Grand Rapids police shooting shows why cops should avoid minor traffic stops

It is another sickening video of another white police officer killing another Black man. This time in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

On April 4, a still-unidentified police officer pulled over Patrick Lyoya's car. Within minutes, after a scuffle, Lyoya was dead – shot in the back of the head.

A compilation of video from the incident was released Wednesday, including footage from police, a home security camera and the cellphone of Lyoya's passenger. In the video compilation, Lyoya at first complies with the officer. He then tries to run, is tackled by the officer and appears to try to grab the officer's Taser. The officer then pins Lyoya to the ground before shooting him in the back of the head.

The officer is on paid administrative leave during an investigation of the incident, which began when the officer stopped Lyoya, 26, for plates that did not match the car he was driving. "A mismatched plate is not a felony," the Grand Rapids police chief said Wednesday.

Black Lives Matter

No one should expect a traffic stop for a minor infraction to turn deadly. But if you are Black, you know the horrific history of such stops. And there’s always another tragic reminder.

A year ago, Daunte Wright, 20, was stopped outside Minneapolis for an expired license plate. Wright twisted away from an officer trying to handcuff him and slipped back into the driver’s seat.

It was an unwise move, but not one that deserved the death penalty. Seconds later, Wright was shot and killed by another officer, Kim Potter, who thought she was firing her Taser, not her handgun. Potter was sentenced in February to two years in prison for manslaughter.

Wright’s death is one in a series of needless killings of Black men stopped for minor traffic violations. They include Philando Castile, shot outside Minneapolis after a stop for a broken brake light; Walter Scott, shot in the back in North Charleston, South Carolina, as he ran from his car after a stop for a broken taillight; and Samuel DuBose, shot in the head after being pulled over for a missing tag in Cincinnati. Ending this national disgrace will take serious reforms.

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But how about starting with one simple change? What if police stopped pulling over drivers – Black or white – for technical infractions that have nothing to do with safety?

Fayetteville, North Carolina, tried that approach starting in 2013, when a new reform-minded police chief reined in stops for nonmoving violations. Over the next few years, the city saw positive results.

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For years, traffic stops in North Carolina, like many places across the country, showed racial disparities. Black drivers were twice as likely as white drivers to be pulled over by police and then twice as likely to be searched, according to a study of 20 million North Carolina traffic stops over more than a decade.

Stops have little crime-fighting value

Often, the stops seemed little more than excuses to search someone police found suspicious for no reason other than race. Yet only a fraction of searches produced contraband that led to an arrest. The stops were not only discriminatory, they had little crime-fighting value and alienated the Black community.

In 2010, Fayetteville’s Black community began protesting these racial disparities. Their protests finally led to the hiring of a new police chief, Harold Medlock, who says he told officers “to stop making traffic stops that don’t mean anything” and focus on “speeding, reckless driving and running stop lights.”

While stops for nonmoving violations did not disappear, they became a smaller proportion of all traffic stops. During the same period, searches of Black motorists and passengers after traffic stops dropped from more than 3,100 in 2011 – three times the number of white motorists and passengers searched – to 750 in 2016. While disparities remained, fewer innocent people were being searched and humiliated.

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Instead, police focused on unsafe driving. Stops for speeding soared from about 13,000 in 2012 to more than 46,000 in 2016. Streets were safer. While crime continued to decline, Black residents made more 911 calls to police, suggesting that trust was increasing. And no one felt unsafe because some drivers got away with having a broken taillight.

The changes built stronger relations between police and the Black community, drew praise for the department as a model of community policing from then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and led the local NAACP to recognize Medlock and his department with an award.

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Fayetteville’s reforms coincided with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the growing use of police body cameras, which awakened more Americans to the treatment Black Americans frequently suffered during police encounters.

Focusing traffic stops on safety isn’t a magic formula to resolve racial bias, but it could save lives.

Katie Wright laid her son Daunte to rest a year ago this month. “The roles should completely be reversed,” she said through sobs. “My son should be burying me.”

Now, in Grand Rapids, a community grieves the needless death of a young man pulled over in a traffic stop. It is long past time for this cycle of tragedy to end.

This editorial is part of a series by USA TODAY Opinion about police accountability and building safer communities. The project began in 2021 by examining qualified immunity and continues in 2022 by examining various ways to improve law enforcement. The project is made possible in part by a grant from Stand Together, which does not provide editorial input.

USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff and the USA TODAY Network. Most editorials are coupled with an Opposing View, a unique USA TODAY feature.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Police shooting death of Patrick Lyoya in Michigan requires reform