The Rev. James Stokes remembers Grand Rapids following the slaying of George Floyd, when demonstrations devolved into rioting that left businesses damaged and scores of people arrested.
Stokes and other leaders in the western Michigan city desperately wanted to avoid a similar outbreak of violence when a white Grand Rapids police officer fatally shot Patrick Lyoya, a Black motorist, last April. After video of that shooting was publicly released, outrage in the community grew, and some feared a violent response. But the protests — while loud and angry — were peaceful. No buildings were burned. No shops were looted.
City leaders say policing reforms and outreach to Grand Rapids’ Black community, including the clergy, helped to keep the peace after Lyoya’s slaying. Others believe the reform efforts have been slow and their impact superficial at best.
“We knew what potentially could have happened,” said Stokes, pastor of New Life Tabernacle church. “As pastors, we got out in front of it right away, talking to our congregations, holding press conferences. The world was watching and everybody understood Grand Rapids had to get this right.”
Grand Rapids police have a history of heavy-handed encounters with Black people, who account for 18% of the city’s population. Stokes said no one has forgotten how officers detained five Black youths at gunpoint in 2017 and, about 16 months later, officers stopped and pointed guns at three Black children, including two 11-year-olds — both prompted by reports of Black kids with guns.
The killing in 2020 of Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer, touched off demonstrations and riots against racist policing across the U.S., including in Grand Rapids, where more than 100 businesses were damaged, seven police vehicles were set on fire and the mayor declared a civil emergency.
Then, last April 4, Grand Rapids officer Christopher Schurr pulled over Lyoya, a 26-year-old from Nigeria, ostensibly because the license tags on his car didn’t match the vehicle. When Schurr asked for his license, Lyoya ran, but Schurr caught him and the two wrestled on the ground.
Schurr’s bodycam footage appears to show Lyoya reaching for the officer’s Taser. They tussle until Schurr fires one shot into the back of Lyoya’s head. A passenger in Lyoya’s car filmed the shooting with his cellphone.
There was collective anger and grief from a “vast majority of our community” following Lyoya’s death, said City Commissioner Kelsey Perdue, who is Black. She said change isn’t coming quickly enough.
“Folks are losing a bit of patience,” Perdue said. “When you have tragedy strike, it always is kind of a wake-up call that do we have enough in place to prevent this from happening again?”
Schurr was fired last year and charged with second-degree murder. His trial is scheduled to start in October.
“It feels like with law enforcement and policing, our country and community continually takes two steps forward with reform and then steps backward with use-of-force incidents,” said Mark Washington, who is Black and was hired in 2018 as Grand Rapids city manager.
Public anger over the Grand Rapids police interactions with the Black youths in 2017 and 2018 led to more officer training and the introduction of a youth interaction policy. Washington developed the city’s Office of Oversight and Public Accountability in 2019 to liaise between law enforcement and residents. The city rolled out a program that puts Black pastors with officers in patrol cars to help deescalate volatile situations in their neighborhoods.
Washington said the city has also invested nearly $1 million in the Cure Violence program, which has people who served prison sentences working with youths to help them avoid making similar mistakes.
“We’re looking at policing differently,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that the challenges … around police incidents have defined us more than the progress that we’ve made.”
Grand Rapids’ programs mirror efforts elsewhere to smooth community relations.
Baltimore police began making changes in 2017 through court-ordered reforms following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody. Federal investigators had found a pattern of unconstitutional and discriminatory policing practices, especially against Black residents.
In Connecticut in 2021, a state police officer and training council approved a required use-of-force training program for all police officers.
More recently, the fatal beating of Black motorist Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee, renewed demands for police reforms. Of the seven Memphis officers fired in Nichols’ death, five have been charged with second-degree murder. All of the officers charged are Black.
“We’re seeing a lot of cities start to create things like civilian-led oversight boards,” said Kirby Gaherty, a program director at the Washington-based National League of Cities. “While those things are great, if they don’t have any teeth or don’t allow for residents or citizens to be part of decision-making at the very beginning, they could be seen as more informative than helpful.”
Eric Cumberbatch, senior vice president of Policy & Community Engagement at the Center for Policing Equity, questions the efficacy of community outreach programs.
Officers meet Black clergy, play basketball with children and attend cookouts, but that “lacks real depth in creating systematic and institutional change,” said Cumberbatch, whose organization uses data to help communities achieve safer policing outcomes.
Since Lyoya’s death, Grand Rapids police have not fatally shot any community members, although state police determined Patrick Jones, a Black homicide suspect, fatally shot himself in December after exchanging gunfire with officers.
Police training must be ongoing, said Jamarhl Crawford, a Boston-based community activist and former member of a police reform task force.
“It’s difficult to legislate or control human behavior,” Crawford said. “They’re never going to create a system where officers are not going to (mess) up. What has to be done is to put in a system and mechanism about what happens when they do — transparent and independent investigations.”
The police training and reforms in Grand Rapids are “nothing revolutionary” and “really like more of the same — looking for new ways to intrude, to interrogate and impose themselves on the community,” said Victor Williams, president of the neighborhood association where Lyoya was killed.
“People would rather self-police. They don’t trust police in this neighborhood,” Williams said.
Still, Frank Stella, director of the Interfaith Dialogue Association in Grand Rapids, believes “it was a minor miracle that cooler heads prevailed” after Lyoya’s death.
“There are people who will disagree with me — a group that is extremely vocal and extremely disruptive who will claim Grand Rapids has not taken a step forward,” Stella said. “I understand their passion and frustration, but I see progress.”