Column: The killing of Patrick Lyoya shows our approach to public safety is broken

Protest on April 12, 2022 after a GRPD officer fatally shot a 26-year-old Black man, Patrick Lyoya, in the head. | Allison R. Donahue

Patrick Lyoya, a 26-year-old Congolese father of two, was shot and killed by a Grand Rapids police officer on April 4 following a traffic stop because his license plate did not register as belonging to the vehicle he was driving. 

Lyoya is now one more hashtag on Twitter and one more statistic showing the sixth leading cause of death for young Black men is being killed by police. As the video played publicly last week for the first time, there were arguments about whether the shooting was justified — justified because Lyoya ran, justified because Lyoya got out of the car, or justified because Lyoya reached for the officer’s taser.

But by what logic do we justify shooting a man in the back of the head for issues with license plate registration?

When data show that police traffic stops kill about one unarmed motorist per week, who is asking if our system of policing itself is justified? When death at the hands of police is the sixth leading cause of death for young Black men, who is investigating whether that system deserves the billions of dollars of funding it receives?

We’ve all been through this before. Too many times. The police chief will say they’re being transparent. They’re looking into it. The oversight mechanisms investigate. But it won’t be the people most killed by police who determine whether this killing was justified. It will be the Michigan State Police. And the MSP decision will be based on whether a “reasonable” police officer would do what the police officer did in Lyoya’s case. In other words, police will decide whether police acted effectively.

This time, let’s shift the conversation. Does a system where officers have guns and high degrees of impunity help or harm our communities? Is this the best possible system we can think of to minimize the number of people who are killed or harmed? 

Does the Grand Rapids Police Department, or any police department, deserve over a third of the municipal budget? How did we move so rapidly from efforts to redirect funds from police departments to social services to using American Rescue Plan Act funding to grow those very departments?

We need new systems that are actually based on research and evidence for what makes communities thrive and be safe. Some municipalities are experimenting with a non-police government agency to conduct traffic stops since one unarmed motorist is killed by police per week. Other municipalities are pushing for care-based safety, non-police emergency response programs that send social service providers with essential resources rather than armed police that often escalate a crisis situation.

We can certainly scrutinize this specific police-resident interaction that resulted in Lyoya’s death and ask what the officer did wrong. That is an important question and Lyoya’s family and loved ones deserve at least that.  

But if we want to prevent more instances like this, we need to examine whether investing millions of dollars in local police is the best way to make our communities safe from harm. The American Public Health Association recommends alternative investments — in housing, education and mental health — that research shows can successfully enhance public safety without also killing people.

When we ask about whether it was justified, let’s include a focus on whether our current policies and funding around police and public safety are justified. 

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Paul J. Fleming
Paul J. Fleming

Paul Fleming is an Assistant Professor in Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. He received his Ph.D. in Health Behavior with a graduate minor in Sociology from the University of North Carolina and his M.P.H. in Behavioral Sciences and Health Education from Emory University. He has previously worked as a Community Health Peace Corps Volunteer in Nicaragua.

William D. Lopez
William D. Lopez

William D. Lopez is a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, Faculty Director of Public Scholarship at the National Center for Institutional Diversity and author of the book, Separated: Family and Community in the Aftermath of an Immigration Raid.