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News brief: Brooklyn subway shooting, Grand Rapids shooting, Russian war crimes

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan is promising a transparent, independent investigation into a police shooting of a Black man in Grand Rapids, Mich.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Protesters gathered last night to demonstrate against a police killing in their city. That followed yesterday's release of footage by Grand Rapids police in which Patrick Lyoya was shot and killed by a white police officer while face down during an altercation following a traffic stop.

INSKEEP: Dustin Dwyer of our member station Michigan Radio is in Grand Rapids and joins us now. Dustin, good morning.

DUSTIN DWYER, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So there's a lot of video here. Walk us through what happened.

DWYER: It was Monday morning, 10 days ago, 8:11 a.m. A Grand Rapids, Mich., police officer stops a driver in a residential neighborhood. Police say the reason for the stop was that the license plate on that car didn't match the description of the vehicle. And it was that traffic stop that turned into a foot chase, then a struggle, and it ended with the police officer shooting and killing Patrick Lyoya.

INSKEEP: And a lot of this is captured on video. We're going to play a little bit of one of the videos that was released Wednesday by the Grand Rapids Police Department. This begins as a traffic stop. You see the officer pull Lyoya over, and Lyoya, instead of staying in the car, which is what they tell you to do, steps out of the car, and then there's a conversation on the street. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Can I see your license?

PATRICK LYOYA: What did I do wrong?

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: The plate doesn't belong on this car. Do you have a license or no?

INSKEEP: You hear him saying, what did I do wrong? What happens next?

DWYER: Well, he sounds confused at first. And then what Lyoya tries to do is he starts to kind of walk away from the officer, and then that officer tries to grab him, and Lyoya then runs away. The officer chases after him. You see a struggle. That struggle goes on for more than a minute. Toward the end of this body cam video, you do see Lyoya reach for the officer's taser and grab it. And that's - just after that, the police officer's body cam actually becomes deactivated in this struggle.

INSKEEP: I guess we should be clear - the officer still has his hand on the taser, has the finger on the trigger, but Lyoya has grabbed the barrel of the taser at that last second. Then that body cam goes away. There are other angles, however, from other cameras, including a cellphone video taken by a passenger in a car, and that captures the actual shooting. What does it show us?

DWYER: Well, it shows us that the taser goes off twice. And then you see that Lyoya and this officer are on the ground struggling. The officer tells Lyoya to let go of the taser. Lyoya at this point is face down. The officer is on top of him, kind of straddling him, trying to push and keep him down. And lastly, you see the officer then reach for the gun at his hip and shoots at the back of Lyoya's head. And that's the shot that kills him.

INSKEEP: Just a shocking moment. How have people in Grand Rapids responded to this?

DWYER: Well, there's anger. There's grief. A lot of people had heard this video described in the past 10 days. There had been a number of demonstrations calling for these videos to be released. It's been tense this whole time. There were demonstrations last night. Robert S. Womack is a county commissioner. He's spoken to the Lyoya family, who has called this an execution. The Lyoya family, they're Congolese refugees who came to this country fleeing violence. Womack said he saw the video, and he said it did add extra context to the struggle that led to the shooting.

ROBERT S WOMACK: But at the same time, whenever you put your knee on a person's back and you take out a gun and you put it to their head, in our community, they look at it as an execution.

DWYER: But what Womack wants now is he says he wants to see charges against this police officer. And for now, Michigan State Police are still investigating, and until that investigation is complete, Grand Rapids says it's not releasing the name of the officer.

INSKEEP: Dustin, thanks for the update.

DWYER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's Dustin Dwyer of Michigan Radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK, New Yorkers start their commute this morning knowing an alleged subway attacker is in custody.

FADEL: Frank R. James is accused of getting on a crowded subway train Tuesday morning, setting off two smoke grenades and then firing a handgun 33 times. Ten people were hit by bullets, a dozen more injured in the panic that ensued. The suspect is scheduled to have his first court appearance today on federal terrorism charges that could carry a life sentence if convicted. Police still don't have a clear motive.

INSKEEP: NPR's Quil Lawrence is covering this story in New York. Quil, good morning.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How was Mr. James apprehended?

LAWRENCE: Well, he was named as a person of interest, and then the authorities flooded all of traditional and social media with pictures and info. They were scanning hours of surveillance, and they were able to sort of track him getting back on the subway and going to Manhattan. Several tips may have been called in by the public, but it's not clear that mattered because police sources have told the Associated Press and other news outlets that it was James himself who called the tip line, and then the police found him in Lower Manhattan.

INSKEEP: Which is a wild detail. So what is known about him?

LAWRENCE: Born in New York. He's lived in Philadelphia and Milwaukee. He's 62. He has a criminal record in the '90s but no felonies. The police say if he'd had a felony, he wouldn't have been able to purchase his 9 mm handgun, which NYPD Chief of Detectives James Essig said he bought out of state.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES ESSIG: The gun used in this, a 9 mm Glock, which was recovered at this crime scene, was purchased by Mr. James in 2011 in Ohio.

LAWRENCE: And that's the pistol that was discovered at the crime scene and traced back to James. The rest is just whatever people can glean from these long, bigoted, ranting videos that he had posted online over the years, which included references to his own possible mental health issues and criticism of New York Mayor Eric Adams and crime in New York City.

INSKEEP: Given that evidence, such as it is, what does the motive look like it might be?

LAWRENCE: You know, how all that led to this, it's all speculation from those videos, but there's nothing clear or logical that you can draw out. He'd clearly prepared to do something. The police found his rented van, gasoline, a hatchet, more ammunition, abandoned at the crime scene. They found more guns and ammunition at what appeared to be one of his residences in Philadelphia. But what he planned to do and how it came to this is really not easy to say.

INSKEEP: You know, Quil, I've not been able to think about this story the last couple of days without having the thought that it's amazing that no one is dead - nevertheless, a terrifying incident. How has this affected the mood of the city, where you're at?

LAWRENCE: I was on the subway within hours of the attack, on the same route, actually. And it - New Yorkers, you know, they're a tough lot, but there is a lot of anxiety on top of all the COVID anxiety. People are always looking around on the subway. There's always a few people without masks, but almost everyone's masked. Gun violence is up in the city. Last night after the arrest, a few hours after the arrest of Frank James, a teenager was grazed by a bullet outside one of Brooklyn's busiest subway hubs, and there were several other gun crimes committed in the time it took to apprehend James. So Mayor Eric Adams was elected as sort of a tough-on-crime Democrat. He's a former cop. But it's hard to say what would have prevented someone from buying a gun in a different state and bringing it to New York City and using it in a mass shooting on the subway.

INSKEEP: Quil, thanks so much.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Quil Lawrence.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: The Biden administration says it's helping Ukraine in its investigation of war crimes.

FADEL: So what does that American help look like? The U.S. and European allies have joined Ukraine in accusing President Vladimir Putin of committing war crimes. It's a charge that's easy to make and hard to prove.

INSKEEP: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is on the story. Ryan, good morning.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What form does the American help take?

LUCAS: So I spoke with Beth Van Schaack about this. She's the State Department's ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice. And she says the Justice Department and State Department are working with European allies to support the Ukrainian prosecutor general who is investigating on the ground. The State Department is also helping fund outside experts, experienced war crimes lawyers and investigators who are assisting Ukrainian authorities. Van Schaack says all of this is important.

BETH VAN SCHAACK: It's extremely important for the sanctity and integrity of history to document these crimes, to make sure that we have preserved and authenticated the evidence that is being generated in the various crime scenes around Ukraine.

LUCAS: It's also important, she says, that victims know that the world sees what they went through and that it is working to try to deliver justice.

INSKEEP: How is it exactly that nongovernmental groups would help to investigate possible war crimes?

LUCAS: So before the war began, the U.S. was funding a group of international experts who were helping Ukraine investigate possible war crimes following Russia's takeover of Crimea and Donbas in 2014. This group is made up of prosecutors, investigators, forensic experts - all people with extensive experience working these types of cases. One of these people leading the effort is Clint Williamson. He's a former U.S. ambassador for war crimes issues. He says the group is ramping up its operations now and focusing on possible crimes since Russia's full-scale invasion. As part of this, they want to deploy teams of international experts to Ukraine to insist investigators there. At least one such team is currently on the ground. Now, Williamson says Ukraine has very capable investigators, but they've mostly dealt with lower-level crimes in the past, and the scope and scale of what they're facing now is very different.

CLINT WILLIAMSON: You know, you're potentially looking at command responsibility cases that can go up to senior political and military leaders. So this becomes just a much more complex investigative and prosecutorial approach.

LUCAS: And that's where the outside experts' experience and expertise can come in.

INSKEEP: That word prosecutorial - there is a difference between reporting a story, getting the idea of what's happened, which we've already done, and actually building up criminal evidence to that criminal standard. What types of evidence likely come into play?

LUCAS: Well, all sorts of things. Investigators will be interviewing eyewitnesses, of course. They'll be looking at ballistics evidence to see what munitions were used. They can identify where specific Russian military units were and who was in command. The U.S. and its allies in particular can also provide intelligence, things like communications intercepts. Here's Van Schaack again.

VAN SCHAACK: So gathering all of this together will be very important direct evidence of either orders having been received or individuals admitting to having participated in the Commission of International Crimes.

INSKEEP: All of this with an eye toward potential trials. But what's the venue for the trial?

LUCAS: Well, one option would be the International Criminal Court, which has opened an investigation. The U.S. is not a party to the court, so that complicates things a bit. But there are Ukraine's courts, of course, which have jurisdiction here. And there's also the possibility of courts in some European countries whose laws allow national authorities to prosecute international crimes. But this is still very much, of course, an ongoing war, and the important thing now is to document what's going on.

INSKEEP: NPR's justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Thanks.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.