Another Murder Charge for An Officer Struggling for His Life

Another Murder Charge for An Officer Struggling for His Life

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

To speculate on the outcome of a criminal case, much less presume to know what facts the jury might see in a given case, is something an observer must approach with an open mind. Those with access to the television cameras seem to have no such hesitation.

Grand Rapids, Michigan officer Christopher Schurr has been charged with 2nd-degree murder after an April 4th struggle with a suspect, Patrick Lyoya, whom Schurr eventually shot. It is not hard for those in law enforcement who have been in life and death struggles to understand how a situation can rise to the level that an officer feels it necessary to employ lethal force.

It is also not hard to recognize the political activism at work in this case. A nationally known civil rights attorney urges everyone to “stay angry”. The local NAACP leader said that he hopes the charges will send a message that an officer’s job is to protect and serve, with the implication that this never includes using force on someone. Public comments show that those who believe the officer was in the wrong can’t wait for the conviction. They’re not saying they can’t wait until all the facts are presented – just a conviction.

A news reporter refers to Lyoya as a “victim” and another said that he “was killed over a traffic stop”. The department’s chief of police wants Schurr fired or at least have no pay while suspended. Meanwhile, local police associations are stating that it was a “ridiculous miscarriage of justice and cited Schurr’s exemplary record and community service, including a recent mission trip to Kenya.

The essentials of the event are partly recorded on Schurr’s body warn camera and a civilian cell phone recording. Schurr made a traffic stop on the car that Lyoya was operating. During Schurr’s dialogue with the car’s occupants, he mentions that the license plates do not match the vehicle. Lyoya gets out of the car against Schurr’s instructions. They struggle. Schurr repeats the command to “stop resisting” multiple times during a two-minute struggle. Schurr’s Taser was heard triggered at least twice and it was a struggle over the Taser that resulted in the shooting.

During the struggle, Schurr unholsters his duty weapon and fires one round that enters Lyoya at the back of the head. There are the talking points for the cry to imprison Schurr for life – it was only a traffic stop, the officer failed to de-escalate, the driver was a different skin color than the officer, deadly force was not necessary, it’s fundamentally unfair to shoot a person from behind.

Here are the talking points from a police perspective, at least for this writer. Mismatched plates can be anything from a mistake on the owner’s part, to borrowed plates from a friend’s car to stolen plates, to a stolen car. An officer investigating the mismatch cannot assume that is an error or an opportunity to collect a fine from a citizen. The assumption that the car might be stolen comes with a host of possibilities. The car may have been violently taken. The car may be part of an organized crime ring. The car may be used in drug trafficking in order to avoid civil forfeiture of the owner’s vehicle. The driver may resist violently if they are at risk of a felony charge, or a parole revocation for the offense.

In other words, this was an investigative stop that was clearly lawful, reasonable, and fraught with dangerous possibilities.

Compliance with an officer, including remaining in the vehicle or exiting the vehicle, is a legal requirement. The risk of the officer having to use coercion falls on the vehicle occupants, who can ensure their own safety by working with the officer within the law. Non-compliance is not a mere annoyance of a challenge to an officer’s authority and ego. Non-compliance is a frequent precursor to fight or flight. The fact that there was another occupant in the car means that the officer faces potential threats from either, a conclusion that becomes more reasonable with each passing moment.

This event occurred during cold weather, meaning that heavy clothing capable of concealing weapons was worn by the driver. Control of the officer’s Taser was a critical component of this event. Had the device become controlled by Schurr’s adversary who chose to fight the officer, the tragic results could have been magnified. Although the Taser is not a deadly weapon, its designed capacity for immobilizing a person presents a significant threat to an officer if used against them. If the officer is incapacitated, even briefly, from any injury including from an electronic weapon, the opportunity for an adversary to seize the officer’s other weapons or even their patrol car. This creates an incalculable hazard to the public at large, and an opportunity for the officer to be murdered.

If the threat of such incapacitation was imminent, an officer would certainly need to ensure that it didn’t happen. When an officer operates to preserve their own life and safety it is not an act of selfishness or a call to allow themselves to be sacrificed. The altruism of survival is that an officer must stay engaged and able.

Fatigue is also an incapacitating threat. Research and the experience of athletes and combatants show that more than a minute of active fighting can lead to depletion of the body’s adrenaline and muscle control. If an officer is nearing exhaustion while fighting for their life while wearing over 30 pounds of gear, they must end the fight and win the fight.

The fact that a suspect is shot in the head or back does not automatically create the assumption that the shooting was unlawful or even unfair. Active resisters twist and turn, and a deadly threat can exist regardless of the resister’s posture.

I want justice done as well as anyone does. But for justice to happen, courts and juries must be educated on the scientific realities of deadly encounters. If the evidence exists to keep Schurr a free man he deserves to have it heard beyond the rage of politicians and activists.