Brandon Davis occupies what can only be described as a difficult position in Grand Rapids, Mich. He is in charge of a still new office, created in 2019, that is supposed to use its limited powers to enhance scrutiny of public officials and accountability for their actions. That charge includes police.
He’s also a Black American man, a lawyer and well aware of the particularly rocky policing landscape—recent and past—in this Western Michigan city of almost 200,000, about an hour’s drive from the shores of Lake Michigan. In fact, his role at the Office of Oversight and Public Accountability wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the prodding of local activists and a city manager, also Black, who have spent years demanding the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) abandon programs and practices that have been shown to target Black and Latino residents in extreme ways. This is a place where funding levels for the police department are written right into the city charter, where for nearly a decade every police cruiser has been outfitted with Colt M4 semi-automatic rifles. When Grand Rapids’ first Black police chief retired earlier this year and was replaced by Eric Winstrom, an experienced officer from Chicago, who is white, few would have predicted that things might have been about to change. After all, activists and officials had been pushing for reform for years, and, despite repeated rounds of meetings and debates, have felt stymied at every turn.
Now, in the wake of the April 4 death of Patrick Lyoya, a 26-year-old Congolese refugee who was killed by a police officer following a traffic stop, Davis is both public official and one of many Black Grand Rapids residents who in conversations with INM this week described exhaustion and anger with the now familiar routine.
“Although I’m an oversight professional and an attorney and obviously am trained to deal with this type of work,” he says, “I’m angry just like the rest of our community. I’m grieving like the rest of our community. As a Black man, the fact that another Black man is dead at the hands of police it’s still hurtful. It’s still traumatic.”
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Some city officials—like Davis and like Western Michigan’s mostly white community of activists and advocates—find themselves exactly where they long suspected that this city was headed: in the national spotlight after a fatal police shooting. Researchers who study policing around the country highlight as unusual the volume of complaints and calls for action from Black activists and residents in Grand Rapids. And yet a slew of lawsuits and studies suggest that aggressive policing has persisted—and to such a degree here that words like “terror” and “siege” often come up in relation to the topic. In conversations about Lyoya’s death, sadness is generally not accompanied by shock or surprise. The only real questions are what will happen to the officer involved and what Winstrom, who is still new to the role of police chief, will do.
“This was a death that we all knew was coming,” says Miriam Aukerman, a senior staff attorney with ACLU of Michigan. “We didn’t know who it was going to be but we knew it was coming because there have been so many horrible, horrible violent incidents against people of color in this community.”
In fact, I heard eerily similar things from people who have long monitored policing in this city.
“Given some of the history against Black and brown folks in this area over the years, we knew it could potentially happen one day,” echoes LaKiya Thompson-Jenkins, executive director of LincUp, a nonprofit organization pushing for police reforms in Grand Rapids. She lives and works in the predominantly Black Southeast Grand Rapids area where Lyoya was shot and killed. “If you are in that neighborhood you are going to see a vast police presence,” she says.
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Two particular programs were among the first things many of the people I called in Grand Rapids familiar mention when asked about the police.
The first, known to some as the trespass letters program, involved police collecting business-owner signatures on pre-written “intent to prosecute” letters that made it easier for officers to declare people idling near businesses in violation of trespassing laws. The letters, police argued, gave police a mechanism to prevent crimes such as drug sales or public urination. In 1997, a Michigan court declared that the letters did not meet the legal standard for probable cause needed to search or arrest people. But in 2013 the ACLU filed suit over the continued use of the program in the area, with what started as two plaintiffs. One, a white man who suffered from chronic hip pain, had been arrested while stretching his legs at a gas station; the other, a Black man, was detained for sitting in his car outside a sports bar while a friend held a spot in a long entry line near the door. Grand Rapids Police settled and agreed to end the practice in 2017. The following year, a federal judge declared the practice unconstitutional but said the officers involved were shielded by qualified immunity. Among the evidence the ACLU presented: Black people in Grand Rapids were more than twice as likely as white residents to have been stopped when the program was active.
The second program, known colloquially as “stop, photograph, and fingerprint,” was supposed to function like Grand Rapids’ version of New York City’s infamous Stop and Frisk program. (In 2013, a federal court deemed the latter had been applied in an unconstitutional fashion.) It was billed by police as a crime-prevention measure. In practice it involved police collecting fingerprints and pictures of about 1,000 individuals each year. Most were not charged with a crime, but police stored that information as if certain they would have reason to compare it against crime-scene evidence in the future. Many of those subjected to the practice were teenagers, and 70% were Black, according to public records data analyzed by the ACLU. (Grand Rapids is a city where just 18% of the population identified themselves as Black in the most recent Census.) Courts in Kent County, which includes Grand Rapids, and the State Court of Appeals, sided with police in an ACLU suit over the practice. The case is now pending before the Michigan Supreme Court.
“Both of these programs were designed essentially as fishing expeditions,” Aukerman argues. “Unsurprisingly, the data shows that both of these programs resulted in very disproportionate stops and in the case of the trespass program arrests of Black people ….It’s the kind of over-policing that is the reason that people of color are terrified of the police.”
Grand Rapids police and their union did not respond to requests for comment.
At the state level, multiple bills proposing changes for all policing agencies in Michigan were filed in 2020, shortly after the death of George Floyd in nearby Minnesota, but none has passed. In addition, a 2017 city traffic-stop study commissioned at the recommendation of activists found that in 2015, Black drivers were twice as likely to be pulled over than other drivers. A subsequent traffic study was planned but delayed by the pandemic, Thompson-Jenkins, who is Black, says. The results of a Michigan Department of Civil Rights investigation into the department, which began in 2019, have never been made public. John E. Johnson Jr., director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, who is Black, told INM in an email that the department didn’t have the resources or staffing that would have been needed to thoroughly investigate patterns at the department’s patterns and practice. The agency is currently working on 29 individual complaints of discrimination. The department, “in the past and again in the wake of this tragedy,” he said, has asked the U.S. Department of Justice and the office of the Michigan Attorney General to look into the matter; Johnson said he could not comment directly on the Lyoya shooting because state police are still investigating.
And then there are the individual day-to-day experiences that haunt the minds of some Grand Rapids residents, not only those who experience them directly. There was a 2017 incident in which an 11-year-old Black girl was confronted outside her home by officers with guns drawn, who were searching for her aunt; the girl was handcuffed and put in a police cruiser as she and her mother pleaded with officers. (The officers were not disciplined but in 2018, activists successfully pushed for a policy change guiding police interactions with children; the rule was named in honor of the girl, who subsequently died of COVID-19 in 2020 at the age of 14.) In 2019, a Latino veteran, a U.S. citizen with PTSD, was reported to ICE after an arrest; the man was put on a path to deportation until a lawyer hired by his family was able to intervene. The department agreed to pay the man a $190,000 settlement. In 2021, a Black man missed his mother-in-law’s wake after police pulled their weapons on him while he was waiting in a driveway, believing him to be a different man—one who had been wearing different clothing—who had just pulled a gun on a group of people.
And Brandon Davis, of the oversight office, keeps one such incident in his mind, too. He learned via social media about a March incident in which an officer appears on tape repeatedly punching a man in the head during an arrest.
However, Davis says it’s important to note that those issues occurred under previous police chiefs. He believes that, despite activists’ frustrations with past experiences, an improved relationship between the GRPD and Black citizens is still possible. (Payne, the recently retired chief who rose through the ranks of the GRPD, could not be reached for comment. In interviews before his departure, he described community policing as one of his chief priorities as well as the work of improving police community relations. Police, he said at the time, had done work to be proud of but had also contributed to systemic racism. In 2020 he was one of a smattering of police chiefs across the country who took a knee during protests after the death of George Floyd.)
“Past administrations were not as open,” Davis says. “And I don’t say that to speak disparagingly about anyone. But our new chief has expressed a much greater commitment to providing information and I believe him.”
The day that Lyoya was shot, Winstrom quickly called Davis and asked him to come to the scene. Davis’ office has the authority to gather information, identify problem patterns, and identify the legal reasons for changes in most police policy. And his office, Davis says, will do all that it can with the authority that it has.
But if punishments are recommended for officers, those come from the chief of police, and the city manager makes the final decision about any officer discipline. (In Grand Rapids, as is the case with most police union agreements, officers may appeal and often prevail, and there is a limit to which disciplinary records can be considered. The Grand Rapids police union contract will be renegotiated this year.) The Kent County prosecutor—and in some cases, the state Attorney General—has discretion over whether or not to prosecute an officer for a crime. That is the way the system works. For now, much of what happens next in the Lyoya case rests with the Michigan State Police. In Michigan, police agencies generally cannot investigate themselves after major incidents.
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Some in Grand Rapids think the way officials have so far opted to handle the Lyoya shooting may be making matters worse. Winstrom has refused to release the officer’s name, saying only that the officer joined the GRPD seven years ago and that suspects’ names are not made public. Winstrom also did not make public the video of the Lyoya shooting for eight days, although Lyoya’s father saw the footage shortly after the shooting, a family spokesman says.
What has been made public answers some questions and leaves others unclear. The released footage shows that at one point the officer’s body cam inexplicably turns off, for example, though it was functioning when, after a standing struggle over the officer’s taser, the officer yelled for Lyoya to drop the taser. (The taser itself is not visible in the video.) The video that captures what happened next—with no audible warning, the officer firing a shot into the back of Lyoya’s head—was taken from a different vantage point. A plume of gray smoke billows into the air and Lyoya immediately goes still.
“The Michigan State Police…were called to the scene by the Grand Rapids Police Department on April 4th,” Special Lt. Michelle Robinson, a public information officer with the Michigan State Police, wrote in an email. “We are not releasing any additional information as it remains an active, ongoing investigation. We will do a complete investigation that will be given to the Kent County Prosecutor once completed.”
How long the investigation may take is unclear, Robinson said.
But, Aukerman points out, a complete investigation is hard to accomplish without asking members of the public for information about their experiences with this officer. That’s unlikely to happen if the officer’s name is kept secret. And so many activists, unlike Davis, remain unconvinced that this death might be the one that finally prompts some of the change they’ve been demanding.
Since Lyoya’s shooting death, Thompson-Jenkins, Aukerman, and others in Grand Rapids have begun calling for a federal investigation into the patterns and practices of the Grand Rapids Police Department. In a video of a traffic stop which happened about a year ago, Aukerman saw an officer punch a Black man in the face then say, “You’re lucky you didn’t get killed,” she says.
“And in retrospect,” she says, “you think, yeah, he was lucky.”