GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — When Eric Payne joined the GRPD in 1987, the department was still housed in the old Hall of Justice, where DeVos Place now stands.

A lot has changed over the last nearly 35 years as Payne made his way to the department’s top role: Grand Rapids Police Chief.

As the city’s first African American police chief retires on Friday, what advise would current Police Chief Eric Payne give rookie police officer Eric Payne?

“Build those relationships. Get out in the community,” Payne said. “And that was not a priority back then.”

But it is now.

Despite two years of pandemic shutdowns, protests over policing and a record year of violent crime in the city in 2020, Payne sees change happening.

“Where I think we’re in a better place now, again, we’ve evolved. We listened. We’re more open to listening to the community and to working with the community,” Payne said.

It hasn’t been easy for Payne.

Appointed chief in July 2019, the pandemic severely limited the chance for police and the community to build better relations.  

“If you don’t build a relationship, I don’t know how you every get to trust,” Payne said.

The May 2020 riot sparked by George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer was a low point in the city.

“I don’t excuse that behavior. To this day, if we can continue to identify those who were out there rioting and destroying the city, I hope we continue to prosecute them,” Payne said.

But he believes it also helped spark a much-needed conversation.

“And that’s ultimately what you want, the community to trust law enforcement and law enforcement to trust the community,” he said.

Payne says that more challenges are ahead as he believes Defund the Police, something he calls a catch phrase, has lost much of its steam.

“I do believe that pendulum has swung,” Payne said. “What I am concerned about is with the level of violence that has occurred over the last year or two, with the gun violence. I don’t want it to swing so far back the other way. That we end up having tactics that have bad outcomes like we’ve had before.“

One key to building better a relationship between police and the community is to build a police force that better reflects the city’s population. But, recruiting minority officers has been difficult for law enforcement throughout the country.

Despite efforts on the local level to attract more minorities to the job, GRPD’s latest recruit class is all white. Payne believes a nationwide initiative to increase interested in public service could help diversify all emergency services.

“Whether it’s fire, whether it’s police, because there’s a huge need there,” Payne said.

As for his future, Payne says he’ll figure that out later. For now, he’s going to enjoy retirement, with no regrets.  

“I’m proud of my time as chief here,” Payne said. “I’m proud of my time being a Grand Rapids police officer.”