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Q & A

with Chief Kevin J. Murphy


May 2014

Kevin J. Murphy is the Montgomery Police Department chief. He was recently interviewed by the Montgomery Business Journal’s David Zaslawsky.

Montgomery Business Journal: What are your responsibilities as police chief?

Murphy: I’m the top administrator for the police department. I oversee daily operations; crime issues; community relations; and internal matters of the police department.

MBJ: How many employees in the Montgomery Police Department?

Murphy: About 720.

MBJ: What is the operating budget?

Murphy: Currently about $53 million.

MBJ: How many homicides are there through March 16 vs. March 2013?

Murphy: Three homicides – two were murders and one was self-defense.

MBJ: How many homicides were there through March 2013?

Murphy: There were 15 through this time last year.

MBJ: Please talk about the misconceptions of Montgomery’s crime rate and how it is safer than neighboring cities?

Murphy: This graph represents a 20-year span of part one crimes for the City of Montgomery.

MBJ: What are part one crimes?

Murphy: It’s what you consider major crimes: homicide, aggravated assault, rape and felonies like burglary, felony theft, auto theft. These are considered serious crimes. (In 2013,) we fell below 10,000 part one crimes. When I saw that number I started doing some research. I found that the last time the City of Montgomery fell below 10,000 part one crimes was in 1984 – this is the first time in 30 years. Although Montgomery had an exceptionally high year in violent crime; overall crime was down significantly.

MBJ: What was the worst recent year for part one crimes?

Murphy: In 2002, we had the highest crime during (a) 20-year period starting from 1993 to 2013. We had 16,576 part one crimes. When we fell below 10,000, I thought that was a pretty phenomenal decline.

MBJ: What do you attribute that to?

Murphy: Crime in the United States has been falling. We have been following the national trend. I can’t say that Montgomery is the exception to the rule – that we’re the only city that’s seeing these results. It’s pretty universal in the country.

MBJ: How would you characterize Montgomery?

Murphy: Everything you do in crime analysis is comparative in nature. You compare your crime statistics – your crime numbers today to yesterday; this week to last week; this month to the previous month; you compare by years. It’s a report card on where you’ve been. When you start looking at the numbers the way you compare your city is to cities with like populations. If you look at Montgomery compared to cities close to our population like Little Rock. Ark., our crime rates are much lower here than they are in Little Rock. But you’re also going to find cities of like size in the country that have better numbers than us. We usually fall within the pretty high percentile of having a low crime rate. Montgomery is a safe city.

MBJ: When you say that you are looking at the data to back it up.

Murphy: Every month except August 2013 (had fewer crimes) than the year before.

MBJ: The number of crimes was less in 2012 than 2011 and 2013 was less than 2012 except August. Do you expect this trend to continue?

Murphy: It won’t go down forever.

MBJ: Will it continue to decline for a few more years?

Murphy: It’s hard to say. Criminologists and sociologists have a very difficult time in predictive analysis. The abatement of crime in the late 1990s and early 2000s – no one saw it coming. No one was able to predict it. We don’t know where it is going to end up.

MBJ: After last year’s high number of homicides – the most in 30-plus years – there were a lot of different things the department was doing. Please talk about some of the newer initiatives and are those some of the reasons for the reduction in the number of homicides?

Murphy: There are two ways to combat it: short-term initiatives and long-term initiatives. The short-term initiatives are easy to formulate and put into play. You can look at the CompStat report, a weekly analysis. These weekly reports give the numbers that show any increase or decrease in crime. It breaks the city down by precinct; breaks it down by district; and even to the street and specific address. We do this every week. It gives the management here the opportunity to put resources of personnel in the hotspots. We don’t wait for this weekly report to come out before (we) start to react to the problem. You put your resources where you have a lot of activity. The following week when this report comes out you will see a reduction.

MBJ: After you remove those resources, is there an increase in crimes?

Murphy: Yes. It’s a push-pull thing. You don’t put all your resources in an area where they’re not necessarily needed. We’ll go into an area and get some semblance of control. With crime – you’re just going to manage it. You are never going to totally control it. You have to be careful the way you apply your resources because you can overextend in one area and cause a gap in another. This gives commanders in the field the ability to identify problems and address them before they get out of control.

MBJ: What are some of the initiatives the department is using?

Murphy: In this area (pointing to a map), there are bike officers, some undercover; maybe just an added, visible uniform presence. You might have some drug activity. Let’s say this map shows several car break-ins. We also have something called an arrest bulletin that shows every arrest that’s being made in this area. You can see by the legend on the arrest bulletin (the type of arrest). You can superimpose the arrest bulletin on top of part one crimes and see where (someone) was arrested for possession of crack cocaine in the same area you are experiencing an inordinate amount of car break-ins. (The individual) is on probation; he is a junkie; he’s unemployed. It’s not hard to figure out who is breaking into your cars. He doesn’t have a job so how is he supporting his drug habit. There have been instances where we pulled prints from the card and matched them up to the burglaries in the area. This is a scientific way of doing things. We’ve actually cleared cases using this technology. It’s good stuff. There’s definitely a science to it.

MBJ: Are there other short-term initiatives the department is using?

Murphy: The DART team – direct area response team. It’s a specialized unit that is fast-moving. They’ve made a lot of illegal gun seizures; stolen guns; a lot of drug arrests. They go into a neighborhood very swiftly and really gain control of a problem very fast. There has been data that’s shown that 65 to 70 percent of people committing felony crimes already have misdemeanor papers on them. In other words, have a warrant for their arrest for a misdemeanor. So we pull a stack of misdemeanor warrants and go out and serve them. Have we prevented a crime? Have we stopped a crime from occurring? Quite possibly; maybe; we don’t know. If 65 percent of the people breaking into cars or committing felonies already have paper on them and we’re going out and serving those warrants and placing them in jail, where they’re not on the streets to commit a felony. Maybe we have caused that number to go below 10,000. A short-term initiative can be something that lasts for a day or two or a month. They have proven to be effective because they are easy to measure.

MBJ: What about long-term initiatives?

Murphy: The long-term initiatives take longer to measure: Operation Good Shepherd (pastors assist crime victims and witnesses); mentoring programs and that type of thing – you’re not going to know for sure whether that program is successful for years down the road.

MBJ: Please talk about the Montgomery Violent Crime Commission and its impact?

Murphy: It’s a multidisciplinary approach to combating violent crime. You have people in corrections, parole, the education system, medical field, mental health, school system, prosecutors and of course, the police. They take a multifaceted approach to violent crime, but again you’re not necessarily going to see the fruit on the tree for some years later. Those long-term initiatives take longer to heed any results, but you still do them. You always want a short-term concurrent with the long term.

MBJ: Don’t the long-term initiatives have the potential to have a much greater impact than the short-term initiatives?

Murphy: That’s right. I’m working with some of these kids and you’ve got to catch a young person very early in life and steer them away from some of those poor decisions that obviously people find themselves in when they end up on this map. You work with a child who is exposed to an environment dysfunctional with drugs; a dysfunctional home life; alcoholism; mental illness. They become a product of that environment. If you can reach out and touch these kids and be a positive influence in their lives, maybe they won’t turn to drugs, alcohol and suffer from mental illness, but you’re not going to know that for 10 years. There are success stories out there. I think one of the challenges that we face as a community – so many of these long-term initiatives deal with young people. Here’s the problem that I’ve seen: Dispute resolution in the public school system, where they teach these kids and give them skills to deal with conflict. It’s great, but that child leaves school and goes home to that same dysfunctional environment that caused them to not be able to deal with frustration.

MBJ: You’re saying that the dispute resolution techniques learned at school are not reinforced at home.

Murphy: They’re not. The parents need to be going to the school classes, too. To me, it’s the holistic approach – the parents need to be involved and they need to be counseled and treated.

MBJ: Hasn’t the community become more and more engaged about violent crime last year with the high number of homicides?

Murphy: I think they did to a certain degree. When it comes to this type of phenomenon, people have a very short memory. Now that we’ve suffered only two homicides (through late March) in 2014, people have a tendency to go back to their comfort zone. My fear is that there are just going to forget about 2013. Things are OK now. Somebody may say at the end of the year: ‘we just had X amount of murders, which isn’t so bad.’ Let’s say we have only 20 homicides in 2014. Is 20 acceptable? Fifty was certainly not. Again, people fall into a sense of comfort. The year before we had 33 murders. I guess that seemed to be OK because nobody got up in arms about it, but that’s 33 families who lost a loved one whose life was abruptly ended.

MBJ: You told WSFA 12 News: “I think we’ve gotten away from the personal aspect of the victims. These are people with families, names and faces and we have to get back to the human side and figure out why this is happening.” How do you get the community to view the victims as people?

Murphy: People tend to depersonalize crimes of violence. You read it in the paper or you see it on the news – an extraordinary act of violence in another state; another city. You think, ‘Wow, that’s terrible.’ People depersonalize in our society violent crime. They see it on TV; they see it in the movies and it’s just not real to them.

MBJ: You don’t think of the victims as real people.

Murphy: Right, but when it starts to become your community and your city it makes something very depersonalized – very personal. I had a psychiatrist tell me once that someone mentioned what were they (criminal) thinking? He made a good point – it’s the absence of thinking.

MBJ: The mayor said that last year’s Centennial Hill Bar & Grill shooting on Highland Avenue that left three people dead was a turning point for the community. What was the impact?

Murphy: We just said a moment ago that people get back to their comfort zone. I think you saw a definite reaction to the Centennial Hill case. Before, in some of the homicides we experienced there was a question of where’s the rage; where’s the outcry; where were those who were going to say we’ve had it and this has gone too far? I think we saw that with the Centennial Hill case.

MBJ: Was there a turning point because a female college student, who was a bystander, was slain?

Murphy: It could be. I saw some of that. People become enraged, but the problem is the sustainability of that. People burn out quick; they get on with their lives. I think her death was … she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

MBJ: Would you please talk about victimology.

Murphy: You’re looking at some lifestyle choices … are you safer in your living room and with your family or are you less safe in a bar surrounded by alcohol and drugs? There are certain rates of risks involved in some lifestyle choices. Do you use drugs? Do you sell drugs? Do you engage in prostitution? Are you a habitual alcoholic? Do you have multiple sexual partners? Do you engage in criminal activity? As a subset or subgroup or a group, criminals have the highest incidence of crime victimology than any other subset.

MBJ: They are hanging out with other criminals and turn against each other.

Murphy: Yes, thank you. These types of lifestyle choices have an impact on whether or not you’re going to be a likely victim of a crime.

MBJ: I did see your presentation on victimology and I remember if someone had a job; was a homeowner; monogamous; did not abuse drugs or alcohol, the odds of being a crime victim were nearly nil.

Murphy: We’re not saying the random victim does not happen, but they are the exception. We’re talking about violent crime. Anybody can be the victim of a property crime. If you look at the 50 homicide victims from last year, more of them than not fell into one or more of these categories and some of them fell into several categories. I can remember one mother of a victim telling the detectives, ‘I just knew it was a matter of time.’ She knew her son was hanging around with the wrong crowd; engaged in the wrong activity; and he ended up getting killed. We had one homicide last year where these two guys go and rob someone and started arguing over the proceeds of the crime. And one of them shot and killed the other one. Risk or risk factors go into play. Most victims of violent crime know their perpetrator and a lot of them fall into these categories.

MBJ: Every time there is a murder it’s front page news or will be a lead story on the local news. It’s not news that there were no murders. How do you overcome that?

Murphy: If it bleeds it leads – that’s an old newspaper thing. It’s sensational. I’ve had people tell me that ‘I’m moving to Pike Road’ and that’s fine. You’re still going to have to buy an alarm for your house. You’re still going to have to have dead-bolt locks. You’re still going to have to have some security measures. You can’t completely protect yourself from being a victim of a crime. You can take certain measures to try to mitigate it like getting an alarm system, getting a privacy fence, getting a dog and getting a camera system and dead-bolt locks; having a wireless alarm system where if they cut the phone line it’s still going to the alarm company. If you move to Pike Road, you’re still going to have to do these things. You’re also going to have to consider the response time by the county deputies is going to be a little slower than in the city, where there are more officers per capita and shorter distance to travel to get to your house. The county has a lot further to go to get from point A to B.