Thursday, July 7, 2011

Open Letter To Murl Harpham

Talk Is Cheap :: Actions Speak The Truth
Murl Harpham is the Eureka City Interim Police Chief. He was just approved by a unanimous Eureka City Council vote after they fired Garr Nielsen. He writes in today's Times-Standard My Word, Thursday, July 7, 2011: "Preserving law and order, enforcing the laws and protecting and serving all citizens." Here Murl Harpham, by his own words is an original veteran EPD officer of 54 years. For the record, everyone must agree, such service says much that is commendable about Murl Harpham and his integrity, loyalty and ability to survive. Without any doubt he is what I would term “Old Guard” and "Professional." He makes a couple of statements that gives that away as well. As I read his words I was reminded of yesterday's My Word, Search warrant folly: An open letter to Paul Gallegos by Jeffrey Schwartz and if he had in mind Murl Harpham when he commented about "ingrained, backward-thinking Humboldt County Law Enforcement."

For instance, it could easily be said that what Murl Harpham knows about police work is what he learned working for the EPD. Nothing wrong in that, but we all know that there are more ways to run a business than just “the” way.  Over time people get entrenched and comfortable in “their” way of doing things and dealing with people. Notice his instructions to everyone: “If there are any problems with ... bring this to my attention via a letter or email and it will be dealt with immediately.” I have no doubt that what he says here is true. Experience requires, however, asking him how effective will he be in his dealings? He is demanding an awful lot of trust from everyone in this community in that what he says is what will be done. Letters and emails are extremely impersonal and disallow opportunity for any followup or accountability. The question remains, will putting our trust in him produce the meaningful change and accountability required of everyone to effect viable, legitimate protection and service?

In that regard, Murl Harpham says something quite revealing: “Fifty plus years ago the chief who hired me said, “You are here to serve all citizens and put the bad guys in jail.” That credo has continued throughout the years.” And there's a good reason that it has. I'm sure the decent, law-abiding citizens of Eureka and Humboldt County fully support that “credo.” I know my wife and I do since we are threatened by “bad guys and girls” on a daily basis just trying to back our car out of our garage.

My question, here however, is what does Murl Harpham really mean by “bad guys”? Fifty-four years ago everyone knew who “the bad guys” were. This is a fairly open-ended label that could apply to just about any police officer's bigotry and prejudice or fear of threat. He couches this issue when he explains or defines how the EPD will respond to “dangerous” people or “citizens in fear.” He says, “first an olive branch of peace is extended” and if that does not work, “they become tough.” He goes on to say: “ No one likes a tough cop until they need one, then they want the toughest cop around.” That statement says something about Murl Harpham and his method of policing. What does an "olive branch of peace" actually mean? What does "become tough" really mean? More important than physically “tough cops” are emotionally and psychologically tough people that are secure within themselves and in their legitimacy as a person and as equal citizens of the community they serve. Only then when they extend their “olive branch” can people accept it. Where in most cases eliminating the need or opportunity to get, become or show how “tough” they are.

Now to the reason I posted the picture in today's Times-Standard: Car runs stop sign, resulting in four-car collision. Murl Harpham asserts, and every citizen in Eureka needs to hold him accountable: “There are no politics with law enforcement. We simply preserve law and order, enforce the laws and protect and serve all the citizens of our town.” That means, at least to this writer, all the people in Eureka that deliberately “run stop signs” violate the law whether they cause wrecks, not collisions, or not.

Murl Harpham also says, and I believe probably the most important thing he said except giving out his telephone numbers, (441-4068 and 441-4095) : In their everyday job, “we do require your assistance as we can't do this alone. Law enforcement is every citizen's duty. Tell us where the problem areas are, and they will be dealt with forthwith.”


For some years the citizens of “our town” were not satisfied with how they were being policed, so they tried a different approach. They voted in a different city council that was willing to hire a supervisor (Police Chief) with a different style of operating. Yet when push came to shove they were not willing to risk fully supporting him in implementing this “new” style of, as some say, “forward-thinking.” Consequently, without the actual, de facto support of the majority voters in Eureka and their Council, neither the Police Chief or the full compliment of officers possessed any authentic legitimacy. Without legitimacy the police officers, same as anyone else, must first protect themselves. Consequently, the citizenry gets the kind of “tough,” gang-type policing Jeffrey Schwartz identified in his Open Letter to the District Attorney.

“Every citizen's duty” is best expressed by simply obeying the law – STOP AT THE DAMNED STOP SIGN. And that includes EVERYONE, police officers as well. This is how you actually SUPPORT your police and legitimize their right to serve and protect. While Murl Harpham and the Eureka Police Department do not directly answer to the people, their very existence is derived from the consent of Eureka citizens. When Murl Harpham says they first offer an olive branch, everyone should realize this is what he's talking about, willing and immediate "consent." No law enforcement officer can tolerate being deligitimized, specially when he believes he's dealing with a "bad guy." The consequences for refusal or failure are obvious. At that point the enforcing officer becomes the law, and matters get personal.

When everyone is thumbing their noses at the law they are impugning the very right and legitimate existence of all those enforcing those laws. I believe Murl Harpham understands this simple reality and is the reason why he is asking everyone to give to the EPD what they were unwilling or incapable of giving to Garr Nielsen - meaningful or actual support.

“Every citizen's duty” from the Police Chief's point of view is to have everyone “tell them were the problem areas are.” Well, Chief of Police Murl Harpham, one BIG problem area is traffic enforcement. No one stops or even intends to stop at stops signs. It may seem like a small thing compared to a “bad guy” threatening someone with a gun. Well, those cars used by those “bad guys and girls” are just as lethal.

What do you see in that picture? What do you think all of those "children" are learning that watched this wreck unfold? Are they learning that the innocent victim, the one that trusted that their fellow motorists will NOT miss a stop sign, let alone RUN one deliberately? Are they learning that it is the innocent victim that always gets hurt or killed? Or are they being taught that people can freely cause a wreck, deliberately injure an innocent person and walk free - not get arrested, handcuffed and taken off to jail and made to answer for their physical assault and the personal damage they cause?

I hope that everyone in Eureka, if not Humboldt County, takes to heart Murl Harpham's offer.

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