By Heidi Fenton, MLive.com, July 10, 2014
GRAND RAPIDS, MI -- Ernie Stafford may not have the public stature that comes with being a mayor or president of a large company.
But he's sure made a name for himself around downtown Grand Rapids.
As he rides by Rosa Parks Circle on a recent day, a man calls out, "Hey Stafford!"
A few minutes later, another smile and wave: "Officer, how's it going?"
Stafford, 46, offers a friendly greeting as he is out on bike patrol and continues on. He knows these people. He sees them day in and day out.
After 17 years as the primary Grand Rapids Police bicycle officer working downtown, he knows the names and faces of more than 100 people who frequently spend time around the city's core. They just aren't the names most people would know.
They're the homeless who spend time in city parks and on downtown benches. The business owners with concerns about public safety. And others who've had frequent run-ins with the law.
The department's bike patrol is especially important during the summer months, which bring more people downtown. Several arrests were made recently when fights broke out near Rosa Parks Circle. Business owners were alarmed when two teens were shot on Ionia Avenue, near Fulton Street, amid the night-time bar crowd. Days before, shots were fired in front of McFadden's Restaurant & Saloon.
This week, a man's hair was set on fire during a fight in the Louis Campau Promenade. Stafford was quickly on scene.
He is out on his department bike during the day, though others on the force join him or do the same work during special events.
The recent incidents of violence involving firearms downtown prompted officers to increase patrols there at night, and that could mean adding officers on bikes to that mix.
Bicycle officers have a unique advantage in that they're right in the crowd, said Mike Maycroft, GRPD's acting captain for the West Service Area.
"You're way more approachable," Maycroft said. "You don't have that car shielding you."
Spending the bulk of the day on a bike is different than driving in a patrol car, moving from one call to the next. It's taking a detailed look at what is going on in each part of downtown.
"I can see it. I can hear it, pull up and address it," Stafford said of problems or conflicts he responds to astride his bike. "I see what's going on."
Stafford does the job well, Maycroft said. He's a people-person, very detailed-oriented. He values relationships and makes connections with ease.
"It just works for him," Maycroft said. "He's got the experience. He's always been a solid police officer."
Stafford joined the Grand Rapids Police force in 1992 and started doing bike patrol in the late 90s. He's been the primary man in a helmet for much of the time since then. He has enjoyed cycling longer distances in his free time for years, so the police job came naturally.
It's become a passion for him. He patrols all downtown parks throughout the day, checking under bridges, along the river walk and in secluded places for those drinking alcohol or using drugs. He knows the doorways along Division Avenue where cocaine users congregate.
On a recent day, Stafford set out on patrol with an image in mind from the officers' morning meeting of a man being sought for criminal sexual conduct in areas along 28th Street. As Stafford was out doing a morning ride through the city, he spotted a man near Division Avenue and Cherry Street who matched that description. Sure enough — that was him. Other officers responded for the arrest.
Stafford wears many hats: social worker, counselor, law enforcement officer. If a person with a mental illness is having a rough day, he helps direct them to the social service agencies that can help.
He's also proven to be a significant resource for downtown business owners.
Eric Blanding has been co-owner of Premier, a downtown skateboard and premium sneaker store, for 13 years. The store has had a spot along Weston Street for nine of those years.
People often congregate on the corner, drinking, doing drugs or even leaning against Blanding's storefront. It isn't attractive for customers. Blanding suspects it is the reason why he is the only business owner on his section of Weston. It's the same reason why so many storefronts along Division Avenue are vacant, he thinks.
"It really can't happen," Blanding said. "In my opinion, police are the only thing that works."
Blanding has Stafford's cell phone number stored in his phone and shoots him a quick text whenever he sees alcohol or unwanted visitors encroaching on his space outside. Stafford is usually there in just a few minutes. He even knows many of those who congregate there by name.
Stafford works closely with officer Jason Sotke, who patrols downtown. Sotke will often pull up to assist and helps by transporting anyone under arrest.
Sotke is certified as a bicycle officer and will hit the streets soon as another rider to complement Stafford's work.
Also helping are a group of downtown Safety Ambassadors, paid workers who walk around downtown to primarily to assist visitors and provide directions. They, too, have Stafford's number and report potential public safety concerns to him when they see them.
Their help makes a difference, Stafford said.
He hopes the new Grand Rapids Police chief — David Rahinsky starts the job this week — will continue to make bike patrol a priority.
Resources are limited, with officers tied up at night by calls they need to handle in vehicles. But an officer at night dedicated to bike patrol could mean a better eye on the nightlife crowd.
For now, Stafford will continue with his focus on community policing during the day. You may seem him downtown stopping bicyclists with a reminder he tries to get it out there as often as possible: "Do not ride on the sidewalk."