Funeral for Patrick Lyoya on April 22, 2022 | Allison R. Donahue
Former Grand Rapids police officer Christopher Schurr violated his training and used unnecessary and excessive force when he shot and killed Patrick Lyoya, a 26-year-old unarmed Black man, at a time when the officer’s life was never in danger, law enforcement experts said in two new affidavits.
They were submitted in a $100 million civil lawsuit the Lyoya family filed against the city of Grand Rapids and Schurr.
During a press conference in Southfield on Monday, two prominent civil rights attorneys representing the Lyoya family, Ben Crump and Ven Johnson, detailed the affidavits, which were filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids.
“What we saw here was not just a complete refusal to follow Schurr’s own training, but, more importantly for us, this deadly force was unnecessary and illegal and excessive,” Johnson said at the press conference that was also attended by Patrick Lyoya’s father, Peter Lyoya. “… If somebody resists arrest, that does not give an officer an absolute constitutional right to use excessive deadly force.”
On April 4, 2022, Schurr, who is white, shot the unarmed Lyoya in the back of the head during a traffic stop that Crump said was “simply a case of driving while Black” in a city, state and country where Black individuals are far more likely to be pulled over and killed by police than white people.
City officials have said Lyoya — a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who lived in Kentwood and worked a factory job in Grand Rapids — was pulled over because of a license plate violation. Schurr was fired from his job in the Grand Rapids Police Department after Kent County Prosecutor Christopher Becker charged Schurr with second-degree murder in June; his criminal trial is scheduled to begin in October.“Let’s call it what it is: an execution,” said Crump, who previously represented the families of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, two Black individuals killed by police. “A traffic stop leads to a death sentence. …This is criminal because if they can shoot Patrick Lyoya in the back of the head and get away with it, what message does that send to police departments around the country?”
A spokesman for the city of Grand Rapids, Steve Guitar, declined to comment because of the pending court case. Schurr’s attorneys from the Royal Oak-based Seward Henderson law firm did not respond to a request for comment.
The affidavits from Thomas Tiderington, a retired special investigations division commander in the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, and W. Ken Katsaris, a certified law enforcement officer in Florida, were submitted after Schurr’s attorneys in February filed a motion to dismiss the case because of qualified immunity.
A legal principle that applies only in civil cases, qualified immunity protects government officials, including police, from civil liability for actions they took while on the job. Critics of qualified immunity, including Johnson and Crump, say the procedure has protected police officers accused of fatal shootings and excessive use of force.
“They always say, ‘I had to kill him because I feared for my life,’” Crump said of police. “They said it with Patrick Lyoya; they tried to say it with George Floyd; they tried to say it with Tyre Nichols. …This qualified immunity allows police officers to kill Black people with impunity.”
In May 2020, a white Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in a crime that was caught on video and sparked worldwide protests against police brutality. Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, died in January after being beaten by Memphis police.
Tiderington and Katsaris, law enforcement experts who Johnson and Crump noted typically testify in favor of police, detailed in their affidavits multiple ways they believe Schurr violated police training and protocol. Those include the officer pulling Lyoya over without warranted reason, improperly using his Taser by not providing enough distance between the officer and Lyoya, not announcing he was going to use his Taser, fighting with Lyoya for the Taser after it had deployed two cartridges — meaning the weapon was unable to incapacitate the officer — and, ultimately, shooting Lyoya when Schurr’s life was not in danger.
Video from the Schurr’s body-worn camera, an in-car camera, a home surveillance system and a cell phone recording pieced together the final moments of Lyoya’s life, which included Schurr, who was patrolling alone, chasing Lyoya after a frightened Lyoya ran from the officer, using a Taser on Lyoya twice, pinning Lyoya to the ground, and, as confirmed by an independent autopsy, shooting Lyoya in the back of the head.
“Had Schurr followed proper protocols, Lyoya more likely than not would be alive today,” Tiderington wrote in his affidavit. “A reasonably prudent officer in Schurr’s position would know that shooting Lyoya in the back of the head while he was on the ground face down violated Lyoya’s clearly established right to be free from excessive force.”
Tiderington continued to say that, “from the evidence produced, I do not see any indication that Lyoya took the Taser from Schurr or even gained functional control of the device. In my opinion, Schurr voluntarily relinquished control of the Taser, choosing to steady himself on top of Lyoya, who was faced down, unholster his firearm, and fire one shot into the back of Lyoya’s head without any verbal warning.”
When Schurr shot Lyoya, the officer “did not have a reasonable fear for his life,” Tiderington wrote.
“Schurr is entitled to qualified immunity because the videos demonstrate that Plaintiff cannot plead a constitutional violation nor a violation of clearly established law,” the motion reads in part, referencing body camera, dashboard camera, home surveillance and cellphone video that show the shooting.
Katsaris echoed those sentiments.
“It is my opinion that Schurr was less interested in properly using his department-issued tools as he was trained to do and more interested in having constant physical contact with Lyoya,” Katsaris wrote. “When Schurr took Lyoya to the ground, he negated any potential weight advantage Lyoya may have had by straddling Lyoya, who was prone, because Schurr had the ability to extricate himself, create distance and barriers, draw his weapon, and verbally command Lyoya to stop resisting.”
At any point during the interaction, Schurr could have placed physical distance between himself and Lyoya and waited for the police backup that was about to arrive, the experts said. But, the experts said, Schurr never did that.
“There’s no constitutional right to execute a Black man in the back of the brain for simply trying to get away from you,” Crump said.
Throughout the press conference, Peter Lyoya quietly sat as he listened to the words describing his son’s death. Then, through a family pastor and interpreter, Israel Siku, he spoke of the deep well of pain and trauma he and his family have faced over the past year.
“Feb. 5 was his birthday,” Peter Lyoya said of Patrick. “… When it came to Feb. 5, it was so painful to us.”
A couple months later, on the one-year anniversary of Patrick Lyoya’s death, “we went to the tomb, to the cemetery,” Peter Lyoya said. “We hurt.”
Now, Peter Lyoya said, he and his family are waiting for some semblance of justice.
“They keep pushing the [criminal] case: March, June, October — all of this is because they want the people to forget how Patrick was killed, how my son was shot in the back of the head,” he said.
“If there’s justice in this country, then we are asking for justice for Patrick,” he continued.
For Crump, Johnson and former Kent County Commissioner Robert Womack — who attended Monday’s press conference and has long criticized racist and deadly policing — Lyoya’s death should not only result in consequences for the officer and Grand Rapids but should inspire much-needed change in a city, and country, reckoning with a long history of police brutality.
“These are conversations happening in barber shops and churches,” Womack said, referring to racist policing.
Calling out police brutality can be “political suicide,” Womack continued — but, he said, it’s necessary to “stand up so the children of tomorrow, both Black and white, of all colors, have Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream that we are walking hand-in-hand.”
Crump noted that April 4 is both the day Patrick Lyoya died and when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
“People may ask why we keep drawing attention to the fact this was an unarmed Black man shot in the back of his brain for a simple traffic stop,” Crump said. “We never see videos of the police shooting a white person in the back of the brain for a traffic stop. If it’s not acceptable for police to do that to white people, why would we justify it when they do it to Black people? This happened on April 4, the same day Martin Luther King was assassinated.
“It begs the question: How much progress have we made in the United States of America?”
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