On the first Monday morning of this month, as spring rain and sleet fell, two men took fateful actions on Nelson Avenue SE in Grand Rapids. One ran and resisted; the other chased and shot.
Patrick Lyoya, 26, and the police officer who killed him, a seven-year member of the force not officially identified, had an encounter that escalated rapidly and lasted about four minutes. Two police videos, a porch security camera and a cell phone recorded portions of the drama on a residential street and front yard.
Prosecutor Chris Becker of Kent County will use a Michigan State Police inquiry, still underway, to decide whether to charge the officer in the driver's death. Separately, internal affairs detectives for the city will help Police Chief Eric Winstrom determine whether the officer, placed on paid leave, followed departmental policy.
While awaiting those analyses, journalists in Detroit and Grand Rapids speak with criminologists, law professors, attorneys and an ex-cop about turning points of that April 4 traffic stop for a license plate that didn't belong on Lyoya's vehicle. With the luxury of distance and safety, they comment on these key moments and snap decisions:
Pulling over Lyoya
The traffic stop was legal, three sources tell The Detroit News:
"Some might call it a pretext stop, but it is perfectly legal to investigate an issue with a license plate and is an example of proactive policing," said Daniel Kennedy, a consulting criminologist at Oakland University.
James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology, law and public policy at Northeastern University, agreed. ... "I am not aware of the reason why the officer determined the inconsistency in the license plate, but once he did, the traffic stop was justified."
Larry Dubin, a former law professor at Detroit Mercy College of Law, shares that view. A University of Michigan scholar says the action was questionable, even though permissable. "These sort of stops for low-level technical traffic violations are a core strategy of racial profiling and criminalization of non-white and poor communities," The News quotes historian Matt Lassiter as saying.
Chase and tackle
A pivotal question is whether the motorist posed a threat when he bolted or whether the officer should have called for backup and used information from the stopped sedan and its male passenger to identify him.
"He could have just let him go," former police officer David Carter tells an Associated Press writer in Detroit. "Unless we know specifically that this person poses a threat to public safety, we'll get him later," adds Carter, now teaching criminal justice professor at Michigan State University.
"Engaging in a foot chase can be risky," says University of Pittsburgh School of Law Professor David Harris in an MLive interview.
"The idea you have to chase everybody down who tries to get away from you is simply false," Harris said. "When the offense is wrong plate on the car, there's no justification for it. ... You have their vehicle right there."
That view is echoed by Durbin and Michael Steinberg at the University of Michigan Law School, who tells The News: "He could have easily waited for backup."
By contract, Detroit defense lawyer Richard Convertino -- who has represented law enforcers -- says in this weekend's AP roundup:
"What if he turned out to be a fugitive? Then you’d be questioned with: 'Why didn’t you chase him?' A person not complying directly with something as routine as a traffic stop could indicate something is very wrong. Combativeness is very unusual."
Fox of Northeastern University agrees: "Mr. Lyoya was clearly uncooperative with the officer's request for documents. When Mr. Lyoya tried to flee, the officer was justified in pursuing him."
That perspective is shared by Keith Taylor, a longtime New York City police officer who now teaches criminal justice at John Jay College, quoted Sunday in a Detroit Free Press subscribers-only article:
"Who knows why he's running," Taylor said. "Does he have a weapon on him? Did he just come from a murder? All kinds of possibilities that officer has to discern, but must first take action."
One-man patrol status is another factor. "The fact that he’s alone is not conducive to a safe interaction," the Detroit paper quotes former local federal prosecutor Barbara McQuade as saying. (Grand Rapids dropped solo patrols for now.)
The West Michigan city don't have a foot chase policy, so each officer can decide whether to start one. "You can't contemplate every scenario to put it into a well-crafted policy," its police chief said at a Wednesday media briefing. In a later interview with WOOD, the local NBC affiliate, Winstrom added:
"We'll be more informed about what it is we're lacking when we complete the entire investigation of the incident. ... If there is something the police department can do better to ensure that that tragic outcome isn't how a scenario like this plays out, I think we need to get there."
The officer "has to show that there was great bodily harm or death coming to himself if he didn't pull his weapon," says Lewis Langham Jr., a Western Michigan University law professor who served 25 years with the Michigan State Police. "He's going to have to justify why he pulled his weapon, and the prosecutor's office is going to have to determine if that was reasonable." [From WOOD-TV]
Steinberg, a past ACLU of Michigan legal director who now teaches U-M law students, says in The News' roundup:
"To me it didn’t look like he had a reasonable belief that Mr. Lyoya posed an imminent threat of physical harm."
Two other law professors agree in MLive interviews:
♦ "I just don’t see the justification for pulling out the firearm and killing him." -- David Harris, University of Pittsburgh
♦ "At no point was the officer's life in danger. He shot as if the victim was armed and dangerous, which he wasn't." -- Jeffrey Fagan, Columbia University
In Boston, Professor Fox reaches an opposite conclusion after seeing the 20-minute police video:
"Mr. Lyoya consistently resisted as the officer attempted to control him. If indeed Mr. Lyoya grabbed the officer's Taser from him, it was appropriate for the officer to use force needed to defend himself.
"If the officer was threatened with being Tased, his only defensive move would be to fire his service weapon. The only question is whether a gunshot designed to overtake Lyoya without killing him would have sufficed to take control of Lyoya and of the Taser."
McQuade, who headed the U.S. Attorney's Office in Detroit from 2010-17 and now is a U-M professor, notes that the stun gun generally isn't considered lethal. She adds this context:
"Police officers are permitted to use fatal force if a reasonable officer in that situation … believed deadly force was necessary to avoid death or great bodily injury to the officer himself or a member of the public. ...
"The law is quite favorable to a police officer when a jury is asked to decide whether they acted reasonably. … Simply making a good-faith mistake is usually not enough to be a crime."
Kennedy of Oakland University cites another possible fear during the struggle:
"A subject desperate enough to attempt to run and then struggle to control an officer's Taser also may be desperate enough to then take officer's gun and use it on him."