GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — He had seen peaceful protests take violent turns in other cities.

That’s why Grand Rapids Police Department Chief Eric Payne says he was “concerned” enough to bring in additional resources for a planned protest in downtown on May 30, 2020. He said it didn’t take long to realize the peaceful demonstration was turning in to unlawful assembly

At one point, Payne spoke to the crowd, saying “I hear you.”

Listening to and engaging with members of the community, he told News 8 in a recent interview, is a major part of the new strategic plan that the department has implemented.

Another change is committing to neighborhood policing. The goal is to get officers into communities so they become a trusted part of that neighborhood.

His department has also launched a new program called “Operation: Safe Neighborhoods.” On set weekends, GRPD officers flood the streets to look for specific violent offenders in high-crime areas and, secondarily, foster positive relationships with the community while on patrol.

Payne said people have asked them to show an even greater presence and use whatever tools are available to stop violence after the city saw its deadliest year ever in 2020.

“We will continue to engage and listen to the community, especially those that are directly affected by this violence and see it on a daily basis,” Payne said.

He gave an example of how neighborhood policing is working: He said some young kids approached an officer and told him about a gun they found in their backyard. He says that level of trust is a key factor in making communities safer and his department will keep moving in that direction.

Payne went on to defend a statement he released about the recent use of force by some GRPD officers on a suspect during a traffic stop, which the suspect’s attorney says was unwarranted. Payne said that in the incident in question, four illegal guns were taken off the street.

He said it was unfortunate that force was used and also noted that the incident is still under investigation. He said he holds his officers accountable but also supports them when they’re doing their job correctly.

Reflecting on his 35 years in law enforcement in Grand Rapids, Payne said that while the riot last year was like nothing he had ever seen and the amount of damage was troubling, he is proud that nobody was seriously injured or killed.

As for retirement, Payne says he’s in the twilight of his career, but there is no specific date on the calendar for when he will step down.

“We’ve accomplished a lot. This department is different than what it was a year ago,” Payne said, “and we’ll continue to work toward making it a better department than it already is.”