Editor’s Note: Issac Bailey is a longtime journalist based in South Carolina who writes for McClatchy and the Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College. He’s the author of “My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty and Racism in the American South.” His latest book is “Why Didn’t We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
A police officer shot Patrick Lyoya, killing him instantly. It happened during a physical encounter following a traffic stop in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on April 4. Lyoya’s family commissioned an autopsy, and the forensic pathologist who performed it said at a news conference that Lyoya “died as a result of a single gunshot wound with entrance wound in the back of the head.”
No matter if use-of-force experts, fellow police officers, prosecutors or even a jury says in the end that shooting him was justified, in a sane society, such a killing under those circumstances should never be acceptable. Unfortunately, we don’t live in such a society. We live in one in which it is commonplace to send armed agents of the state to punish people for alleged offenses like having an unregistered license plate on their car.
That unnamed officer – we don’t even know his name because of privacy laws and law enforcement policies and practices that protect the killer more than the killed if the killer wears a badge and uniform – put a bullet through his skull, spilled his blood on the grass. Like that, a soul was snuffed out. Another family grieves. Lyoya’s name was added to a list of such victims that was already far too damned long.
A New York Times investigation found that over the past five years, police officers have killed at least 400 drivers or passengers who were wielding neither a gun nor knife and weren’t suspected of having committed a violent crime. According to the Times, they had been pulled over for things such as swerving across double yellow lines. That needs to be underscored. It is easy to become numb to such things, to just accept these outcomes because we’ve been trained to believe that this is a reasonable price to pay for law and order, for peace. What’s a few more liters of wasted blood, another heart that no longer beats, can no longer love, if it provides a veneer of safety.
That unnamed officer put a bullet in the back of Lyoya’s head. And for what? Because of a bad license plate. Don’t be fooled by anyone who tries to convince you that maybe Lyoya is at fault because he resisted, because he fought back and tried to run away. It’s not an irrational response to become dumbfounded as you are being stopped, detained or pursued because of a piece of metal on the back of your vehicle, to raise an objection. But in the warped American mind, it’s somehow irrational (to many) to think there must be – has to be – a better way for all of us to try to stay safe.
As much as many Americans grieve for the snuffing out of Lyoya’s life, all of this is so ordinary, so standard, that most of us never consider how absurd a practice it is for traffic violations to be the purview of police with guns. We continue that practice even though it’s a logical conclusion that unarmed traffic personnel and technology can handle many such things quite well without increasing the chances for bloodshed and death.
I’ve gone on ride-alongs with women social workers who show up in rough areas in the middle of nowhere, sometimes in the dead of night, in yards with scary-looking loud barking dogs unarmed and unafraid and do their jobs well with little pay and even less respect. But I’m supposed to believe police officers sent to confront those with car registration problems must be heavily armed for their own safety?
I drive on toll roads in North Carolina. They send me a bill in the mail 30 days later. No one armed with a Glock and taser and baton has to be involved to ensure I’d pay what I owe. From red light cameras to robots to unarmed human traffic enforcement, we have a variety of mechanisms that could perhaps have been used by (or in place of) that unnamed officer in Grand Rapids.
Even if Lyoya had gotten away when he ran, the officer had his car, his information. Lyoya’s infraction wasn’t going to go unreported.
But no one should be surprised that in an environment where the danger to police officers at traffic stops is so often overstated and they are trained to anticipate or even expect violent confrontations during these stops, those heavily armed officers have been found to escalate the situation from something routine into something tragic. Nor is it a surprise that, according to the Times investigation, Black drivers are overrepresented among those killed in such situations.
While his family has called for the officer to be prosecuted, Grand Rapids police declined to comment, citing an ongoing investigation. Police Chief Eric Winstrom has said that the officer is on paid leave and his police powers have been suspended. Last week, Winstrom said the officer will be identified publicly only if there are criminal charges.
This is the part where I’m supposed to dutifully say that Lyoya would be alive if he had just done everything the officer commanded. That he should not have run. That he should have not physically resisted when he was caught. That he should have complied, shown deference to authority. Police officers I know would urge me to say that such stops are important tools in the drug war, akin to nailing mobsters on mail fraud when evidence for their more serious crimes can’t be documented.
I can’t say that. I won’t. Because in too many cases even when men and women have complied, or tried to, they’ve ended up behind bars or dead for no good reason because we repeatedly choose to use state agents, armed to the teeth, to do things in which they should never be involved in the first place. Because such acts create distrust between police and community, a rift that makes it harder to solve serious crime.
Until we acknowledge that kind of stupidity and vow to fix it, we can count on there being more Patrick Lyoyas being killed by unnamed police officers shooting bullets into the back of their heads.