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Prosecutor who could decide Patrick Lyoya case previously accepted political contribution from police union

GRPD traffic stop of Patrick Lyoya
Grand Rapids Police Department
Video captured by an officer's dash cam showed an unnamed police officer talking to Patrick Lyoya shortly after pulling him over for improper registration of his car.

The prosecutor who will decide whether to criminally charge the Grand Rapids police officer who shot Patrick Lyoya accepted a political contribution from the officers' union.

The contribution was made in 2016, during Chris Becker’s first campaign for Kent County prosecutor. He ran as a Republican to replace his former boss, Bill Forsyth. Forsyth had served as prosecutor in the county for three decades.

The $1,000 donation from the Grand Rapids Police Officers Association came early in the campaign, less than two months after Becker formed his political committee, according to campaign records.

Becker raised a total of $64,220.79 during the 2016 campaign.

The donation from the police union raised concerns among some community leaders in Grand Rapids who’ve spoken out against the shooting, but one attorney for Lyoya’s family said it’s not an issue.

“A whopping 1,000 dollars?” said attorney Ven Johnson. “No, I don’t think that is any conflict of interest.”

Johnson said he believes all local prosecutors have a bias toward local police, because they work together on cases. And he said, if given the choice, he would prefer that another prosecutor make the call on whether to charge the officer who shot Lyoya.

“Sure I would welcome that,” Johnson said, of a possible recusal. “But at the same time, I can’t tell you a prosecutor that I’ve ever seen do that. So I don’t fault Mr. Becker for doing that under the circumstances.”

screenshot of a filing by Chris Becker's campaign committee submitted in 2016.
Screenshot of a filing by Chris Becker's campaign committee submitted in 2016.

Still, other community leaders in Grand Rapids said the 2016 donation raised concerns for them.

“Knowing what I’ve seen from other elected officials who’ve received money from the police union, I would believe that it is a conflict of interest."
Robert S. Womack, Kent County commissioner

Robert S. Womack, a Kent County commissioner who previously said he believed Becker would be a "standup guy" in making the decision about whether to charge the officer, said the donation changed his mind on whether Becker should recuse himself.

“Knowing what I’ve seen from other elected officials who’ve received money from the police union, I would believe that it is a conflict of interest,” Womack said. “And I’m sure our community is going to be very disturbed from that news.”

Cle Jackson, president of the Greater Grand Rapids Branch of the NAACP, had already called for Becker’s recusal in an interview Tuesday on Stateside.

The shooting is being investigated by the Michigan State Police. The findings of that investigation are expected to then head to Becker for a decision on whether to charge the officer for Lyoya's killing.

In an email to Michigan Radio, Becker said he has no plans to recuse himself.

“No, a donation from over six years ago does not create a conflict,” Becker wrote. “Didn’t create a conflict in any other OIS [officer-involved shooting] I’ve reviewed in the last 6 years, including the one where I charged a Grand Rapids officer this year.”

Becker charged a GRPD officer in January with a misdemeanor for “careless” discharge of his firearm, after the officer’s gun went off accidentally during a foot pursuit.

“Nobody asked for me to recuse myself in that case,” Becker wrote to Michigan Radio, “so don’t understand why that would change a couple of months later.”

The Grand Rapids police union did not contribute to Becker’s campaign in 2020, a race in which he ran unopposed and raised about half as much money as in the 2016 campaign.

The police officers union has contributed to the campaigns of a number of other public officials in Grand Rapids and Kent County over the past several years. It donated $3,000 to Rosalynn Bliss’ campaign for mayor in 2015, and to current commissioners Kurt Reppart and Jon O’Connor.

Michigan Radio reached out to the union at a phone number listed on the union’s website. When the reporter identified himself and asked to speak to “Andy” for Andy Bingel, the president of the union, the person immediately hung up. When Michigan Radio called again moments later, the person responded in an accent that was not present during the first call and identified themself as “Alojuan.”

“Well, you got the wrong number,” the person said, seeming to change accents as the call went on.

Michigan Radio also tried to reach the union through a Facebook message, as well as a phone call and voicemail for the person listed as the treasurer for the union's political action committee. Neither message was returned.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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