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Grand Rapids police chief reflects on record number of homicides in 2020

Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Payne file photo
Posted at 4:06 PM, Dec 16, 2020

GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. — 2020 has been a violent year in Grand Rapids, setting a new record for the number of homicides.

It's been a tough year for everyone, including Police Chief Eric Payne.

2020 is his first full year as Chief. He's dealt with a pandemic, trying to repair a fractured relationship with the community, and seen an increase in violent crime like nothing Grand Rapids has seen in two decades.

To Payne, the only good thing about this, is now no one has an excuse to look away from these problems, and the only way he says we can find solutions, is if all aspects of the community work together.

According to him, the number doesn't matter, but it does show the problems of a fractured system.

“The way I look at it, it’s concerning. 34, 35, one, they’re all concerning to me,” GRPD Chief Eric Payne said.

The 35 homicides happening within city limits are the most since 1993. Payne was with the department back then. This time around, he has the highest seat in the department.

“We had a significant increase this year. That is definitely concerning. Not just to homicides, but to gun violence in general,” Payne said.

Payne says 2020 has shined a light on the darkest of places.

“I really think COVID has had an impact on that,” Payne said.

An impact on crime, because the pandemic has frustrated all of us. Businesses are hurting. The economy is hurting. More people are hurting, too, as they navigate poverty and uncertainty the pandemic leaves behind.

“In the beginning, it was locked down, police officers were instructed not to engage as much, to try to keep themselves safe, and the public safe. Those who were inclined to participate in this type of activity saw that and that’s where it escalated a lot,” Payne said.

The Chief says the most vulnerable people in our community were those hit hardest by this year. Young people being out of school were left without other options for constructive things to do, and they turned to other activities as a result.

Payne also says a lot of the deaths are an eye for an eye, happening within days of each other.

“What it is is people who are beefing with one another,” Payne said.

“More than likely it's kids that grew up together, and they’re in these groups, and they’re having disputes with rivals.”

He says an eye for an eye doesn't just hurt those involved.

“We’ve had homes that have been shot up, homes that were struck this summer, that were not involved in any type of activity,” Payne said.

Not every homicide has been due to gun violence. A whole family was killed in a horrific fire due to negligence in February.

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Payne says, however, those causing the hurt across the board, are being caught.

“I would really be concerned if we had not had the results we’ve had in these investigations. We’ve closed close to 70% of our homicides,” Payne said.

For Payne, that's their biggest priority.

“It’s our responsibility to make sure that those that are out there terrorizing the community, that we hold them accountable,” Payne said.

The guns responsible for these crimes are being found.

“We’ve taken over 100 guns off the street, illegal guns that were involved in crimes, since September,” Payne said.

But that doesn't solve the root issues, that got us here in the first place. Payne knows that, saying his strategic plan for the department hopes to start addressing them.

“Arrests is not the answer in all crimes, but when people are out killing someone, you have to do prevention,” Payne said.

That's where, to Payne, the hardest work begins. Fighting systemic problems, we now can't look away from.

“I think it’s not just one magic wand. It’s not just law enforcement. It’s not just programs that are out there. It’s everyone working together,” Payne said.