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Grand Rapids names new leader for police department, will be the city's first black chief

Grand Rapids' new police chief, Eric Payne.
City of Grand Rapids

Eric Payne will be the next chief of Grand Rapids police.

The city made the announcement Friday, after a months-long nationwide search. Payne is a nearly 33-year veteran of the Grand Rapids Police Department. He currently serves as Deputy Chief. He will be the department's first black police chief. 

Payne says there are many things he believes the GRPD does well, but he also sees areas to improve. 

“So there will be changes, it’s not business as usual,” Payne said during a press conference at police headquarters Friday afternoon. "We’ll take the good things that we’re doing, continue to do those. And if we can do those even better, we’re going to do that."

Payne says his three top priorities are improving safety, community policing and transparency. 

He'll officially take over as chief on July 22nd. 

Grand Rapids city manager Mark Washington chose Payne among three finalists for the job. He says the city searched "high and low" across the nation for its next chief. 

"As it turned out, our candidate was right underneath our nose the whole time," Washington says. "I know that we as a community have a lot of challenges that face us, not only in public safety, but in many other areas. And I take comfort in knowing that Deputy Chief Payne is prepared for this challenge.” 

Payne takes over in a department that has been criticized in the community in recent years for how officers have handled incidents with people of color.

Sandra Thompson is a black woman who lives in Southeast Grand Rapids.

She says she wants the next chief to be honest with residents.

“And when the officers and so forth are using excessive force and all that, hold them accountable,” Thompson says.

Another Grand Rapids resident, Arick Davis, says he wants to see Payne put residents and their safety above everything else.

"I have been racially profiled," Payne said at a community forum last month in the city. "I understand it. I feel that pain."

“It is a public role, you do have a lot of power in your hands and you don’t have to abuse that power,” Davis says. “You can actually just put people first and really try to help those people.

Payne, who is black, told residents last month he understands the concerns voiced by people of color in the community.   

“I have been racially profiled,” Payne said at a community forum last month in the city. “I understand it. I feel that pain. What we need to do is also get our officers better equipped to understand the different cultural entities they may run into. It’s not just the black and brown, it’s the Asian, we have a huge Bosnian community here in Grand Rapids. It runs the gamut of people that we deal with.”

In a statement, the Grand Rapids Police Officers Association said it welcomed the new chief.

“We have known and worked with Chief Payne for many years and know him to be fair and open. He understands the needs of our department and of our community,” the police officer’s union said in the statement.

Payne says as the department’s first African-American Chief, he hopes he can bridge the gap between communities of color and the police department.

“I think everyone in the community wants the same thing, which is a safe community,” Payne says.

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.
Bryce Huffman was Michigan Radio’s West Michigan Reporter and host of Same Same Different. He is currently a reporter for Bridge Detroit.
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