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Monday marks two weeks since a still-unidentified police officer shot an unarmed Black man in the back of his head following a pretextual traffic stop over a nonviolent moving violation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Monday will also be the fifth day since graphic video footage from the police shooting showed the Grand Rapids officer never tried to de-escalate the encounter and instead was the aggressor up until he shot Patrick Lyoya in the back of his head at point-blank range.
Yet, despite the abundance of apparent evidence that the officer could have exercised restraint and avoided shooting the 26-year-old Congolese refugee, the prosecutor deciding whether criminal charges are merited is apparently in no hurry to make a decision. That seemed to be true even though at least one legal analyst has said it’s illegal for the police to use lethal force in a situation like the one in which Lyola fatefully found himself.
Lyoya was driving with a passenger on the morning of April 4 when the officer initiated a traffic stop because the car had license plates registered to a different vehicle. Lyoya did not comply with the officers’ commands, but it was unclear whether there was a language barrier that prevented the driver from fully understanding what was happening.
That may have prompted the officer’s apparent frustration and subsequent physical contact with Lyoya, who ran away slowly before the two struggled outside a home on the residential street as rain fell from the sky. The officer pulled out his Taser and tried to deploy it as Lyoya pushed it aside, scrambling to get away. But the officer managed to wrestle Lyoya to the ground, place him face-down and shoot him in the back of his head.
The killing was recorded by Lyoya’s passenger as well as a doorbell camera across the street. The officer’s bodycam was deactivated seconds before the single shot was fired.
It was in that context that Kent County Prosecuting Attorney Christopher R. Becker was expected to make a decision in the case, although it was not clear when that would happen.
Context matters greatly in this case, according to legal analysts.
“Why was he stopped? He was stopped for a bad license plate. At best that’s a misdemeanor. Even if he’s guilty of that – it’s a misdemeanor,” Charlie Langton told Fox 21. “It’s not that big a deal, OK? If that’s the case, I found – in the Michigan State Police officers guide specifically – you do not ever use lethal force in that situation, even if the guy runs. You let him run.”
It’s important to note that the Michigan State Police is running the law enforcement investigation and will turn over its findings to Becker. Only then will Becker make his decision.
Langton said the officer should have allowed Lyoya to flee since he was not posing a violent threat.
“This guy can’t go too far. The passenger’s gonna probably cooperate,” Langton said. “And even the worst case scenario – it’s a misdemeanor for a bad license plate.”
Langton also suggested the officer didn’t try to “reason with” Lyoya. He said because the officer was on top of Lyoya at the time of the shooting, the officer’s life was not in danger and should not have called for lethal force. Langton added that the cop “should have called for backup and let him run.”
In interviews with the local news outlet MLive, two law school professors expressed similar sentiments to Langton.
“The idea you have to chase everybody down who tries to get away from you is simply false. When the offense is wrong plate on the car, there’s no justification for it,” David A. Harris, the Sally Ann Semenko endowed chair and professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, said. “I just don’t see the justification for pulling out the firearm and killing him.”
Jeffrey A. Fagan, a Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher professor of law at Columbia Law School, told MLive that manslaughter charges should “happen sooner than later.” He added, “at no point was the officer’s life in danger,” explaining the officer “shot as if the victim was armed and dangerous, which he wasn’t.”
Meanwhile, the officer who brutally killed Lyoya has enjoyed the privilege of unofficial anonymity as the city protects his identity until the investigation concludes. Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Winstrom said he wouldn’t name the officer unless there were criminal charges, but a growing number of reports on social media have claimed the cop’s name is Christopher Paul Schurr.