GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Patrick Lyoya never quite found his footing. His family fled conflict in Congo, and he spent nearly half his life in a refugee camp in Malawi. He dreamed of coming to America, but after arriving here, he struggled to find his place, bouncing between homes, low-wage jobs and jail.
Christopher Schurr was tenacious. He stuck with the pole vault, winning a national title. He stayed with his high-school sweetheart, later marrying her on a Christian mission to Kenya. And he landed a job as a police officer in Grand Rapids, where he remains.
The two men — the Black driver and the white officer — crossed paths on a rainy morning this month. Schurr, 31, spotted Lyoya, 26, at the wheel of a silver sedan and followed in his cruiser, pulling the car over on a residential street. Lyoya, unarmed, stepped out of the vehicle.
“What did I do wrong?” he asked.
“The plate doesn’t belong on this car,” Schurr replied.
Over the next three minutes, a deadly encounter unfolded, captured in videos from a passenger riding with Lyoya, a home-surveillance system and the officer’s dashboard and body-worn cameras. After a foot chase, Schurr pulls out his Taser, firing it unsuccessfully twice.
The officer then manages to get a wriggling Lyoya facedown on the ground and sits on his back. Two seconds after shouting for the last time for Lyoya to let go of the Taser — which can’t be seen at that point on the videos — Schurr shoots him in the back of the head.
The April 4 episode began as the kind of low-level traffic stop that routinely occurs across the United States, the mismatched plate a possible sign that the car was stolen, in a city where car thefts have tripled in four years. But it was also the type of stop that has raised questions of racial profiling, use of excessive force and the overpolicing of traffic stops, prompting public debate and some cities to ban or restrict such interventions.
A New York Times investigation last fall examined how minor traffic stops escalate, showing that in the previous five years police officers had killed more than 400 motorists who were neither wielding a gun or knife nor under pursuit for a violent crime. The reporting found that officers often needlessly put themselves in danger, then got legal impunity. While a fuller account of what happened with Lyoya and Schurr won’t be known until a Michigan state police inquiry is completed, the narrative and available details fit a pattern previously identified by the Times.
After being pulled over, Lyoya seemed confused. Although he told the patrolman that he spoke English, he didn’t speak it well; a Swahili interpreter had been requested for him in court hearings. He also had been stopped several times for drunken driving. Autopsy and toxicology results haven’t yet been released.
Lyoya, who had told friends he was trying to get his life together, may have feared what would come after he was stopped. The license plate belonged to a former roommate, The Detroit Free Press reported; the ownership of the car is unclear. But two warrants were out for his arrest, one for a domestic-violence charge three days earlier. His driver’s license had been revoked. He was on probation.
Schurr, whose name was publicly released Monday and is on leave, was a stickler for the rules: A former college track teammate recalled him scolding fellow athletes for drinking and partying. He was competitive and didn’t like to lose. And he could be quick to anger, teammates said.
Schurr did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The Grand Rapids Police Department hasn’t yet released any personnel records.
In a statement Tuesday, the union representing Grand Rapids officers said that while the case was tragic, “we feel a thorough review of this entire situation will show that a police officer has the legal right to protect themselves and community in a volatile, dangerous situation.”
Mark Washington, who in 2018 became the first Black city manager in Grand Rapids, said the community had made police reforms in recent years. He also knew why the videos had made people question the officer’s level of force.
“It was very difficult to watch,” Washington said. “I was shocked.”
Grand Rapids has never had a killing like that of George Floyd, whose death in May 2020 set off national protests and led to the murder conviction of a police officer who pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck as he struggled to breathe.
But in separate incidents five years ago, police officers trained their weapons at five unarmed Black preteen and teenage boys and handcuffed an 11-year-old Black girl in a case of mistaken identity. A traffic study released that year showed that Black motorists in Grand Rapids were twice as likely to be pulled over as white drivers. For years, advocates have complained to police leaders that traffic stops, often used as a pretext for looking for evidence of more serious crimes, unfairly targeted Black drivers.
“We talk to them, the brass, they have like cotton in their ears or bubble gum or something. They do not listen,” said Robert Womack, a county commissioner in Kent County, home to Grand Rapids, who is also co-chair of the governor’s Black Leadership Advisory Council.
The second-largest city in Michigan — population 200,000 — Grand Rapids is also the childhood home of Breonna Taylor, the Black emergency room technician who became a national symbol in protests against police violence after being killed by Louisville, Kentucky, officers in March 2020. A downtown street was designated “Breonna Taylor Way.” About 18% of the city’s residents are Black.
Schurr is from the area. Just before his seventh birthday, his family moved to a subdivision at the city’s edge. Later, his mother, a legal assistant at a mortgage company, and his father, who worked at a trucking business, divorced. They shared custody of Christopher, who went by Chris, and his younger sister.
At high school in Byron Center, a suburb of 5,800, Chris focused on pole-vaulting. He also started dating Brandey Bruin, who was two grades behind him. Even after Schurr graduated in 2009 and attended college about 150 miles away, the couple stayed together.
Ryan Lucas, a year older than Schurr, had helped recruit him to Siena Heights University, seeing in him the kind of athletic promise that could make him a team leader. But Lucas and two other former teammates said Schurr’s temper got in the way. He would sometimes yell at athletes who weren’t performing well in training runs instead of encouraging them, Lucas said.
“When the pressure came, he would freak out, like punch walls or snap pole vault sticks,” recalled Zacchaeus Widner, a former Siena teammate. “He had high expectations for himself to succeed.”
He majored in accounting with a minor in criminal justice. Looking back, Lucas and another former teammate expressed concerns about whether Schurr’s temperament made him suited to be a police officer. His tenacity served him well as an athlete, Lucas said, but “it was hard for him to turn it off.”
The three teammates recalled how determined Schurr was. In May 2014 — the culmination of his college career — he managed to twice clear 17 feet, setting a conference record. He won the outdoor pole-vault event at the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, an organization for small colleges.
His faith was paramount to him, teammates said. Schurr had attended Corinth Reformed, an evangelical church in Byron Center, and later went with his girlfriend on Christian missions to southwestern Kenya. “The Michigan team is here … thanks be to God,” pastor Odero Elisha, who hosted them in the village of Kawiti in July 2014, wrote on Facebook.
In an email, the pastor called this community “one of the poorest and most devastated by HIV and AIDS.” During the mission, just after Schurr’s college graduation, Schurr and the others built houses for widows, played with orphans and visited residents.
Villagers called Schurr “Okebe,” meaning largehearted, the pastor wrote. “This is the man I know,” he added.
While the couple were there, Elisha officiated at their wedding. The groom, 23, wore a shirt of local fabric; his bride, 22, wore a simple dress. They exchanged rings woven of grass. A Facebook photo showed him carrying his wife, surrounded by children and women in colorful dresses raising their hands to the sky.
Remaking a life
Earlier in 2014, Lyoya, his mother and five younger siblings arrived in Michigan, which had become a haven for people fleeing violence in central Africa. Lyoya, as the oldest son in a new country, shouldered more responsibility than the other children. Their father would arrive later.
Their path to America was fraught. The Lyoyas had lived in the eastern part of Congo during a war marked by abuse by government troops and militia groups alike. Peter Lyoya, Patrick’s father, said he earned a living by selling Primus beer and clothes between Bukavu in the east and the neighboring country of Burundi. His wife, Dorcas Lyoya, helped.
On one return trip from Burundi, rebels attacked her car, Dorcas Lyoya said. She was raped, she said, one of many women and girls sexually assaulted during the conflict. Their home was then attacked by armed men who stole the family’s money, Peter Lyoya said.
So he, his wife and their children — Patrick was 7 — fled to Malawi in 2003, living in a sprawling refugee camp, Dzaleka. When the family arrived, 9,300 people lived there, mainly from Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. By the time they left, the population had more than doubled.
Peter Lyoya said he was given bamboo to build a house. Refugees subsisted on rations of oil, legumes and maize, and raised crops including pumpkin, cassava and sweet potatoes in small plots. Most people had no electricity. School was minimal; some teachers used the shade of the tree as a classroom.
Still, life for Patrick and his friends had some normalcy: sports, girls and music. The teenagers played soccer. Patrick was a striker, friends from the camp said. Playing songs by P-Square and Diamond Platnumz, he taught refugees from other nations dance moves he had learned back home.
Meanwhile the residents were waiting. No one got to choose where or when they would go.
“The dream of many people is America,” said Amani Rudodi, who had been a friend in the camp. “And Patrick’s dream was America.”
The Lyoyas’ apartment complex in Lansing, Michigan, was described as a miniature United Nations because of all the refugees there. Patrick Lyoya and his mother signed the lease in June 2014, for $708 a month. On Facebook, he said he attended the nearby high school; he’s not mentioned in the yearbook.
On Twitter and Facebook, his tag line was “rich gang.” Posts on Instagram and Facebook showed him dressed smartly, in T-shirts marked Gucci and Hollister Co. in big letters, ripped jeans and colorful sneakers or loafers. His only tweet: “I’m so happy to join u guys.”
Within a year, Lyoya left his family and went to the Grand Rapids area, which had taken in thousands of Congolese refugees. He moved to Kentwood, on the southeast edge of the city.
Still, he often came home on weekends to assist with his brothers and sister. His parents said he was a good son who offered some financial support. “He was the helper of the family,” his father said.
When Gabe Mukendi’s family arrived in Kentwood from the Malawi refugee camp in 2015, Lyoya was among the first to visit. He brought the family two Android phones and a pepperoni pizza from Little Caesars. Gabe, now 17, said he practiced cutting hair on Lyoya, who lived with the family for years.
“He was a really cool guy, and he was very giving,” Gabe said.
But Lyoya also got into trouble. In August 2015, when he was 19, he was charged with driving while drunk, but failed to appear at three subsequent hearings. He was arrested more than a dozen times, mostly for misdemeanors involving cars, but he also faced three charges for domestic violence, including a 2017 case in which a police officer said Lyoya was “highly intoxicated.” Fines ballooned. He did stints in jail — a few days here, a month there. Substance-abuse and alcohol assessments were twice ordered; the results are not public.
Daniel Burns, a defense lawyer who represented Lyoya in an early case, said he first ran into Lyoya in the lobby of the Kentwood District Court.
“He was confused about his case, and he was having difficulty,” said Burns, adding that Lyoya seemed sincere and hardworking. “He presents with an innocence. I think it’s the language. He takes his time to respond, to make sure he’s calculating everything, understanding everything correctly.”
Despite losing his license, Lyoya kept driving, apparently in borrowed cars: a silver Chrysler, a white Honda, a blue Jeep, a black Ford.
His jobs were factory gigs. When Lyoya filled out a court form in mid-2016, he misspelled both his apartment’s street name and his employer of one year, something he called “Mondel Service,” which didn’t exist. He said he earned $320 a week. He later worked at a turkey processing plant in 2018, but left after a co-worker stabbed him in the belly, his family said. More recently, his parents said, he worked at an auto parts manufacturer.
In August 2020, he wrote on Facebook that he wanted to stop messing up as the firstborn son. He also had fathered two daughters by then. “This year, I’m tryin,” he wrote. He added: “We can be average.”
Days before burying her son, his mother reflected on how he died. “What’s so astonishing, so amazing, what is hurting me so much, I ran away from war, from the killing,” she said. “But my biggest surprise was I came to a country where I found the same thing happening.”
Schurr and Lyoya drove by each other on a quiet street at about 8 a.m. that fateful day. Soon after, the officer turned his cruiser around, followed the other man’s car, then pulled him over.
The Grand Rapids police chief, Eric Winstrom, said he was not aware of any evidence that the patrolman knew Lyoya or his record. Not the eight misdemeanors to which he had pleaded guilty or the two outstanding warrants, one because Lyoya hadn’t shown up for a court hearing, the other because of the recent domestic-violence charge, when the mother of one of his children said he punched her in the face and slammed her head into a car after she refused to let him take her new bedsheets. Not the trip Lyoya made in late 2020 to Illinois, which led to his one felony conviction, for aggravated drunken driving, after crashing on a highway in the snow.
So why did Schurr turn to follow Lyoya? His patrol car had been equipped with an automated plate reader, which can scan passing vehicles for possible violations. (Winstrom said that he didn’t know if it had been deployed in this case.) The license plate did not correspond to the car Lyoya was driving — typically a misdemeanor offense.
Ben Crump, the civil rights lawyer representing Lyoya’s family, said the videos made his team question if Schurr turned to follow Lyoya because of his race. “We have to investigate whether it’s driving while Black,” Crump said.
For about two minutes in the videos, the officer and the driver are seen grappling with each other across front lawns in the rain. During the struggle, Schurr alternately puts his arms around Lyoya’s neck, holds his head down, pulls his arms behind his back and, at one point, knees him. Lyoya variously tries to flee and to grab at the Taser and push it away.
Two policing experts told the Times that while they couldn’t make judgments about the officer’s decision to shoot, based only on the footage, they did question what happened before that. They said the officer chose to pursue the man without waiting for backup and deployed a Taser at close range, which is rarely effective and runs counter to standard policing practices.
When Lyoya got out of his car instead of staying inside, it could have indicated that he posed a threat — or that he didn’t understand the officer’s instructions. In response, Schurr, who was alone, immediately exited his police cruiser and spoke to him in a verbally aggressive way, said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina who has researched high-risk police activities for decades.
When Lyoya tried to run, the officer pursued him on foot, which increases the likelihood of using force.
“He’s got the car. He’s got his friend,” Alpert said, referring to the unidentified passenger and explaining that the police could have circled back later to find Lyoya. “I understand why you get in the foot pursuit, but I also know they’re very dangerous and can lead to a bad outcome.”
The experts also questioned why Schurr used his Taser. The Grand Rapids chief said his officers were trained not to use it within 4 feet of the subject.
The Taser is “the most complicated weapon that the police have,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum. “It can be a friend and it can be an enemy.”
John Riley, a former Grand Rapids officer who retired from the force as Schurr joined, described him as a “sharp, sharp young man” as a rookie. Riley, who now teaches de-escalation techniques, defended Schurr, saying he had followed classic de-escalation protocol by telling Lyoya repeatedly to stop what he was doing. He said the officer had discretion to chase Lyoya and that detaining suspects is part of an officer’s job.
“Why not?” he said. “I mean, how quickly is the word going to get out if you don’t try to apprehend someone who is in violation of the law? How quickly is the word going to get out? ‘Hey, just run. They’re not going to do anything.’ ”
Then there was Schurr’s final decision — something that Riley said he wouldn’t second-guess, that it was impossible for people to understand unless they had been in that position.
By the time the patrolman drew his gun, he was on top of Lyoya’s back, breathing heavily. Then, without any warning, he pulled the trigger.