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Whitewashing Chief’s Payne tenure with the GRPD: How the Grand Rapids commercial news media defends systems of power and excludes activist voices

March 6, 2022

(Editor’s note: While we are focusing on MLive in this article, the other major commercial news outlets also Whitewashed the GRPD and Chief Payne in recent years.)

On Friday, MLive reported on the retirement send-off for the now former Grand Rapids Chief of Police Eric Payne. The headline for the story was, After 34-year career, retiring Grand Rapids police chief says building trust was priority.

The article was not only about Payne’s retirement, it was a complete whitewash of his tenure as Chief of Police. Payne was the only person cited in the story, so there are no other perspectives included. Payne also makes several claims in the article, claims that are never verified. 

For example, the article states:

Payne said he was always willing to listen to those calling for reforms, but noted that certain tactics such as chokeholds and “no knock” warrants have long been against Grand Rapids police practices.

“That was the difficulty for me when screams for reform were being made. I don’t know how to reform something we’re not doing,” he said. “But we listened to the community and we came up with our strategic plan and I think that’s a good road map moving forward.”

First, Payne was NOT always willing to listen to people calling for reforms. Numerous community-based groups and a larger movement pushing for defunding the GRPD were repeatedly ignored over the past several years. Groups like Movimiento Cosecha GR and GR Rapid Response to ICE were making demands on GRPD collaboration and complicity with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Those demands were ignored. Groups like Defund the GRPD, Justice for Black Lives, the Urban Core Collective, the ACLU, the NAACP and Linc Up were also calling for more structural changes to the GRPD, which were also ignored. 

Chief Payne was being challenged even before the May 30th, 2020 uprising that took place in downtown Grand Rapids in response to the police murder of George Floyd. The MLive reported said of the George Floyd murder by police: 

The coronavirus pandemic and the national strife that came with the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck, brought complications to the job. 

Officer Dereck Chauvin didn’t merely kneel on Floyd’s neck, it was an intentional action to punish yet another Black person who would not submit to the demands of a white cop.

At one point in the article Chief Payne says that 3,000 people were screaming at him. It is true that people were angry and screaming, but neither Payne nor the MLive reporter provided any context. The May 30th protest led to an uprising, when GRPD officers showed up in riot gear, began pushing protestors and even fired 40mm chemical rounds, known as spede heat into the group, hitting at least one person, with the intent to disperse those protesting the police murder of George Floyd.

For several months after the May 30th, 2020 uprising, GRIID documented how Grand Rapids City Officials and Chief Payne attempted to control the narrative about policing in Grand Rapids. One of the points we made in that documentation was the fact that the local news media often acts as a Public Relation arms of the GRPD. In fact, we have documented on numerous instances that the local news media has simply repeated GRPD Media Releases as fact, without seeking input or a counter perspective from the numerous groups demanding more accountability from the Police Department. 

As the headline in the MLive article suggests, Payne claims to have made building trust in the community a goal, which to even the most modest observer, would be considered a cruel joke. 

Under Payne’s two and a half year tenure as police chief, he made it a point to have his officers harass, intimidate, monitor and arrest activists who were challenging the very function of policing in Grand Rapids. The GRPD would show up to protests and provoke people, despite the fact that protests were overwhelmingly non-violent. Under orders from Chief Payne, the GRPD would selectively enforce permit rules and noises ordinances, which everyone involved knew were selectively enforced. 

In addition, there were numerous high profile incidents where GRPD officers used unnecessary force on Black and Brown residents, where Chief Payne consistently defended the police abuse, saying that the cops involved “always follow proper procedure.” Here are a couple of examples where Payne defends his officers use of violence against Black people: 

Grand Rapids Police Officer’s Association says the video footage of GRPD officers repeated punching a motorist was just fanning the flames of national rage

The GRPD arrest of a Black man going to a family wake was not because of flawed training, it was the result of a system of policing that is designed to do exactly what they did.

The GRPD once again demonstrates that they can wrongfully arrest Black people with impunity 

The MLive article on the retirement of Chief Payne also omitted the fact that through significant community pressure, Grand Rapids City officials decided to not use COVID relief funding that was being offered through Kent County to purchase the ShotSpotter technology for the GRPD.

The whitewashing by MLive and the other commercial news outlets on the official end of Eric Payne’s tenure as Police Chief comes as no surprise. The local news media has consistently demonstrated their allegiance to systems of power in this city, plus the local media outlets all internalize the belief that the police are here to protect and to serve. 

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