few feet from the car.
The pair scuffled for about 2 minutes and appeared to battle over control of the officer’s Taser, before Schurr shot Lyoya in the back of the head while the officer was straddled on top of him.
The Detroit News reported that autopsy reports show Lyoya was severely intoxicated during the incident, with a blood alcohol level of 0.29, more than three times the legal limit.
According to an account in MLive, Lyoya had a revoked license and outstanding warrant for his arrest when he was pulled over. He also had an arrest warrant issued April 1 for a domestic violence charge at the time of the traffic stop.
The deadly incident appeared to escalate from what started as a traffic stop, as Schurr questioned Lyoya over an apparent discrepancy between the license plate of the car he was driving and the car’s registration.
Becker received a preliminary investigative report on the incident from Michigan State Police on April 28. On May 18, Becker said he was seeking additional guidance from “state and national experts” before making a charging decision. He did not specify what type of experts he was consulting.
Lyoya was a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who fled war and persecution with his family, according to an account by NPR. The family arrived in the United States in 2014, after years in an African refugee camp and joined a Congolese immigrant community in the Grand Rapids area of about 8,000 people. Family members and acquaintances said he had worked a variety of jobs, including at an auto parts plant, a turkey farm and an appliance store. According to his family, he was the eldest of six children and the father of two young children.
His family retained civil-rights attorney Ben Crump to represent them. Crump and Michigan-based attorney Ven Johnson said Schurr repeatedly failed to de-escalate the situation and used excessive force. They called for him to be fired and charged. They also indicated a civil lawsuit may be pending.
In the meantime, protesters demanding Schurr’s arrest and that Becker remove himself from the decision on charging Schurr twice shut down city commission meetings.
The police officers’ union that represents Schurr defended his actions, as it issued an April statement that it was confident “a thorough review of this entire situation will show that a police officer has the legal right to protect themselves and community in a volatile dangerous situation such as this, in order to return to his/her family at the end of their shift.”
Schurr has been on paid leave since the incident.
Lyoya’s death prompted calls by some for Grand Rapids police to curtail police stops for routine violations, following the lead of Lansing police who no longer pull motorists over for minor violations such as a cracked taillight or ornament hanging from a mirror.
A 2021 New York Times investigation found that, in the previous five years, U.S. police officers at traffic stops killed more than 400 motorists who had no gun or knife and were not under pursuit for a violent crime.
More than three-quarters of the unarmed motorists were, like Lyoya, killed while attempting to flee.
Those findings come amid broad evidence that Black motorists are more likely to be subject to so-called “pretextual” traffic stops — where officers pull over vehicles for minor infractions, fishing for evidence of more serious crime, such as illegal drug or gun possession. Lyoya was Black, while Schurr is white.
A 2020 national study of more than 100 million traffic stops found that Black drivers were 20 percent more likely to be stopped than white drivers relative to their share of the residential population. Black drivers also were 1.5 times more likely to be searched than white drivers, though they were less likely to be carrying drugs or guns.
Grand Rapids has known of such disparities for years, including in its own police department. In 2017, the city released a study showing that Black drivers were twice as likely to be pulled over by Grand Rapids police as white drivers and more likely to be searched than non-Black drivers. The study was part of an effort to reduce bias in the department.
But Robert Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chief of Police, has told Bridge that backing off enforcement of traffic laws will only lead to more crime.
“There will be consequences over not enforcing the law, and there will be negative consequences. The vast majority of citizens in this country want the law to be followed.”
According to reporting by WOOD-TV, Schurr’s employment file includes 11 letters of recognition for his policing since 2016.
Schurr, a seven-year veteran of the force, also received a complaint for a crash in which he was deemed to be at fault, and another complaint for an improper search in which he was cleared.