Michigan death again puts focus on anxiety-filled police stops of Black people
The video seems clear: Patrick Lyoya disobeyed an officer during a traffic stop, tried to run, then wrestled with the officer over his Taser before the officer fatally shot him in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
For a number of Black men and women, resisting arrest during encounters with police for minor traffic stops have been deadly. Experts say anxiety levels of the people stopped and even the officers involved can be high, adding to the tension.
George Floyd’s 2020 slaying by Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, the 2014 strangulation death of Eric Garner by a New York City officer and the shooting death of Michael Brown that same year by an officer in Ferguson, Missouri, are among high-profile encounters that proved deadly for Black men.
A store employee called police, saying Floyd allegedly tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. Police stopped Garner on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes. An officer confronted Brown and a companion as they walked to Brown’s home from a convenience store. Brown was shot after scuffling with the officer. All three men were unarmed.
“Because of the way police are commonly portrayed, there can be anxiety for young men of color when they are pulled over,” said Jason Johnson, president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund. “‘Am I going to get a ticket? Am I going to get arrested?’ They may believe they are going to be a victim of abuse. Many times they enter into these interactions thinking they are going to be a victim of brutality.”
In 2015, a white police officer in Columbia, South Carolina, pulled over Walter Scott, a 50-year-old Black man, for a broken brake light. A bystander’s video captured the two tumbling to the ground after the officer hit Scott with a Taser. The officer then shot Scott as he tried to run.
In Lyoya’s case, some — including his family and their high-profile attorney, Ben Crump — have said the 26-year-old Congolese refugee was slain for having a license plate that did not belong to the vehicle. While that’s why the officer stopped Lyoya, Johnson said, that’s not why Lyoya was killed.
“It’s one of the disconnects or misunderstandings between the police and the public,” Johnson said. “If you look a little bit deeper, that’s not what happened. (Lyoya) had a number of opportunities to comply with the officer’s directions. This use of deadly force had nothing to do with a traffic violation and everything to do with (Lyoya) actively resisting arrest.”
Lyoya’s actions led “down the path that ultimately ended in deadly force,” Johnson added.
Grand Rapids police on Wednesday released video of the April 4 stop, including from the officer’s vehicle and body camera, from a bystander’s cellphone and from a doorbell camera. The videos show the brief foot chase and a struggle as the white officer repeatedly tells Lyoya to stop.
At one point, Lyoya has his hand on the officer’s stun gun, and the officer yells at him to let go.
The struggle ended when the officer shot Lyoya in the head as Lyoya was facedown, with the officer straddling him.
Scott Roberts, senior director of criminal justice and democracy campaigns at Color of Change, a national racial justice organization, said officers are often fearful given the dangers involved with making stops. But that doesn’t negate that Black motorists suffer for showing or expressing their justified fears in traffic stops, he said.
“Looking at police culture, there is just this pushback on the notion that policing is rooted in white supremacy and has been a tool of white supremacy,” Roberts said. “And so there is a kind of denial of why Black people would have that fear. You’ve already criminalized the person when you’re making a pre-textual stop. Your assumption is going to be that this is only a confirmation of their guilt, that fear.”
Roberts added that these dynamics have increasingly led cities, prosecutors and police to enact policies that deemphasize or end stops for minor infractions.
Skin color and experiences could skew how all parties interpret interactions and confrontations between Black Americans and white officers, said Paul Bergman, professor emeritus of law at UCLA.
“Cultural narratives may lead white officers as well as Black officers to anticipate trouble when the person they are stopping is Black,” he said.
In Lyoya’s case, “was he more likely to be pulled over because he was Black?” Bergman asked. “If he wasn’t Black, would this be more of a minor infraction and would the police officer think he had better things to do?”
The situation escalated when Lyoya didn’t produce a driver’s license and tried to run. That likely raised the officer’s suspicions, Bergman said.
But Lyoya also might have believed his best option was to flee, he said.
“Maybe he’s thinking to just escape a situation that’s threatening,” Bergman added. “Lawfully, you’re expected to comply with lawful demands. The place to argue if you think it’s unlawful is later. We’re expected to fight those arguments out in courts and not in the street.”
Amara Enyia, policy and research manager for the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of more than 150 Black-led organizations, said the fear that Black motorists feel is rooted in generations of adversarial relations with police.
When stops for license plates, broken taillights or improper lane changes turn into violent arrests or fatal encounters, departments turn to old solutions, such as anti-bias training, that have failed to make a difference, Enyia said.
“You just have to wonder how many billions and billions of dollars does it take to train that kind of bias out of someone,” she said. “Instead of making structural changes to the entire system, you have to rely on the benevolence, goodwill or altruism of a police officer to stay alive in what is otherwise a routine traffic stop.”