Alum rises from co-op to police chief

By Chris Brook

When James Murphy was on co-op as a dispatcher at the Chelmsford Police Department, he fielded calls while sitting at the station’s main desk. One of the last places he expected to wind up was a few desks over as the head of police. But earlier this month, 25 years after his co-op ended, Murphy assumed the role of Chelmsford Police Chief.

Murphy, 46, was appointed chief of police at a selectman’s meeting Feb. 28. Highly touted by his fellow officers, family and friends, Murphy was praised by Town Manager Bernard Lynch, who hand-picked the civil service veteran following the announcement of former police chief Raymond McCusker’s retirement.

Murphy, born and raised in Chelmsford, graduated from Northeastern in 1983 with a degree in criminal justice and worked at the Chelmsford Police Station for six months as a civilian dispatcher for co-op in 1981. Usually working two night shifts and two day shifts, Murphy was paid $4.50 an hour for his co-op. He said he was allowed to go out on ride-alongs, where he sat in the passenger seat as officers went out on regular patrols. It was here Murphy’s interest in the field was sparked.

“I knew police work interested me,” Murphy said. “I knew I wanted to be in the civil service department after I passed the exams when I was 19 and then took the state police exam.”

Like most police chiefs, Murphy worked his way up the ladder in his town, holding several positions at the force.

After graduating from Northeastern, going through the hiring process and police academy training, Murphy was a patrol officer for two years. He later worked in the criminal bureau as a detective for five years under fellow Northeastern graduate and then-chief Ray McKeon. He followed up on armed robberies, house breaks, burglaries and occasionally testified in court. Murphy was later promoted and spent five years as uniform sergeant, and spent the latter half of the ’90s dabbling in detective work. In March 1999 he was promoted again to lieutenant. There, under McCusker’s guidance, Murphy learned much of the administrative work he uses now as chief, he said.

Murphy said he wants to focus on the same issues the department has always emphasized in Chelmsford. A self-described optimist, Murphy believes there is “always room for improvement.”

“We don’t have a violent crime problem in town,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean we can let our guard down.”

Aside from his main concern, traffic, Murphy also plans to address common problems like assault, quality of life, domestic disturbances, neighbors who can’t get along and drug and alcohol abuse.

While the Chelmsford Police Department is no longer a co-op employer with Northeastern, Murphy said he doesn’t want to rule out that possibility. The department now has a partnership with nearby University of Massachusetts Lowell, where criminal justice majors come in for nine hours a week to do filing and fingerprinting, among other odd jobs for college credit.

Murphy said he would like to see a renewed relationship between the department and Northeastern, although it hasn’t been one of his main priorities.

“Since it’s where my roots are, it’s something I might look into,” he said.

Murphy, whose father also attended Northeastern, said he chose the school for its co-op program. Murphy also spoke highly of professors like the late Norman Rosenblatt, former dean of the College of Criminal Justice, who taught the first criminal justice class in 1966. Murphy recalled the days of Professor Wallace Sherwood’s law class, History of Criminal Justice, in which students worked on law briefs and were made to work hard for what they wanted, Murphy said.

“He was there in the beginning,” Sherwood said of Murphy. “When we were getting the CJ department changing, there were big shifts – we were trying to direct and educate our people to become the managers of the criminal justice world.”

Sherwood said the goal of the department was to shift away from straight police work toward more of a focus on justice.

“We wanted to train them to become managers of any kind of law enforcement, as opposed to a cop on the beat,” Murphy said. “It was through learning and desensitizing.”

Murphy spoke highly of his department, and said with the aid of a development team, he hopes to get it acknowledged statewide over the next few years.

“I know everyone says this, but I do believe we have one of the best departments in the state,” Murphy said. “We’ve got a great bunch of guys here.”

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