TOPICS > Nation > Race Matters: Solutions

How one chief tried to reverse police wrongs of the civil rights era

February 18, 2016 at 6:25 PM EDT
As a young officer in Montgomery, Alabama, Kevin Murphy wondered why no one had ever acknowledged past injustices committed by police against civil rights activists. Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault talks with Murphy about his initiatives as police chief to promote a more reflective police force and how those ideas can be applied to law enforcement around the country.


Growing up, retired Montgomery County police chief Kevin Murphy wondered why no one in his home state of Alabama formally acknowledged the injustices and violence committed against Rep. John Lewis by police during his time as a student activist. During the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, he did just that. Murphy publicly apologized to Lewis, and personally handed him his badge.

Witnessing the negative interactions of police with minority communities as a youth has guided Murphy’s approach to law enforcement. After becoming chief, one of the first things he did was implement a program for his officers to learn racial bias in policing, using lessons on important parts of Montgomery’s civil rights history. The class has since be added to regular police training, including a tour of the Rosa Parks Museum and scenarios that mimic real-life scenarios of improper policing. His goal was to caution new officers on how to use the power of their uniforms ethically. He has a message for law enforcement agencies across the country on how to be more effective at serving their communities.

“Law enforcement needs to start hold themselves accountable,” he said. “There’s no such thing as street justice. You have to abide by the law when you’re wearing a uniform and set the example. When you don’t do that you’ve lost all credibility with the public you serve.”

Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault traveled to Montgomery to report.

Read the full transcript below:

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, another in our Race Matters series.

Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, to speak with former police Chief Kevin Murphy about the solutions he found in trying to create a more responsive and cooperative police force.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: During the 50th anniversary of police violence against peaceful civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama, that ended in Montgomery, police Chief Kevin Murphy did something surprising. He apologized to Congressman John Lewis, a frequent victim of that earlier violence, and handed him his badge.

We caught up with Murphy, where he now works as Montgomery County deputy sheriff, and where some of his solutions are still in place.

Kevin Murphy, thank you for joining us.

KEVIN MURPHY, Chief Deputy, Montgomery County, Alabama: Thank you for having me.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What moved you to hand John Lewis your badge that day?

KEVIN MURPHY: Well, as a young officer, I had seen Congressman Lewis and the congressional delegation Faith and Politics come to Montgomery over a several-year period. They would follow the civil rights trail and they would come and spend time in Montgomery.

And as a young member of the department, I would see him and wonder, why hasn’t anyone ever acknowledged the injustices that occurred here and thought, if I ever become police chief, I’m going to change that. And then the day did arrive when they were to come to Montgomery for their annual tour.

And I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t want it to be a political act. I wanted it to be sincere and heartfelt, and the respect that I have for Congressman Lewis is immeasurable.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, he’s told me he has the same for you.

In your early days as a police officer, you asked questions. What kind of questions did you ask, and what kind of responses did you get?

KEVIN MURPHY: I found that a lot of the officers who had really lived through that era, particularly the white officers, were very reluctant and uncomfortable with talking about it.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, when you became chief, what steps did you take to change what you saw as the wrongs?

KEVIN MURPHY: One of the first things that I implemented as the new police chief was enacting a class, creating a class.

We went way back in history to the Dred Scott decision all the way through to the Emmett Till case, because I wanted the officers to experience what really happened.

You know, what my observation was is, you have a 21-year-old officer who had never lived through or seen the civil rights era for what it was, the dark reality of it. And so this young officer would stop an African-American citizen and get somewhat of a pushback, because maybe this 60- or 75-year-old African-American citizen’s last encounter with a Montgomery police officer was very negative.

After they attended the class, I saw a lot of promise, in that, the next time they encountered that citizen, they felt like: I understand now.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And you put this class — you got this class put into the police academy’s training.


And we actually had all members of the department, not just the sworn officers, but the civilians, attended as well, and had tremendous feedback. The first part of the course is classroom, then a tour of the Rosa Parks Museum.

But my favorite part of the class was the conclusion, where there was a values segment. And the values segment was giving scenarios to the members of the class. It was strongly agree, somewhat agree, strongly disagree, somewhat disagree.

But I was proud of the answers and the outcomes of those scenarios, because they were learning from the class that, you know, you have to be very careful in the way that you apply this power. And, you know, we’re seeing it in the country now.

And I think that we were teaching that in this class, how to de-escalate a situation where a citizen was upset because they thought that they were going to be mistreated when they saw the patch of the Montgomery Police Department, and it was the officer’s responsibility to ensure that citizen that that wasn’t going to occur.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What do you think in that experience is replicable or has any kind of application today?

KEVIN MURPHY: I think law enforcement needs to get to work.

And I think that one of the biggest challenges that we face in this new century is our response to what I would call a critical event, where you have a citizen who’s become violent, a citizen who’s under the influence of drugs or perhaps they are suffering from some type of mental health issue.

And what I have seen with a lot of these encounters that end very badly, with the death of an unarmed citizen, is a fear on the part of the officer. And we all experience it in this uniform. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but you have to be able to manage that fear. And I believe, sometimes, when fear steps in, poor decisions are made. And I think that the use of deadly force falls into that category.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, what do you do about it?

KEVIN MURPHY: We need to be able to teach the officers, the deputies coming into this profession how to manage your fear. No one ever did that to us, my generation.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What do you think is the most important thing to do now to ensure that everybody, the police are respected, as well as those who deserve to be protected by the police and even those who commit crimes?

KEVIN MURPHY: Law enforcement needs to start holding themselves accountable.

And you’re starting to see it in some parts of the country, where officers are being held accountable, and there are consequences for bad behavior.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: A lot of the people who have been victims of improper police behavior were innocent, but what do you do when you have got criminals? I mean, not everybody is innocent.

KEVIN MURPHY: It’s not a police officer’s job to punish. We’re there to enforce the law and to take people into custody.

But I think you have seen in some instances, and certainly back in the latter — early and the latter parts of the last century, that, you know, law enforcement felt like it was their role to punish. And, you know, it’s our responsibility to apprehend and bring these people before the courts.

You know, there is no such thing as street justice. You have to abide by the law when you’re wearing the uniform and set the example. When you don’t do that, you have lost all credibility with the public that you serve.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Kevin Murphy, thank you.

KEVIN MURPHY: Thank you.