Gov. Whitmer promises 'transparent, independent' probe of Grand Rapids shooting

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vowed Wednesday afternoon that the Michigan State Police will conduct a "transparent, independent investigation" into a Grand Rapids police officer's fatal shooting of 26-year-old Patrick Lyoya.

Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist made public statements minutes after the City of Grand Rapids released video of the April 4 incident. The footage showed the unidentified officer shooting Lyoya while the officer was on top of him during a struggle in a neighborhood.

A probe by the Michigan State Police has begun. When it's complete, Whitmer said, prosecutors "must consider all the evidence, follow the law and take appropriate action on charges."

Patrick Lyoya

"Justice is foundational to safety, and without justice, we are all less safe," the governor said.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel offered assistance to Kent County Prosecutor Christopher Becker if he "determines the expertise of my department is warranted."

"I have every expectation that the Grand Rapids Police Department will fully cooperate with the Michigan State Police in their investigation and that the local prosecutor will perform a thorough analysis of the facts of law that apply in this case," Nessel said in a statement.

Both Whitmer and Gilchrist said they had spoken with Lyoya's family. The governor said his father, Peter, asked her "to convey his hope that any demonstrations in his son’s honor remain peaceful." Whitmer said she shares his view.

"We must come together and build a future where Black Michiganders are afforded equal rights, dignity and safety in our communities," she said. "I will never stop fighting to make Michigan a more equitable and just state."

Grand Rapids city Manager Mark Washington told reporters demonstrations are planned for the downtown area over the next several days into the weekend.

Lyoya arrived in the United States as a refugee with his family fleeing violence, the governor said, describing him as "a son, a dad of two young daughters and an older brother to his five siblings."

Gilchrist said he was "heartbroken by what we all have witnessed."

"Black people in Grand Rapids, in Michigan, and across the country are mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted from generations of struggle," Gilchrist said. "Yet we press on.

"When we demonstrate and make our voices heard, we must do so in a way that lifts our call for justice beyond the deepening the pain of this community. We must never cease our efforts to reverse inequities, create systemic change and guarantee justice for communities of color."

Gilchrist said the Michigan State Police investigation must be thorough and transparent to deliver accountability and understand what happened. It must occur "as expeditiously as possible."

Republican gubernatorial candidate James Craig, a former Detroit police chief, noted not all of the facts of the situation are available yet. But he said he has concerns.

When an officer is faced with an imminent threat to his life or the life of another person, deadly force may be the only option, Craig said.

"My prayers are with the Lyoya family, the Grand Rapids community and the men and women who serve," Craig added. "The taser was deployed unsuccessfully, and my core concern will always be whether there was an imminent threat to the officer's life after the taser deployment.

"These facts will have to be vetted during the course of the investigation. We should wait for the independent MSP investigation to be completed."

A bunch of advocacy groups led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan put out a call for Grand Rapids to disclose the police officer's name and make other moves in the pursuit of justice.

The ACLU was joined by the Greater Grand Rapids NAACP, LINC UP and Michigan Immigrant Rights Center in demanding:

  • The appointment of a prosecutor outside of Kent County, who does not work regularly with the Grand Rapids Police Department, to handle the case. The groups noted this is "legally required in many states and is widely acknowledged to be best practice."
  • The launching of a federal investigation into the killing as well as the culture and history of the Grand Rapids department.
  • The addition of a community representative in the ongoing negotiations over the Grand Rapids police union contracts, "which have for far too long shielded officers from accountability and which do not reflect the community’s priorities for how to achieve public safety in our city."
  • Giving both the Civilian Appeal Board and the Office of Oversight and Public Accountability the power, money and resources "to provide true civilian oversight and be able to affect real change."

Michigan's lone African American member of Congress and state lawmakers joined Whitmer in the call for accountability and transparency.

“My heart sank in my chest as I watched the video of the police shooting of Patrick Lyoya, an unarmed Black man. This is yet another death and loss of life by the hands of an untrained officer with motives that must be revealed during the investigation," U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, said in a statement.

"Gun violence and excessive force aren’t always random. They are deliberate, and they always lead to unfortunate injury and death. We need full accountability and transparency. Anything less would be unacceptable."

Lawrence called for the U.S. Senate to vote on and approve the House-approved George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would allow police officers to be sued and for damages to be awarded for violations of people’s constitutional rights.  Under legal immunity, courts have ruled lawsuits are only permitted when an officer violates a clearly established statutory or constitutional right.

"How many more lives need to be lost, families broken and communities hurt before we take meaningful action?" Lawrence said. "Right now, a family in Grand Rapids, with a two-year-old and a three-month-old, is missing their father. Patrick Lyoya should still be alive today.”

State Sen. Marshall Bullock, D-Detroit, chairman of the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus, said justice is not justice "when another Black body lays face down, dead from an execution-style shooting."

"Justice cannot exist in a system where accountability and proper training for the police who are supposed to protect and defend an entire community — and not just people who look like them — is an afterthought," Bullock said in a separate statement. "I hope and pray the legal outcome of this incident brings some semblance of peace to the family."

Sen. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, said she was "outraged and heartbroken" by Lyoya's death.

"Our community is rightfully demanding an accurate and full investigation," Brinks said. "I urge all involved to proceed transparently and with sensitivity to the urgency and pain our community is feeling."

Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, said he would be "working for justice in the days ahead."

"Justice demands consequences for wrongs, and our community needs confidence that justice will be served in this case, and confidence that justice will be done in openness. So I am grateful that city leaders in Grand Rapids are committed to transparency in this process," LaGrand said in a statement.

"When individual does wrong, there have to be consequences, and when systems are wrong we need to fix those systems, to prevent new tragedies."

After seeing the footage of Lyoya's shooting, Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, said for 15 years, the country has watched Black men get murdered in the streets by police officers. If it was any other group of people, reforms would have happened by now, Hollier said.

"This was a routine traffic stop … There is no such thing as a routine traffic stop when you’re Black," Hollier said.

Former U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, a former Republican turned Libertarian who represented Grand Rapids, said Lyoya had been shot in the back of the head while lying face down.

"No part of what we saw makes that okay. We are failing as a community to properly vet and train police," Amash said. "I’ll be praying for peace in Grand Rapids. But we must have justice, because without justice, peace is illusory."

Staff Writers Beth LeBlanc and Sarah Rahal contributed.