Inside Track: Putting trust back in policing

Chief Eric Payne wants department to be safest and most trusted in the country.
Eric Payne was promoted to police chief in 2019 after a nationwide search. Courtesy City of Grand Rapids

Police Chief Eric Payne said he wants to make Grand Rapids the safest midsized city with the most trusted police department in the country, but the department has to overcome the same obstacles as in any other city.

Payne said he wasn’t one of those kids who always wanted to be a police officer. Originally, when he went to Grand Valley State in 1982, he thought education would be his path in life.

“I always knew I wanted to be of service, and I thought education was the way to do it,” he said.

However, during his freshman year, he met a young African American police officer named Larry Johnson. Payne said he didn’t remember what exactly the two of them talked about, but it was the first time he recalled that he had met a police officer who was the same race as himself. 

By his sophomore year, Payne had switched his major to criminal justice. A roommate encouraged him to take an introduction to criminal justice class, and he said he was hooked after the initial exposure.

The class was taught by James Walker, who became Payne’s adviser for the rest of his studies at GVSU. Payne cited Walker as another inspiration of African American leadership in the field of criminal justice.

“It showed me that historically there has been — and probably to this day — a disconnect with people of color and the criminal justice system, but those were two people I saw that were in the system, one being an officer and one being an educator, to let me know it was something I could do also,” Payne said.

Grand Rapids Police Department
Position: Chief
Age: 56
Birthplace: Dowagiac
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Wife Jessica; two children
Business/Community Involvement: Graduate of GRPD’s Leadership Institute and has received advanced leadership training from the Law Enforcement Executive Leadership Institute and the Leadership Institute for Police Executives and New Chiefs.
Biggest Career Break: Attending GVSU for education and altering his course towards law enforcement after meeting Officer Larry Johnson.

After Payne graduated in 1986, he spent six months as a campus officer for his alma mater. During that time, a position came up for an officer at the Grand Rapids Police Department, for which he applied and was accepted.

Payne was appointed chief of police in July 2019, following a national search and vetting process. He previously served as deputy chief of operations for nearly two years, where he oversaw the patrol division, special response team, traffic unit, office of special events and canine unit.

Payne also served as GRPD captain of the investigative division, which includes the detective, vice and forensic services units, and as captain of the South Service Area and the department’s crisis negotiation team.

He also served as administrative lieutenant for the South Service Area and as a patrol watch commander.

Payne celebrated his 33-year anniversary with GRPD this month.

He said lack of community trust in police departments is not a phenomenon unique to Grand Rapids. One of his primary focuses when he became chief in 2019 was prioritizing making residents feel safe in their own community.

Additionally, Payne believes operational transparency should be a priority among police departments. Transparency could be something as simple as releasing data on arrests.

Several years ago, GRPD released a traffic stop study revealing there was a disproportionate number of traffic stops involving people of color.

The results of the study forced the police department to reevaluate its use of traffic stops as a crime deterrent, Payne said.

“It’s been proven that you can deter some crimes, but what ends up happening is you stop the mother that’s going to the store for groceries with a cracked taillight,” Payne said. “As a law enforcement officer, I recognize that’s a violation, but do we need to stop her every day an officer sees it?”

Payne added, historically, certain neighborhoods in Grand Rapids have been subject to strict enforcement, resulting in this trend of disparate policing where people of color are routinely pulled over for minor infractions.

“That cracked taillight is not what we should be focused on,” Payne said. “We need to be concentrating on those violent offenders out there doing violent acts in the community.”

GRPD already has transitioned away from that type of excessive policing, Payne said, as evidenced by the release of its draft strategic plan earlier this summer. The plan is currently subject to community review and feedback, and Payne will present the final plan to the Grand Rapids City Commission on Sept. 29.

The plan outlines more of a neighborhood-based strategy to policing that makes patrol officers community policing specialists who are focused on crime prevention, improving the quality of life for community members and building trust, according to the plan.

Steps toward this include assigning a patrol officer on each shift to each geographic beat, ensuring beat officers collaborate with residents to address neighborhood-specific crime, issues and concerns and ensuring beat officers communicate with neighborhoods prior to the deployment of proactive strategies that increase police presence in neighborhoods.

“We need to listen to the community about how they want to be policed,” Payne said. “We have to be more strategic in how we address crime.”

Another example of a new strategy Payne wants to adopt is community engagement in non-enforcement contact. Payne argued officers need to be seen in their communities to be trusted, which involves getting out of their vehicles and starting relationships with people in their beat areas.

“I’m proud to say I have relationships I’ve built 30-something years ago that still exist to this day,” he said. “That’s what officers need to do is build those relationships in the neighborhood, so they know who’s in their neighborhood and (are) getting feedback. That’s where that level of trust will come out.”

George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis Police has renewed national focus on Black Lives Matter and police brutality, but Payne said policing changed after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Floyd’s death led to even more of an awakening about how policing is done.

“I’ve said before that (Floyd’s) death will be in vain if law enforcement is not looking themselves in the mirror and making sure they are doing things correctly, and that’s what we’re looking to do,” Payne said.

GRPD also revised its use-of-force policy to incorporate its training, which previously was not explicit, Payne said. Chokeholds, for example, have never been trained techniques for GRPD.

The policy update also coincides with GRPD’s renewed focus on transparency. Payne said Grand Rapids recently experienced an uptick in quality-of-life issues. Police officers went door-to-door and asked residents what they wanted to see in their operations.

He said the overwhelming consensus among residents was they wanted to see officers in the community, face-to-face, rather than flooding an area with patrol cars.

“For that area, we have not seen as much disorderly activity,” Payne said. “The citizens appreciate us more … and it was just quality of life issues, but it was something that needed to be addressed, and we engaged the communities prior to bringing officers in.”

Grand Rapids’ infamous Forbes ranking as the second-worst city in the country economically for African Americans is something Payne believes he also can turn around through police reform.

“If we’re a safe city and a trusted city, hopefully that translates to businesses that come here, want to be here and stay here,” he said.

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