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Ask the Chief – Baton Rouge: An Interview with Murphy Paul

Black man in police uniform smiling and pointing to hie head

*This interview is the second installment of Ask the Chief, a BPR interview series with police chiefs from around the country.  

Murphy Paul is the Police Chief in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. With nearly three decades in law enforcement, he has served in numerous positions, including oversight of special and criminal operations for the Louisiana State Police. Chief Paul is a graduate of the FBI National Academy and FBI National Executive Institute. Further, Chief Paul was a member of the Louisiana Governor’s Drug Policy Board and the Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies (ASCIA). 

S&J: What did you focus on when you became chief?

MP: One of the things that I looked at when I took over as the chief in 2018 was making it a point to get out there and talk to the community. That was so important for me. I was everywhere my first year, talking to everybody from faith-based leaders to community leaders to elected officials. I was getting their perceptions of how they view the police department. I surrounded myself with a leadership team that was very honest with me about the department as a whole and specifically about how we police communities of color. When I began to hear some of the history from the community and from some of my officers, I began to paint a picture in my mind of why we got into the position that we are in. 

So then I started a chief advisory council made up of members from the faith-based community, as well from Baton Rouge’s three higher education institutions and our business organizations, and other community members.  I have quarterly meetings with them about what’s going on in the community and the police department and about policy changes—engaging them in that process.  

S&J: What do you mean by “the position we are in”?

MP: I remember being at a community event and there was an older Black gentleman who said, “Can I ask you a question, chief? Why do you only write tickets to certain people?” I’m like, “What do you mean? You’re saying we only write tickets to black folks?” “Yeah.” He said. I told him I would check into it. 

When I walked into the traffic court to ask them for the data, there were only Blacks in line. I thought that maybe it’s a socio-economic issue and some Black folks can’t afford to pay for the tickets, so they’re trying to fight it. I began to have conversations with my staff about how we can help. Why does the data show that 80% of our contacts are with African-Americans? We’re not more predisposed to speeding than whites, or any other race for that matter. So why is it that the data suggests that we are? It was because of where we were writing tickets. Does that make sense?  Officers explained to me some of the decisions that had been made in the past, which led us to use more resources to enforce these laws much more aggressively in certain areas of the city. While people still want a police presence in these areas those interactions with the community have to be good.

S&J: What are you doing as Police Chief to gain the trust of historically oppressed communities in Baton Rouge?

MP: Coming in as chief I knew there was a lot of hurt and pain in certain parts of the community. It was important for me to acknowledge the role we play as a profession, from a historical perspective, in creating those barriers in community-police relations. We have to own it. We have to admit that we should not have been [disproportionately] writing tickets [to those] in disinvested communities. 

And why that acknowledgment is important is because disinvested communities are where we have our highest calls for service. Those are a lot of our high-crime areas. So when we go into these communities, we have to be mindful that 6% or less of the population is responsible for the violent crime that happens in communities all across America. I don’t care if you’re here. I don’t care if you are in Minneapolis. I don’t care if you are in San Francisco, New York, or wherever. 6% of your population is driving your violent crime, which is a very small percentage. So in those disinvested areas, we have to go in with the understanding that the people we encounter want crime out of those communities more than we do because they have to live it every day. So we can’t go in there painting everybody in those communities with a broad brush, like everybody in there is part of the problem. And I think part of improving those relationships, for me, is apologizing and just being honest. Two words: I’m sorry. There’s a lot of power in those words. 

S&J: Do you feel that the police are similarly painted with a broad brush when bad interactions occur?

MP: Yeah, and I think that’s happening more now with the influence of social media. What happened in Minneapolis was hundreds of miles from Baton Rouge. My police officers here didn’t do that [to George Floyd], and I would like to believe that my officers would have responded differently, but that incident still made its way to my front door and the front door of every chief of police in America. Social media has made the world so small. 

Like I said earlier, 6% of the population is responsible for violent crime. There’s an even smaller percentage of bad apples within the police department that don’t deserve to wear this badge. Unfortunately, when [those bad apples make terrible decisions] it makes headlines. What happened in Minnesota—no matter how much progress I’ve made as chief since I’ve been here or how much progress that this community has made in having uncomfortable conversations just like we’re having now—it agitates scars that already existed. It takes people back to the Alton Sterling incident. It takes people back to a negative experience that they had with one of our officers. Look, we have positive contact with the citizens every day, but you don’t read about it. 

S&J: Do you feel that as a police chief, when instituting new reform policies you have to appease both sides (your officers and the community) to maintain support?

MP: I see where you’re going, but I don’t look at it like that. I never look at it as “am I making a decision to please this demographic or that one?” My decisions are based on what is right. There has to be a healthy balance because my job is public safety. My job is also to try to keep up morale among our police officers. Right now, national recruiting is down and it’s tough to be a police officer. But my decisions are based on what’s better for the community as a whole. That means I sometimes have to clearly articulate to our officers who see certain reforms in a negative light, why they’re best for policing overall. 

S&J: You mentioned some officers might view police reform negatively. What do you have to say to those people?

MP: Let’s take the automobile industry, for example. In the past ten or fifteen years, have there been changes in automobiles? Undoubtedly. You need to have backup cameras, sensors, a GPS—the standards in the automobile industry have changed. When we talk about reforming law enforcement, why does it take on this negative connotation? 

It takes a situation like Minneapolis, which angers people, to really start seeing meaningful change that should have been embraced from the beginning. I don’t need the reform laws in the state of Louisiana that are being passed right now to change my policies, we did it years ago. We haven’t done a good job as a profession on making the changes that are necessary. 

S&J You talked about a number of new policies instituted in your department, many of which came after the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling by BRP officers. Even with these new policies, excessive use of force cases have still occurred in your department. What else needs to be done to reduce the number of these incidents?

MP: I think that the training piece is really key. We tell guys that our gun is one tool on our belt, but the most important tool that we use every day is this [points to his head]. We teach our officers what to look for when it comes to mental illness and to understand that they may have biases, but that they have to be fair and impartial in the decision-making process. Providing training that equips officers with the knowledge of how to de-escalate situations decreases the number of use of force incidents.

S&J: You put together a curriculum teaching kids in the community how to interact with police officers if pulled over. Have you spoken to your sons about how to safely interact with the police being black men?

MP: I have five boys. One of them just graduated from high school and has gone to college. Before he started driving I told him what to do when you get stopped by law enforcement. He said, “Okay, I know daddy. You go into the glovebox…” “No,” I said, “do not put your license in the glove compartment. I want it over your visor. I want your registration in your visor. Why? Because I want the police to see you when you pull it down because when you’re interacting with them, they’re going to be watching your hands very closely.” I had that conversation with my kids because my uncles had that same conversation with me when I was young.

I wanted to show my son what good policing looks like and what to do when you see good policing. I also wanted him to know what bad policing looks like, and give him tools he can use if he encounters it. So that’s where the idea to put that course together for kids in the community came from.

S&J: You mentioned your uncles urged you to be cautious around the police. Did you have any negative experiences with police officers growing up? If so, how does that shape the way you talk to your sons about their relationship with the police?

MP: I grew up in the city of New Orleans. New Orleans was one of the most corrupt police departments in America. Just do the research. So my experience with the New Orleans police department wasn’t one that was very positive. In fact, some of those negative interactions occurred while I was a state trooper. But I have also worked side by side with some of the finest men and women of the NOPD who uphold the department values. 

I try not to force my experiences onto my sons because their lives are different from mine. Growing up, I remember listening to a story my father and uncles told me about a time they were stopped and detained by the police because someone had been killed. I remember hearing my uncle tell that story, and seeing the emotions and the pain and the trauma in his eyes from that experience. I remember they said the detectives had them lined up. The woman whose husband had been killed was brought in and asked, “Are these the guys?” If she had said yes, they would have gone to jail for murder.

I had generational trauma from the experiences of my father, uncles, and grandfather. Before I had even interacted with law enforcement, there was this fear in me. I never shared those stories with my son because I want his experience to be positive, and I do not want to let the trauma that I experienced as a young man carry on to the next generation.

S&J: What do you want your legacy as Baton Rouge chief of police to be?

MP: That’s a good question. I’ve never thought that far ahead. I would hope that the history books will say that my heart was in the right place. Everyone may not necessarily have agreed with the decisions I made, but we were setting the foundation for what a police agency should represent.

I also hope they mention that I’m big on technology. With the creation of our real-time crime center, I brought a lot of new technology to the police department. Recruiting is harder now post-George Floyd. So I think you’re going to see a future in law enforcement all across America, where technology is going to be relied on heavily to help patrol strategies, collect data, look at repeat addresses, and in identifying chronic areas in our communities that are responsible for a lot of crime.

Finally, I hope that they’ll say that I was able to help in the collective healing process—especially when it comes to citizens and officers having positive conversations, like this one, about moving forward. 

S&J: For the majority of Americans who likely have never had a conversation like this with a police officer, what should they keep in mind?

Murphy Paul: Policing is complex. There is nothing simple about policing. It is a very complex profession and we need to start saying that. 

S&J: How did the protests in Baton Rouge following the death of George Floyd leave you feeling about the future of community-police relations in your city?

MP: I’m very optimistic. I’m optimistic because when George Floyd was killed, I counted the cities where there had been some type of riot or the protests were not peaceful. The number of cities with riots must have been in the twenties, but we were not experiencing that here in Baton Rouge. We had protests, but we, as a police department, made contact with those organizers and worked with them. We said, “Look, it is your right to do this and we’re going to work with you so that you can go out there and exercise your right to free speech.” There were no riots. There was no looting or burning down of businesses. But still, I knew how much hurt there was in the community.

It made me think that perhaps we have made some progress. The healing had already started years prior, and that’s why we didn’t have any civil unrest here in the city of Baton Rouge. I really believe that in my heart. If you go back and look at when those incidents happened in 2016, some of the people who were our biggest critics are now standing side by side with us at press conferences. They are now partners with us in saying, “Look, crime is a socio-economic issue. It’s not just the police department, there are other institutions like education, faith, and family, which all play a role in crime. 

It all comes back to the three Fs. We need faith and family first. That’s what we’re missing right now. There’s been a depreciation of family values. I am proud of the work of the men and women of the Baton Rouge Police Department and how they are adjusting to the new changes in policing. We have got to do our part as law enforcement, but the community has to do theirs as well.

[A few minutes later, Chief Paul called Sam and John back.]

S&J: Hey, I’m so glad you called. Do you have some more thoughts about our conversation?

MP:  I remember being at a speaking engagement and someone asked me a question about a decision I made where I apologized to the community. I said, “I’m sorry for some of the mistakes that we have made.” This one guy was very taken aback by that, and he had some very choice words for me. You know, I’ve talked about being the chief of a very diverse population. If my words didn’t find their way to his heart, then perhaps it’s because he didn’t have the life experience that warranted such an apology. That doesn’t mean I don’t love that guy too. It just means my apology was for those who went through that negative experience with my police department.

The second thing I wanted to share is a scenario I like to give to all of my trainees. You’re riding in a neighborhood and you see a minor traffic violation, and you pull the vehicle over. You ask for a license, registration, and proof of insurance. It’s a young lady. She gives you a license and then you run her name and find out that she has a warrant for her arrest for a moving violation that she didn’t pay two years prior. So she says, “Oh, I thought my boyfriend paid for that, I’m sorry.” You have a warrant for her arrest, but you look in the backseat and there are two kids back there—a five-year-old and a seven-year-old. I ask my recruits, “What do you do?” 

I can get so many different answers, but the response that I’m looking for should never be taking her to jail. Because, at that moment, what matters is not the $150 dollar ticket that she didn’t pay from two years ago. What matters is the trauma that those kids are going to go through watching you put handcuffs on their mother and call social services to come take them away. As a police officer, you should be asking yourself, “Is it worth it?” We should be taking a problem-solving approach to resolving calls for service. Sometimes, taking someone to jail is not the best answer. 

S&J: Do you think all officers think that way?

MP: I think they’re going to respond in the way that they’re trained. That’s why it’s so important to have policies in place that offer alternatives to arrest. We’re doing that right now with Bridge Center for Hope, which is where we take people going through mental health crises. We’re taking people to this facility that was designed to address mental illness, not to jail or the hospital.

Google “Sir Robert Peel.”  He is known as the godfather of modern policing. I want you to look at his principles of policing from many years ago, and then look at where we are today and ask yourself, “Where did we go wrong?” It all comes down to community. It’s just interesting to see how this man talked about this stuff so long ago and to see what’s happened from a historical perspective on why we are, where we are today. 

S&J: Are there required readings for police officers? 

MP: Yes, there is a history of law enforcement class that most places have as one of the requirements at the training academy. But we teach it a little differently. As a part of our procedural justice policing training, we actually talk about the history of policing specifically when it comes to Baton Rouge because of its impact on our predominantly African-American community. So getting that historical perspective helps officers understand why people may react the way they react when they see law enforcement. 

S&J: Is that common for police departments in the country? 

MP: I think now you’re starting to see the procedure justice training starting to be implemented in more curriculums and training academies all across the country, even more so since the George Floyd incident. Prior to that, procedural justice was not a mandated course, but you do have a lot of police departments that are now picking it up. 

S&J: This reminds me of a piece I read after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson about how many police officers in Ferguson didn’t live in the community. Would you imagine that this type of education could help law enforcement better understand the people they’re policing?

MP: We have those same issues here. The state of Louisiana mandates a course called Orientation to Criminal Justice, which talks about the history of law enforcement. It gives an overview of the criminal justice process, but it doesn’t give the history of policing like we give it in our ten-hour procedural justice course. 

S&J: Is there a gold standard police department that you look to for inspiration?

MP: Great question. I like to take inspiration from [all types of groups], instead of just looking at police departments. I like to look at organizations like the International Association of Chiefs of Police which provides model policy to police agencies. I also rely heavily on police agencies that have gone through a consent decree because I know that those agencies are heavily monitored and most of their practices are heavily researched. 

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.