On September 19, 2019, the Grand Rapids Association of Pastors (G-RAP) was pleased to welcome the brand new Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Payne to our first meeting of the 2019-2020 season--especially after he told us that it was at our April 2019 meeting that he revealed for the first time that he was a candidate for that position. Dr. Tim Harris, of Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church opened the meeting, noting that G-RAP has been meeting with the police chief and police union representatives from our beginnings in 2015, because "we don't want to add to the tension [between the police and the community] but we want to be part of the solution."
Five days earlier Chief Payne had passed the milestone of 32 years with the Grand Rapids Police Department. In that time he’s worked in several different unit and divisions: Patrol, Vice, Detective Unit’s Major Case Team, Commander of the South Service Area and of the Investigative Division, and the Crisis Negotiation Team. He knows this community and this department.
One of this first priorities in the position is to conduct a retreat with his command staff to talk about a strategic plan, in part to address the staffing issues they are facing. He noted that a recent study highlighted that the department had adequate officers and recommended that they cut services. Some of the suggested cuts would constitute big changes for the department and the community to adjust to. Increasing the staffing for parking services so that police officers no longer responded to parking complaints wouldn’t be so difficult, but no longer responding to burglar alarms would be. Even though 98% of the alarms are false, 2% are real. That’s a shift they need to talk about.
But he’s looking forward to working with the 18 new recruits they have starting. He was part of their selection team, and he made sure that they understood they were coming into a community policing department. They still struggle with people not wanting to become police officers anymore, especially people who are not white men. He said, “We need to have a workforce that looks like the community. We’re recruiting with the Community Engagement Unit to sponsor recruits, which helps us do better with diversity. Not great, but better than we’ve seen in the past.”
The department has 298 officers right now (including those 18 recruits), which is 100 fewer than they had before the recession. After the recession, they shifted some officers to what had been civilian jobs, so now they’re looking to reverse that trend in order to hire more civilians and get more officers on the street.
When one of the pastors asked him about his stance of community policing, Chief Payne was clear:
“I believe in service. I believe in being out in the community. I also believe in putting handcuffs on bad guys. But I believe we’ve used arrests too much in the past. I’m looking for productivity in non-arrest contact, non-enforcement contact. Our officers are not engaging the community enough, and that’s why I think crime is up. We’re going to talk about that at our retreat, too.”
He told us that his officers do connect with people they meet in the course of their jobs all the time, but we don’t always hear about it. One of his officers met a woman in the course of her work in Vice; the woman had cancer, and the officer made a point to spend time with the woman’s kids, buying them gifts at Christmas and birthdays. Payne said, “I need to tell my officers citizen contact is a priority for them—even meeting with groups like yours. We should be able to get a beat officer to your various events, so invite us!”
The Police Department and Foreign Nationals
A number of pastors wanted to know about the department’s policies about dealing with immigrants and with ICE. Payne wouldn’t comment on ongoing cases, but he was clear on the policy he’s introduced for how his officers are to deal with requests from ICE:
“I will make that decision. The Chief or one of the two Deputy Chiefs will make the decision whether to cooperate with ICE. The community can hold the Chief personally responsible. If I have good, actionable information, I will cooperate, because I won’t take that tool away to keep the community safe. I will cooperate with ICE if it will keep a murderer off the streets. But if someone in the department calls ICE outside that chain of command, it will go to disciplinary proceedings.”
In addition, they follow the same policy as Kent County, and no longer detain arrested people for ICE unless there is a judicial warrant for that person. He spoke more broadly:
“I think of the Japanese in Internment Camps, African Americans during Civil Rights, the list goes on and on, what this country has done to people without the power. I wonder how we’re going to be judged by how this country has dealt with immigrants the last 3 and half, 4 years. I don’t think it will be favorable and I don’t want to be a part in that and I don’t think law enforcement wants a part in that.”
The Speed of Trust
Many pastors at the meeting had gone through the Speed of Trust training, where a police officer was paired with a member of the community and they committed to meet regularly for conversation. Several people expressed disappointment with the program, and asked about its effectiveness. Chief Payne clarified that it wasn’t really meant to have a measurable outcome, that is wasn’t a “silver bullet to solve every problem.” He said that the purpose was the opening of conversation between the police and the community and to help both sides gain communication tools. The training is ongoing, as are some of the relationships built during the process.
On the side of dealing with community members who may be undergoing a mental health crisis, Chief Payne noted that the local police chiefs have a special fund for crisis intervention training, and that they’re moving towards a time when this kind of training will be mandatory for every officer in West Michigan. The Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety is the leader in this area, and their experts are training the trainers in the Grand Rapids department.
On the side of wellness of police officers, Payne said that City Manager Mark Washington has applied for a grant to hire a person to concentrate on the wellness of officers.
The chief admitted that there is one thing that keeps him up at night: “Officers who have done the correct thing, but are perceived by the public as being wrong.”
We concluded our time with Chief Payne by thanking him for his time and his commitment to our city, and prayed for him and for the men and women who serve with him and for us.