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Chief Payne announces his retirement, continues to present a managed narrative about the function of policing in Grand Rapids

August 3, 2021

Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Payne has announced that he plans to retire sometime in early 2022, according to a Media Release from the City of Grand Rapids.

From the Media Release:

According to Payne, those goals included transforming public safety in Grand Rapids by focusing on community relationships, transparency, staffing, and training. City Manager Mark Washington believes Payne has positioned the department, and the City, well heading into the future.

“The last few years have been challenging for law enforcement nationally, and Grand Rapids hasn’t been immune to that, but I can’t imagine a better person to help us navigate this moment than Eric Payne,” Washington said.

“His commitment to the people of this community and his officers has been a guiding force as we worked to reimagine public safety in this City.”

The local news media has pretty much parroted the content of the City’s Media Release on Payne’s retirement and what the GRPD has done since he took over a few years ago. In addition, the local news media has not solicited responses from those who have been critical of policing in Grand Rapids, which also function to keep the managed narrative about the GRPD from City officials.

However, it is important that we do present a contrasting narrative, one that is community based, one that comes from those who have been both impacted by policing in Grand Rapids and have been at the forefront of challenging the GRPD.

Challenging the GRPD narrative

It is instructive to look back at how City Officials and the GRPD have responded since the uprising in Ferguson after the police murder of Michael Brown. The GRPD had a list of reform measures they sought to implement, with the top priority of getting body cameras. This coincided with the GRPD utilizing respectability politics, by getting endorsements from establishment Black voices, instead of paying attention to younger voices who embraced a more abolitionist vision of policing. 

There were then repeated examples of GRPD engaging in harm against Black and Brown community members, incidents which received a great deal of public attention, with more push back from the community, particularly in the case of how the GRPD was pulling guns on Black and Brown youth. 

After the 2016 election outcome there were also new social movements developing, particularly around immigrant justice, led by Movimiento Cosecha GR. We have seen for years how the GRPD has chosen to police dissident groups in the community, but this took on a whole new dynamic of excessive policing, especially since it was a movement led by immigrants.

This movement engaged in some collaboration with the Black community and involving white allies to challenge the GRPD, particularly around the GRPD surveillance and intimidation tactics used against immigrant organizers.

Then the pandemic happened and the May 30th uprising, which saw even more people challenging how policing was happening across the US and in Grand Rapids. Again, the GRPD and City officials attempted to adopt mild reforms with the hope that it might appease those who were calling for the Defunding of the GRPD. But the Defund the Policing Movement is rooted in an abolitionist vision and will not be appeased with reformist rhetoric or policy changes.

This abolitionist vision is described in the introduction to a new book by David Correia and Tyler Wall, entitled, Violent Order: Essays on the nature of police:

“If we believe policing to be an institution dedicated to promoting safety and security, then we could reasonably assume that improving policing increases safety. If we understand policing as both depending on and generating violence, however, then we understand that the only true way to end the violence of policing is to end policing.”

Just prior to Chief Payne’s retirement announcement, the GRPD published their 2020 Annual Report. In the introduction of the report, Chief Payne states:

This past year we encountered unimaginable obstacles, including a global pandemic, nationwide civil unrest, and extensive reductions to police resources. Despite these difficulties, we have moved the agency forward and developed a stronger community partnership for Grand Rapids. We have implemented an aggressive strategic plan, to restructure, increase transparency, and utilize data more strategically. Our targeted deployments of Operation: Safe Neighborhoods have allowed us to focus on violent offenders, while addressing disparate outcomes. 

What is instructive about Payne’s narrative is that it completely omits how the GRPD has intimidated, harassed, targeted, arrested and engaged in an ongoing counter-insurgency strategy to suppress the resistance to policing in Grand Rapids. This is the narrative we must elevate and this is the narrative that defines Chief Payne’s legacy, one of repression and a complete failure to listen to Black and Brown organizers. The call for defunding of the GRPD will continue, regardless of who will be the next Chief of Police. 

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