A small white sign pokes out of the snow bank in front of First Christian Reformed Church. It announces that “Coffee with the Captain” will begin at 5:30 p.m. and directs people to a nondescript red brick building next to the church for the meeting. It’s the only indication that anything is happening on an otherwise quiet Tuesday night.
Despite the lack of advertising, about 10 people trickle into the lobby of that red brick building for “Coffee with the Captain.”
They’ve come to meet with Eric Payne, the police captain for the south side of Grand Rapids. Payne explains the purpose of the event:
“‘Coffee with the Captain’ is meant to be a chance for the people in the community to get to know the police in a different setting — to talk about their concerns and build up a relationship of trust with the police department.”
The event is organized by Bates Place Ministries, a nonprofit devoted to the Bates Place neighborhood, an area bounded by Division Avenue, Wealthy Street, Fuller Avenue and Hall Street.
Bates Place teamed with Captain Payne to launch “Coffee with the Captain” a year and a half ago as a way to improve the sometimes distrustful relationship people in the Bates Place neighborhood have with the police.
“People in our neighborhood see the police as the enemy. They think they’re just out to arrest people. So when a crime happens, nobody wants to go to the police,” Bryan Blakely, the director of Bates Place explains.
And their efforts have had an impact. When crime spikes in the area, Blakely says people from the Bates Place neighborhood show up to “Coffee with the Captain” in droves. At one point, so many people came that they had to move the meeting into the church sanctuary next door.
However, the crime rate has been low this month, and tonight’s group is small. The people who do show up come from all over the city, not just the Bates Place neighborhood. There’s a longtime Eastown resident, a county commissioner, a city comptroller, the owner of a coffee shop downtown, a woman from the Bates Place neighborhood and a member of the Bates Place board.
The topics discussed at the meeting are equally diverse. Over the course of two hours, the discussion covers everything from the Grand Rapids Press and English as a Second Language programs in the area to local bars and the weather. But the uncertain future of the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) looms large over the entire conversation.
The department is facing budget cuts — the latest in a long string of cuts to the GRPD over the last decade, according to Payne. At the same time as it deals with these budget cuts, the GRPD is preparing to embark on a search for a new police chief. The budget cuts have put many programs and services on the line, and until the police department finds a new chief, Payne says their fate will likely remain up in the air.
With so many programs and services in danger, Payne believes that the department will have to rely on an approach to police work he calls “community policing” to keep Grand Rapids safe.
“Community policing is more proactive than reactive,” he explains. “We try to identify the problems and work with the community to help solve those problems. It’s a great model for us now that we have fewer resources. We can empower people to solve problems on their own block.”
It’s through events like “Coffee with the Captain” and work with neighborhood associations like Bates Place that the police department hopes to empower people in the Grand Rapids community.
“Coffee with the Captain” already inspired one of the women at the meeting to take charge in her neighborhood. The residents of the house across the street from hers were involved with drugs and gang violence. She and her neighbors worked together with Payne, who she knew through “Coffee with the Captain,” to evict them.
Although many of the issues covered at “Coffee with the Captain” are serious ones, the atmosphere of the meeting is casual — more like a chat between friends than an official meeting. Regular attendees trade barbs with one another. Two of the newcomers discover they had lived on the same street as children.
This week, Blakely brought a cake for Payne, who recently had a birthday. There was also chicken and, of course, coffee, though the captain himself never has any.
“I don’t actually drink coffee,” he laughs. “So I don’t know why we call this thing ‘Coffee with the Captain.’”
Marco Bulpes passes out business cards for his recently-opened coffee shop, Mayan Buzz Cafe, to everyone who does drink coffee.
“Only 24-hour cafe in the city and located walking distance from Founder’s Brewing Company,” he advertises. “Best cup of coffee in the city!”
Blakely quips in response: “I think we all know the best cup of coffee is right here at Bates Place.”
For more information on “Coffee with the Captain,” email Bates Place Ministries at [email protected]