GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Grand Rapids Police Department Chief Eric Payne says he will retire early next year.

Sworn in as chief in July 2019, he was the first African American to hold the office. He has been a police officer for nearly 35 years.

A Tuesday release from the city did not include a specific retirement date, saying only that it would be in early 2022.

“When I took this position, I was clear with the community, the City Manager, and — most importantly — my family, I had a clear set of goals I wanted to accomplish but that this was going to be a three-to-five-year assignment,” Payne in a statement.

During his time as chief, Payne spearheaded the creation of a three-year strategic plan, doubled down on community policing, oversaw the addition of a victim services coordinator and helped get the Homeless Outreach Team up and running.

Payne said his two-year tenure as chief has been defined by changes and challenges. 

“Dealing with the pandemic, the amount of violence that occurred in 2020 and also the civil unrest, that was a challenging year,” Payne told News 8.

The national climate during Payne’s tenure was rocky. Amid a reckoning with racism, there were widespread calls for police reform and equity in policing that sparked protests across the country, including in Grand Rapids. During one massive demonstration downtown in June 2020, Payne knelt with protesters in a show of solidarity. He also implemented use of force reforms, including explicitly banning chokeholds.

He was at the helm during a dark day for the city on May 30, 2020, when a demonstration devolved in to a riot. Rioters smashed out windows downtown and set Wyoming police cruisers on fire. It was hours and many rounds of tear gas before the riot broke up. By the time it was over, more than 100 businesses had sustained damage, but no one was seriously hurt.

2020 was also Grand Rapids’ deadliest year ever, with 38 homicides. In response to the deaths and an uptick in gun violence overall, GRPD launched a new program called “Operation: Safe Neighborhoods,” flooding the streets with officers on designated weekends to look for specific violent offenders in high-crime areas and foster positive relationships with the community.

Despite continued criticism from some in the community, Payne is proud of where the department is today.

“I won’t say getting through 2020 because there’s still work to be done, but again, I think we are in a better place than what we were a year ago,” he said. 

Payne said in the city’s release that his long service with GRPD, which he joined in 1987, allowed him to form a clear vision for his time as chief.

“I came into the job with an idea of what I wanted to do. Community-policing, enhancing training and accountability measures on diversity and inclusion, ensuring we were a values-based organization that matched those of the people we serve, in many ways I was already taking the department in this direction before the events of last year,” Payne stated. “I think that made it easier to have some of the tough conversations other communities might have struggled with and it certainly helped in writing our Department Strategic Plan because the community reaffirmed, we all wanted the same things.”

After more than three decades with the department, the 58-year-old chief said he’s ready to retire. 

“The biggest reason is family and its time after 34 years,” he said. “I’m very proud of every one of those years, but it’s time to move on and again, I believe policing has changed and the entire criminal justice system is changing and it’s time for someone else to come in and take us to that next level.”

Payne said he takes great pride in being the department’s first African American chief.

“When I started at the department there were very few, if any, minorities across the board that were in supervisory or management positions and now, there’s an African American police chief,” he said.

City Manager Mark Washington praised Payne for his commitment to the community, saying he “can’t imagine a better person to help us navigate this moment.”

Washington said he expects to release a timeline for replacing Payne within the next few months.

“I want to thank the Chief for his thoughtful service and giving us adequate time to plan for his departure. I’ll be looking to engage with the community, stakeholders, and our police department staff to determine what this community desires in our next Police Chief before I make an appointment,” the city manager said in a statement. “That person is going to have big shoes to fill.”

— News 8’s Jacqueline Francis contributed to this report.