Retired chief reflects on decades-long law enforcement career

Collaborator: Rachael Schuit
Published: 03/06/2022, 6:01 AM
Edited: 03/06/2022, 9:27 PM

(GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.) When Eric Payne began his studies at Grand Valley State University in the 1980's, he never imagined it would lead him to a 34-year career in law enforcement. 

On Friday, Payne retired from his role as chief for the Grand Rapids Police Department, the first African American to ever serve in that role. 

"I understand the significance of it," said Payne. "It's the first time and I embrace that wholeheartedly, but I was a police chief for the entire community. But I am proud that I was appointed after years of service and it's a great way of ending my career as the first African American Police Chief."

Payne says his interest in law enforcement started after he met a campus police officer named Larry Johnson, who now works as the assistant superintendent for Grand Rapids Public Schools.

"I had never really talked to an African American police officer, and we had just a casual conversation and that just kind of stuck in my mind," said Payne.

After meeting Johnson, Payne took a criminal justice class. He says he was hooked on the idea of a career in law enforcement.

His career with the Grand Rapids Police Department started in 1987. After serving in a variety of roles, he was promoted to chief in July 2019.  

During his time as chief, Payne led the GRPD through the COVID-19 pandemic, protests after George Floyd's death, and calls for police reform. 

He says it's important for law enforcement to look for ways to evolve, but he does not agree with calls to defund and says that makes it harder to recruit more officers.

"To defund would mean losing officers," said Payne. "We're in a better place today than we were during those times. Even though we continue to listen to those calling for defunding, it was not the right move to make. Instead, we have added police officers and I think there's room for growth and adding resources to this department to allow this department to carry out the mission."

Under Payne's leadership the department also implemented a new strategic plan with a focus on a neighborhood policing model.

"Eventually we'd like to have an officer in every neighborhood," said Payne. "Every neighborhood's unique and every neighborhood's different."

Despite the challenges of working in law enforcement and leading the department, Payne says he's honored to have been able to serve the community. 

"I have a lifetime of relationship building within the community," said Payne. "It will continue just not as chief anymore. But it actually started 34 years ago. Like I said there’s people who I met back then that I still have contact with today.”

As for what's next, Payne says he plans to take some off and be with his family. 

"At this point I have absolutely no plans," said Payne. 

Eric Winstrom will be sworn in as the new chief on Monday, March 7, at 5:30 p.m. 


Ann Marie Worthley
03/09/2022, 6:23 PM

Great story!