GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — In April 2022, less than a month after Eric Winstrom took over as chief of the Grand Rapids Police Department, the shooting death of Patrick Lyoya by a police officer “changed everything.”
“It added a lot of challenges,” Winstrom told News 8. “I’m not going to say anything positive came from it. It was a tragic incident. It did open a lot of doors. A lot of people came forward wanting to talk to me, demanding to be heard, that I may not have heard from otherwise.”
Tuesday marks one year since Lyoya was killed by former officer Christopher Schurr, leading to Schurr’s arrest for murder, protests and reform within GRPD.
A mourning Peter Lyoya sat in the chief’s office the day after his son died.
“He was up here for a couple hours,” Winstrom said. “I watched him cry. I cried with him. I’m a father. I can’t imagine that.”
A year after the shooting, News 8 asked Winstrom if he had a message for Lyoya’s family.
“I would say thank you to them, because they were some of the loudest voices after the video was released just demanding, ‘No violence in the name of our son,’” Winstrom said. “They wanted peace in the city, so thank you for that. And otherwise, just a lot of respect and love for them.”
CHIEF LEARNED FROM LAQUAN MCDONALD CASE
The chief described seeing the video of Lyoya’s death as a “snap back to reality.”
“I said, ‘All right, I know the exact steps we have to take to be as transparent as possible,’” Winstrom said. “Because I knew there was no way I could make any of that better. There’s just no making it better. I knew my job was to not let this get any worse for the police department, the Lyoya family or the city of Grand Rapids.”
Winstrom knew he had to release all the video as soon as possible. He worked for Chicago police when an officer there shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times, killing him. Winstrom said he was involved as an attorney in the murder case and helped the FBI and special prosecutor.
“I never thought that… I was hoping none of those experiences would translate here,” Winstrom said.
Chicago police held onto the video for more than a year until a judge’s order forced their hand.
“The damage that did was horrific on the city, on the police department, on the respectability of just the average officer on the street that had nothing to do it with it,” Winstrom said. “Suddenly the whole city kind of distrusted anyone in a uniform.”
With that in mind, Winstrom released the video that shows Schurr shoot Lyoya in the back of the head nine days after his death.
CHIEF: RECOGNIZE TRAGEDY, DON’T MAKE SITUATION WORSE
By then, the city had been seeing regular protests. Hundreds gathered in downtown Grand Rapids, with each demonstration lasting for hours. They marched into the night, demanding Schurr’s firing and arrest for murder outside Winstrom’s window.
“We had eight very large protests here right in front of the police station,” Winstrom said. “Of those eight very large protests, we had zero broken windows. We had zero property damage. We had zero uses of force by police officers. We had zero arrests. That was the police department acknowledging this is a difficult thing for a lot of people. We knew we couldn’t make it any better. We’re going to do everything we can not to make it worse as this process moves out.”
“Whether it’s a protest for something completely unrelated to the police department or whether you’re literally protesting GRPD, I support you,” he added. “I want your voices to be heard. Obviously, we want this to be done peacefully.”
News 8 asked Winstrom if he feels he has done enough in response to the calls from activists to reform the police department.
“I’ll tell you what we have done,” he said. “We’ve made a conscious recognition that this was an absolute tragedy. I’m devastated for the Lyoya family.”
WHAT CHANGED AT GRPD
In July, Winstrom laid out new changes inside the police department, with preserving human life placed as officers’ top priority. The use-of-force policy now emphasizes de-escalation.
“If time is on your side, if I can wait for backup to show up, if I can wait to use my communication skills, or someone else’s communication skills, talk to someone,” Winstrom said. “If there’s a better resource I can call, for instance, someone that’s CIT (crisis intervention team) trained if I’m not CIT trained, any sort of extra resource.”
Officers also need to issue a verbal warning before using deadly force.
“Those are just commonsense things that should be in policy,” Winstrom said. “They should be trained and they just weren’t there yet.”
Another priority is making sure officers practice self-regulation.
“Police officers are humans. You tend to react,” he said. “Your adrenaline might go up. Your heart rate might go up. Being cognizant of that and being aware of that, and simple things like breathing exercises, box breathing, knowing how to self-regulate, that’s something that we teach.”
The chief said the training is complete and he believes it has been effective. Still, he acknowledges policy is only part of it.
“I can get on my computer right now and write a policy, but that doesn’t get it done,” Winstrom said. “You need the training. You need the accountability. You need the follow-up.”
To hold officers accountable, he said, every use-of-force incident goes through multiple reviews, first by supervisors, then the internal affairs unit, then the training unit.
“By the time the internal affairs unit sees it, usually in the morning, ’cause a lot of our activity is at night, if there’s something that looks like it’s out of policy, almost I would say 99% of the time, that first-line supervisor has already flagged it,” Winstrom said.
He said if an incident is flagged for poor conduct, action will be taken.
“Our process is working,” he said. “I’m really impressed here. Because I’ll tell you not every police department in the country has these checks and balances in place.”
‘COMMUNICATION BOTH WAYS’
After Lyoya’s killing, Winstrom feared the department could see a large drop in community support and funding.
“I had a real fear de-policing was going to take place in the city,” Winstrom said. “That was going to lead to higher crime. We were going to see even less support from the city. And none of that came to be. The officers showed true professionalism, everybody came to work, everybody gave 100%.”
“The fact they were still going out there, still being proactive about doing their job to 100%, it makes me very proud of the police department,” Winstrom said.
When Winstrom was named police chief in March 2022, before Lyoya’s death, he said that he heard the calls for transparency and accountability and he believed GRPD was on the right path. He told News 8 he believes he has lived up to the community’s expectations, citing the release of the video and answering questions from the community.
“Anybody who was passionate and wanted to be heard, I said yes to everything,” Winstrom said. “I got out there. I like to say I think I’ve met everybody in Grand Rapids twice by now.”
“It’s been extremely helpful for me to learn, to hear from everybody, to hear their perspective and just share the message of what police department’s about,” he continued. “What I want our culture to be, what our goals are. I think that’s been helpful for our communication both ways.”
News 8 asked if Winstrom would have done anything differently looking back.
“I’m hard-pressed to think of anything,” he said. “I’m not saying we did everything perfectly. A lot of things, coming from my background, I judge a lot in, ‘Were more people hurt, were there injuries, how much more damage was done?’
“Just looking and seeing we didn’t have fights with police and violence in the streets and riots, I think we can say for such a controversial situation, I want to say I’m pleased that it came to as good of an outcome for that time we’ve been through already as it could have,” Winstrom said.
The police chief said the department’s biggest challenge now is staffing. GRPD is currently short 30 to 35 employees.
“The biggest thing of that is getting the message out that the Grand Rapids Police Department is a good place to work,” Winstrom said. “The only way I can do that is support from the whole city, city leadership, the department. I have seen optimistically the trend moving in the direction where we are starting to fill those vacancies.”
News 8 is scheduled to interview Peter Lyoya, Patrick Lyoya’s father, and attorney Ven Johnson Tuesday.