The family of an unarmed Black man killed by Michigan police filed a civil lawsuit Wednesday against an officer and the city of Grand Rapids, just over a month after a judge ruled that the officer will stand trial for murder.
Patrick Lyoya, a 26-year-old Congolese refugee, was shot in the back of the head by Christopher Schurr, then a member of the Grand Rapids Police Department, during a traffic stop earlier this year. The incident sparked national outrage after body camera footage and a cellphone video recording of the encounter went viral on social media. Schurr was later fired and charged with second-degree murder.
National civil rights attorney Ben Crump accompanied Lyoya’s family for a news conference announcing the lawsuit, which alleges that Grand Rapids policies and practices violated Lyoya’s rights and led to his death.
The suit says that the city has a “history of whitewashing” excessive force cases and citizen complaints, and that it “routinely fails to adequately discipline” officers cited in such complaints ― even when the city concludes that police violated policies or procedures.
“The rare times City finds an officer to have used excessive force, officers are not sufficiently retrained or disciplined in a manner that would discourage future violations of department policies and constitutional rights,” the lawsuit reads. “Instead, City gives a ‘slap on the wrist’ punishment to officers which only diminishes the importance of their duty to protect the community and encourages the use of excessive force.”
Ven Johnson, another attorney representing Lyoya’s family, said during the news conference that Grand Rapids saw 79 citizen complaints of excessive force by police between June 1, 2015, and May 21, 2020, and that all but two officers were exonerated or cleared.
“The majority of people police come into contact with are arrested in situations like this. When they are in an altercation with citizens or otherwise, they add charges,” Johnson said.
Johnson added that Schurr displayed “gross negligence” during the traffic stop.
The lawsuit cites a study from April 2017 showing that Black drivers were more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be stopped by the Grand Rapids Police Department, despite Black people only accounting for 14% of the city’s population.
Additionally, over 60 complaints of racial profiling by the city’s Police Department were sent to the state of Michigan, according to the suit.
During his traffic stop in the early morning hours of April 4, Schurr told Lyoya that his license plate did not match the vehicle’s registration. Lyoya attempted to flee, and a struggle ensued.
Schurr fired his stun gun at Lyoya, who prevented it from striking him. While kneeling on Lyoya’s back and pressing his face on the ground, Schurr then fired the shots that killed him.
Lyoya’s death pushed forward discussions on police reform, with experts calling for officers to no longer be involved in minor traffic violations.
Michigan Judge Nicholas Ayoub said on Oct. 31 that Schurr will face a murder trial, with a jury to decide on the outcome of the case.
Prosecutors presented evidence that could lead someone to “conclude that the defendant’s shooting of Lyoya in the back of the head was not reasonably necessary to prevent his escape,” Ayoub wrote at the time.
During a preliminary exam hearing, a witness of the traffic stop testified that Schurr had the “upper hand” throughout the struggle with Lyoya.