GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Daevionne Smith was leaving his father’s house in Grand Rapids, Michigan, one night in December when he was suddenly rushed by police officers. They surrounded the 30-year-old and told him to get on the ground, at gunpoint.
Smith, a Black man, barely had a moment to process what was happening before he heard a gunshot. Not wanting to take a chance, he immediately followed their orders.
“Why did you shoot, sir?” Smith asked an officer as he lay on the ground.
“I tripped,” the cop responded. The officer who fired the shot maintained that he’d done so by accident; he was charged with a single count of careless discharge and is scheduled to face trial later this year. If found guilty, he could be sentenced to 90 days in jail and a $100 fine.
Smith would later find out that police had suspected he was driving a stolen car.
In the end, however, the whole encounter was a case of mistaken identity: The officers didn’t even have the right car.
“I remember telling people at the time, ‘If they don't do something about this, somebody's gonna die,’” Smith told VICE News. Smith knows about the consequences of unchecked police violence: His cousin, Breonna Taylor, was the 26-year-old Black woman killed by cops in March 2020 during the execution of a no-knock warrant in Louisville, Kentucky.
And earlier this month, Smith’s prediction in Michigan came true. Patrick Lyoya, a 26-year-old Black man, was shot in the back of the head by Christopher Schurr, a Grand Rapids police officer, after Lyoya ran from his car during a trivial traffic stop where he was pulled over for an unregistered license plate. When Lyoya ran from Schurr and then resisted the officer’s attempts to tase him, Schurr shot him in the back of the head.
Lyoya’s case has already garnered national attention: Rev. Al Sharpton gave a rousing eulogy at Lyoya’s funeral last week, rallying people outraged by the killing around the investigation of the Grand Rapids police department. Ben Crump, famed lawyer and leader of George Floyd’s family’s legal team, will represent the Lyoya family. Crump has commissioned an independent autopsy on his death.
“I remember telling people at the time, ‘If they don't do something about this, somebody's gonna die.”
“If they’d done their due diligence with me—if people would have paid more attention to the situations we’ve been talking about here—he’d be alive,” said Smith. “They’ve been like cowboys, reckless in the way they do their job.”
For Smith and many other residents of Grand Rapids, the brutality of Lyoya’s death was the inevitable culmination of police brutality and racism that have gone largely ignored for nearly a decade in their city. Residents who have been calling for reform say Lyoya’s death could have been prevented; instead, the city refused to admit that something was wrong with Grand Rapids policing and all chances to improve things were blocked, ignored, or left underfunded while police officers faced little accountability.
“This didn’t happen overnight. We saw it coming for years,” Kent County Commissioner Robert Womack said at Lyoya’s funeral last week. “People went to City Hall and said this was coming. We just didn’t know what family was going to take that blow. The Lyoya family has had to pay the price for the lack of proactiveness in the city of Grand Rapids.”
Grand Rapids, located in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, is a small city of just under 200,000 people that prides itself as one of the best places to raise a family in the U.S. But the majority-white city has also been recognized by Forbes as the second-worst metropolitan area in the country for Black financial and social stability.
Residents say a big part of this disparity between the Black and white experience in Grand Rapids comes from its documented history of police brutality.
The brutality of Lyoya’s death was the inevitable culmination of police brutality and racism that have gone largely ignored for nearly a decade in their city.
In 2014, a 15-year-old boy chased by police was hit so hard in the head multiple times with a flashlight that he required 18 staples. In 2017, an officer pulled his gun on five Black children between the ages of 12 and 15 as they played in a street. That same year, 11-year-old Honestie Hodges, a Black girl, was handcuffed by officers at gunpoint. The cops were investigating a stabbing and had the wrong person—their suspect was a 40-year-old white woman. This could have been a watershed moment for the city: Though none of the officers involved in Hodges’ arrest was punished, the incident did result in a revision of police department policy when it came to dealing with teens and children.
Only the stops for Black children didn’t cease. In August 2018, at least six officers handcuffed two 11-year-olds and a 17-year-old at gunpoint after receiving a 911 call alleging that two 13-year-olds were seen walking in the neighborhood with a gun.
The following March, a Grand Rapids officer was caught on camera tasing and then punching a motorist in the leg 30 times after the man refused to leave his car during a traffic stop, in an encounter the then chief called an escalation “beyond the point that was necessary.” That same month, an officer pulled his gun on a 15-year-old and 16-year-old walking in the street after they refused to give him their names.
“Those of us who live in this community have seen time and time again that this is a police department that aims guns at Black kids, handcuffs kids, and beats motorists,” Miriam Aukerman, senior staff attorney for the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union, told VICE News. “Patrick’s death was both predictable and preventable and something that advocates have been saying is coming for a long time. We have a community that has been calling for reform and have been warning the city and warning the [Grand Rapids Police Department] that we need really transformative change.”
And it’s not that residents don’t say this explicitly: The aggressive conduct of the Grand Rapids police force is often a lively topic of discussion at Grand Rapids bimonthly city commission meetings, where community members can speak directly to their representatives and the mayor about what’s happening in their city.
The stops for Black children didn’t cease.
“Dozens of residents [have] outlined their negative interactions with the Grand Rapids Police Department,” said LaKiya Jenkins, executive director of LINC Up, a local housing equity and racial justice community group, who has attended these meetings. “These were firsthand accounts that people were sharing, and they were backed by supporters and frustrated residents who knew this was what residents were experiencing.”
Still, very little has come out of these conversations between the community and its city leaders.
Part of the problem, some community members said, is the Grand Rapids Police Officers Association, the local police union. Vincent Thurman, the communications director of a group of local organizations advocating for racial equity called the Urban Core Collective, told VICE News that any attempts at transparency or accountability have been blocked by the police union because of the contract it has with the city.
“They have the power to arbitrate, they don’t have to renegotiate the contract if they don’t want to,” Thurman said. “If the city wants to make changes, they can pick who influences whether those changes are made.” Efforts like restructuring how officers are deployed into the city have been stalled by the department.
“Because the contract is so strong, if the policies contradict what’s in the union contract, they have the ability and power to push back on those policies,” Thurman added.
The Grand Rapids Police Officers Association did not respond to multiple VICE News’ requests for comment.
There are two non-police governmental bodies in Grand Rapids meant to hold the department accountable: the Police Civilian Appeal Board, which reviews the finds of the department’s internal affairs unit, and the newly established Office of Oversight and Public Accountability (OPA).
But the Civilian Appeal Board is weakened by the police union’s ability to override its decision. In the case of Jilmar Ramos-Gomez, a Hispanic Marine veteran who spent three days in ICE custody after a cop called the agency on him as he was experiencing a PTSD-related episode, the board made a rare decision to call out the department for biased policing. However, the union was able to appeal the board’s decision and eventually won in arbitration, getting the final say on the outcome of the decision.
“We are looking to reimagine the Civilian Appeals Board,” Brandon Davis, the Civilian Appeals Board liaison, said at a city meeting this week, acknowledging that the governing body could be more effective. “At this point, the Civilian Appeals Board does not have subpoena power, but that’s something that can be considered through that reimagining process, as well as all the other recommendations that have been made over the years.”
The Office of Oversight and Public Accountability, created in 2019, is also supposed to be another measure of police accountability; the office is meant to provide independent and impartial oversight of the complaints filed against the Grand Rapids Police Department.
Earlier this year, community members successfully advocated for OPA to be able to review complaints about the police department’s use of surveillance technology and then release a follow-up independent report of its findings to the public.
But residents like Kareem Scales, who serves as the Grand Rapids NAACP administrator of operations, told VICE News that OPA has been underfunded since its creation.
“How can we have an oversight department when you only got two or three people working in the office?” Scales said. “We got this amazing opportunity, but there’s no funding or resources for Brandon [Davis, the director of OPA] to do his job in a meaningful way.”
(Davis did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment on whether the OPA has been underfunded over the last three years.)
Even the state of Michigan’s Department of Civil Rights has failed to do much about the ongoing violence. While the agency held two “fact-finding hearings” to listen to what the community had to say about the Grand Rapids Police Department in 2019, the investigation was reduced in scale and only looked at a handful of incidents instead of at the whole department. Then, it was put on hold altogether. The Department Of Civil Rights did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The police department also had a chance to extend its hand to the community when selecting its new police chief earlier this year. Instead, it chose to ignore the combined requests from LINC Up, the local NAACP branch, and the Urban Core Collective to provide input on who and what they’d like to see from a new police department chief.
“There was an extensive police search process that took place that we were opposed to because it did not include the community in the process,” Scales said. “Our position was that we don’t endorse or support any of the three candidates that [were] chosen as finalists. We asked the city to restart the whole process and really be intentional about engaging [the] community.”
Instead, the city moved forward with appointing its choice, Chief Eric Winstrom, in March. Less than a month after Winstrom’s appointment, Lyoya was shot and killed.
“We’re not going to live at a time where that goes unanswered.”
During a city meeting Tuesday night, Winston told attendees that he had already been in the process of reviewing police policies and training practices.
“Topics such as ensuring the sanctity of life is the top priority of the Grand Rapids police department, ensuring only the minimum amount of force necessary is used for law enforcement purposed by our officers and that traffic enforcement is public safety focused are early issues I anticipate focusing on,” he said. “A city is entitled to be policed in a manner embraced by the city.”
Some advocates hope that the renewed attention on police brutality in Grand Rapids offers some hope, and a way forward: Last week, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights requested that the federal Department of Justice begin an investigation into the Grand Rapids Police Department. Though unfortunately, for Lyoya’s community, this progress has come at a heartbreaking and violent cost.
“We can’t bring Patrick back, but we can bring justice in Patrick’s name,” Sharpton said at the funeral last week. “This is as bad as it gets. You turned a traffic stop into what appears by tape to be an execution. And we’re not going to live at a time where that goes unanswered.”