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My city is on edge.  It began two weeks ago when an early morning traffic stop ended up with the death of a black man of Grand Rapids.  We don’t know why Patrick Lyoya was driving a car that apparently had the wrong license plate on it.   We don’t know if Mr. Lyoya himself was aware of it.  We don’t know why an officer of the Grand Rapids Police Department called in that plate and then pulled the car over on a neighborhood street. 

I have subsequently learned that it is very easy for the police to scan license plates now and that this may happen very routinely.  So perhaps this was another example of a white officer paying extra attention to a car driven by a black man or perhaps it was just a routine plate scan that is done all the time to all kinds of cars with all types of drivers.  We don’t know yet.

We do know that Mr. Lyoya got out of his car to meet the officer and did not get back into the car when asked to do so at least a couple times by the officer.  We do know based on the officer’s body cam footage that Mr. Lyoya appeared confused albeit confirming he did speak English (his family had immigrated to the U.S. to escape violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo some seven or eight years earlier—so much for things being better in the land of the free).  We do know Mr. Lyoya was unable to produce a driver’s license but don’t know if it really was not in the car or whether he has a license at all (though the latter seems unlikely but we don’t know yet).

We also know that Mr. Lyoya then walked toward the front of the car and that at this point the officer grabbed his arm and then shoulder and whirled him around.  At that point it was not hard to see fear leap into Mr. Lyoya’s eyes and he began to run away.  What ensued was a wrestling match that involved two futile discharges of the officer’s Taser, which Mr. Lyoya grabbed hold of perhaps to keep away from himself or perhaps he wanted to use it to defend himself.  We don’t know.   What we do know is the officer got the better of Mr. Lyoya who ended up face down on the front yard of a home.  Although he seems to have still had one hand on the Taser, he clearly was not going anywhere with the officer’s knee on his spine.

And tragically we also know that at this point—without saying he was doing so, without warning Mr. Lyoya—the officer drew his service revolver, pointed it at the back of Mr. Lyoya’s head, and fired a fatal shot.  I have watched this sickening scene several times to check my facts.  The time from the drawing of the revolver to the fatal shot was 3 seconds.  Did the officer even intend to fire?  We don’t know yet.  Did he think he was in mortal danger from an unarmed man with a hand on a Taser that needed to be reloaded to be fully functional again?  We don’t know yet.  We do know, however, that the first backup police car was seconds away at that very moment.

I am not writing this blog because I have answers or have enough information to suggest answers or make final conclusions.  I have listed what we seem to know and to not know at this point.  But here is another thing we know: this was yet another routine misdemeanor traffic stop that in under five minutes led to the death of an unarmed black man who, to the best of our knowledge, had no prior criminal record and who, despite his attempt to flee an authority figure he had some reason or another to fear, ended up dead.  I wonder if even the officer involved has not found himself wishing he had just let Mr. Lyoya run.  How far would he get?  What threat did he pose to the community?  Impound the car, take the other passenger in the car into custody for questioning, and go from there.

At some point in the last week or so I mused aloud to some colleagues that I wonder if either man could comprehend the struggle they ended up being locked into.  Maybe both men were finally afraid.  Coming as this incident did late in the Season of Lent, it struck me as a searing vignette of the very human sin and brokenness for which the Son of God had to suffer and die if he were to offer any hope that this senseless series of struggles–this series calamitas–would ever be snapped.

The lives of the Lyoya family and that of the police officer will, one way or another, never be the same.  But only one family has lost a cherished 26-year-old for perhaps no reason more grave than that he panicked.  He made mistakes borne of fear.   Maybe we will later learn he had other reasons to fear the police that may or may not be laudable but whatever those reasons were, they were surely not capital offenses.

As I have grieved this whole situation, my thoughts kept coming back to the Morehouse College Glee Club.  On the eve of the lockdown and the beginning of so much that has disrupted our lives for over two years now, the Glee Club gave a concert at Calvin College/University on March 11, 2020.   It was at this concert that I was exposed to something I had not known about previously; namely, a significant musical composition by Joel Thompson titled Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.   The piece commemorates and laments the final words of seven unarmed black men who were killed by the police.  Mr. Lyoya’s name could be added to the list now.  George Floyd too.

But for all of us who are moved and saddened and even horrified by what happened in Grand Rapids on April 4, I commend listening to all or parts of this piece.  It is a good channel for our lament and our weeping.  It is a good avenue to inspire calls for change in our society.  It is a good reminder, even now that we are in Eastertide, of the tragedies for which Christ died and rose again.  It is a good occasion to wring from us yet again the cries Kyrie, Eleison and Maranatha.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Excellent, necessary, and thank you.

  • Keith Mannes says:

    Thanks Scott. Very much.

  • Pete Byma says:

    “maybe both men were finally afraid” In many ways fear is the biggest single enemy of our spiritual lives. Fear battles against or hearts and souls and now, again, two crucial communities are in fear. Surely, we ALL need the gospel.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    Thanks Scott, I wish you didn’t have to write it. This stuff is awful. I’m not sure why, but it feels worse when it’s your own home town.

  • Marilyn Van Driesen says:

    Read with tears. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Pamela Spiertz Adams says:

    Thank you for writing of another tragic death in our nation. Another death of a young Black man who was sent to his death for just being who he is. This is especially tragic because our nation had a Civil Rights movement in the 60s and a Civil Rights movement a few years ago when all this violence was highlighted. Most of the recent violence has been afforded us by our high-tech phones that tell us what really happened and not just what some white guys said happened. It is so sad to hear of the anguish of another African American family in the senseless death of their son. God grant us peace.

  • Lou and Linda Roossien says:

    Scott, thanks for such clarity both about what we know and don’t know. Thanks for investing time to create these important, reasonable reflections. Thanks also for pointing us to the Seven Last Words of the Unarmed. And thanks for reminding us that our grieving needs to extend well beyond a Lenten Season; which also reminds us to seek justice for all people, daily.

  • Anthony J Diekema says:

    Lord have mercy! Thanks, Scott.

  • Reverend Linda Miles says:

    Tragic, senseless loss.

  • Steve Van't Hof says:

    “The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him. (Proverbs 18:17)” Scott, everything you’ve said about this incident being a horrible tragedy is true. However, allow me to offer a different perspective along with a few corrections. I’ll take them in order they were mentioned.
    First, just prior to the shot the officer did not have his knee in the back of Mr. Lyoya’s spine. In fact, Mr. Lyoya had risen up on his knees and the officer was in danger of losing control. Second, the officer never drew his “service revolver”. The Grand Rapids Police Department has not issued revolvers in almost 30 years. They carry Glocks (semiautomatic pistols). Not important you might say. Maybe not, but in criminal investigations the devil is truly in the details. Third, although the officer did not give a verbal warning prior to shooting he did tell Mr. Lyoya to drop the taser. Why? Because Mr. Lyoya was not unarmed. The taser did not need to be “reloaded”; even after being deployed twice, tasers still have a “drive stun” capability. This means it can be pressed up against a body and fired, producing incredible pain. Assuming Mr. Lyoya did have it in his hand (and no one appears to be disputing this) the officer was in real danger. Fourth, even though backup did arrive within in seconds it is doubtful the officer knew this. When involved in a ground fight (for 90 seconds I might add) it is very common to develop tunnel vision, where you are so focused on the danger at hand that you do not notice what else in going on in your immediate surroundings. The same can be said for hearing ability. So, even if the dispatcher was telling the officer that help was just around the corner it is quite possible the officer did not process this. Fifth, there is no such thing as a “routine misdemeanor traffic stop”. If anyone wants to see how fast things can deteriorate during a seemingly calm traffic stop, I urge you to view the Youtube video entitled “Deadly Shootout with Florida Deputies”. Sixth, I am fairly certain you will be proven wrong regarding your statement that “to the best of our knowledge” Mr. Lyoya had no prior criminal record. Seventh, many (yourself included) have wondered what threat he posed if the officer had just let him go. Well, this option has been utilized, often with disastrous results. Here is what the officer knew. He knew the plate did not match the car. Was the car stolen? Had the driver (and his passenger) just been involved in a previous crime? Does the driver (or his passenger) have a history of violence? The officer also witnessed the driver immediately exit his vehicle. This is a huge red flag since you do not want someone approaching your cruiser while you are still behind the wheel. The officer also witnessed (as did we all) the subject refuse to follow orders, raising another red flag. The subject then would not produce a driver’s license, and instead of following the officer’s commands, decided to walk away. All of this happened while another person of unknown status was in the vehicle, not to mention the possible presence of any weapons.
    One final comment, in law enforcement training there is a tool called the Use of Force Continuum. It relies heavily on a principle called the “totality of the circumstances”. Everyone reading this would benefit from familiarizing themselves with these concepts before rushing to judgement.

    • Jim says:

      Thank you Steve for your thoughts & information
      There is always more to the story

    • Jessica Groen says:

      Why do you favor the person with the backing of so much social power, rather than the person with more social vulnerability. The presence or absence of social power needs to be included in the principle of “totality of circumstances.” Might not tunnel vision, inability to hear clearly, also apply to emotional and cognitive capacity impacting the behaviors of the citizen being assailed? Could the one in a more precarious situation have some access to your sympathy and your preference for slowness to rush to judgment? Many citizens cannot be sure of an officer’s previous history of violence, and can’t feel trust that they will be treated according to their civil and human rights in a traffic stop.

      Also, if this citizen was armed (long shot to call it such) after he had unarmed status, then he became armed by the poor judgment or negligence of a member of police department. To preemptively shoot a person because: “I am armed and though they are unarmed, they could become armed if their brain goes into irrational survival mode and they attempt to bat away or control my weapon” is logic that allows anyone with a weapon to preemptively shoot a human that has physical capacity to maybe get the upper hand in a struggle. That can’t be a sustainable ethic that is supported by police or their employers.

      • Steve Van't Hof says:

        Jessica, I did not “favor” either person. Instead, I cleared up some misconceptions and put forth some facts. Yes, tunnel vision and the inability to hear clearly could affect both parties, and Patrick certainly did have “access to (my) sympathy”. I’m not quite certain what your point is regarding many citizens not being privy to “an officer’s previous history of violence”, or how that would play into simply obeying the officer’s lawful commands…while driving an improperly registered vehicle, with a suspended driver’s license, all while having a warrant out for your arrest for prior assaultive behavior.

        Regarding whether or not Patrick was armed, please refer to point number three from my initial response. If that is not explanation enough there are plenty of resources on-line that explain how tasers are still very effective in “drive stun” mode even after being deployed.

    • Matt Hollebeek says:

      Thank you for your perspective Steve.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    There is a special fragility and vulnerability for immigrants, especially poor and refugee immigrants, because in so many of our cities, like Grand Rapids and others, YOU CAN”T SURVIVE without a car. You can’t work, you can’t shop, you can’t have any kind of a decent human life without access to a car. The public transportation networks just don’t cut it for the reality of living fully. In a few cities, like New York, you can even thrive without a car, and you can certainly work and shop without one (which is why so many poor people end up in cities like NYC and San Francisco, because at least a car is not required). But I would imagine that there are many people in our cities who have to manage just under our licensing and insurance laws and who therefore live with the constant fear of traffic stops.

  • Ann Conklin says:

    Thank you for this, Scott. And thank you for introducing me to the Seven Last Words of the Unarmed. Chilling.

  • Kevc says:

    So perhaps this was another example of a white officer paying extra attention to a car driven by a black man or perhaps it was just a routine plate scan that is done all the time to all kinds of cars with all types of drivers. We don’t know yet.

    Scott makes two assumptions, one of the assumptions is that the officer was racist and a very serious allegation and then goes on to write but “we don’t yet”.

    Why even write that??

  • M DeVries says:

    Thank you Steve!!!

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