During the 1968 riots the Public Safety Director was a man by the name of Patrick V. Murphy. Mayor Walter Washington the city’s first black Mayor hired him as the Director of the DC Police and Fire Departments.
Mr. Murphy moved up through the ranks of the New York City Police Department. He became recognized as a leader among law enforcement officials seeking ways to deter the violence and racial unrest that simmered just below the surface of American life in the 1960s.
He was a reform-minded law enforcement official who hailed from New York City. He was nationally known for trying to defuse tensions between police and inner-city residents. He shaped and supervised the District’s efforts to deal with the historic rioting of 1968.
Mr. Murphy was recognized as a champion of restraint. In particular, he tried to minimize the use of force and trained police officers to respect the rights and dignity of the poor and the voiceless.
Mr. Murphy came to Washington in 1965 as a Justice Department official before being appointed the District’s first director of public safety in 1967.
In 1967 I became a Roving Leader for Department of Recreation & Parks as a Youth Gang Task Force member. Mr. Murphy quickly brought the Roving Leaders into the department and made us Community Partners.
Eager for improvement in the interaction between citizens and government, Mr. Murphy became an advocate of what later became known as community policing. He greatly increased the recruiting and promotion of members of minority groups in the police and fire departments.
When all hell broke loose on April 4, 1968 our Prince of Peace the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, we were ready thanks to Mr. Murphy.
My co-worker the late Willie Wood of the NFL Green Bay Packers and me were standing on the corner of 9th U Streets NW on a bright sunshiny day. Someone in a car drove by and yelled “Harold Bell they just shot and killed Dr. King in Memphis, Tennessee”.
Willie looked at me and said, “I think we got trouble my man”, within an hour smoke and flames had broken out all over the city. The terror and the disorder that broke out in Washington, DC caught everyone by surprise. Mr. Murphy, as the city’s public safety director, became the leader. The Nation’s Capital became the center of attention all over the world. Mr. Murphy had already reached out to community activist, youth advocates and the DC Department of Recreation & Parks Roving Leader Program Youth Gang Task Force. We were ask to assist police officers in community reach-back programs and it paid off. I thought we held the loss of life to single digits because of our training under Mr. Murphy, it was later reported that twelve people were killed. It was still the lowest loss of life compared to other cities.
First, Willie Wood and I would team up with our friend pioneering U. S. Marshall in-charge, Luke C. Moore. We walked the U street NW corridor arm and arm until I was called by my boss Stanley Anderson. I was told Ass’t Chief Tilmon O’Bryant at the 3rd District HQ wanted to meet with me.
Chief O’Bryant was the highest ranking black official in the DC Police Department. He was so smooth I called him, “Cool Hand Luke”. He was a man of the streets, ‘The Original Officer Friendly’.
I made my way to the 3rd District HQ and to my surprise Chief O’Bryant was having Roll Call. He summoned me to come to stand by his side. I was in for another surprise, he swore me in and gave me a police badge, but no gun. The badge would allow me to pass through the police and military barricades set up around the city to contain the looters. The three days as a cop with no gun are three days I will never forget.
There was one incident according to a story written in the Washington Post in 1978 by James Lardner, a former D.C. police officer. He wrote, “I remember well from the 1968 riots, there was an episode that illuminated Mr. Murphy’s policies and how he put them into practice. On the second full day of the riots, he encountered a confrontation at Sixth and M streets NW. As residents complained about how their neighbors had been treated. The police were on edge, Mr. Murphy stepped in and quietly told the people to go back to their homes.”
“He told the police, be courteous to these people. He then removed police officers from the street and left it to military troops to disperse the crowd”.
The most significant move by Mr. Murphy to me was when he and Mayor Washington stood their ground against FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover sent an order out “shoot looters on sight”. Mayor Washington and Murphy both said, “Not on my watch”.
Mr. Murphy was widely quoted as saying, “I will resign rather then carry out orders to shoot those making off with merchandise”. His thoughts, ‘lives were more important than merchandise’.
The rioting in Washington was among the most destructive in the nation. Thousands of federal troops were sent into the city, and thousands of residents were arrested. A dozen people were killed, fewer than the number who had died in rioting in other cities.
Merchants who had seen their businesses destroyed complained that the police had not been forceful enough, and some lawmakers on Capitol Hill lent a sympathetic ear.
But Mr. Murphy, while deploring the destruction, was satisfied with the restraint shown by the police “Violence begets violence,” he said.
The businessmen were right to complain, but Mr. Murphy was right on, he put human life before merchandise. I recalled, the very first day of the riots the looters had a field day. They took everything that was not nailed down and there were no arrest. Evidently, Mr. Murphy decided to crack down the second day and friends of the looters and the looters didn’t like it!
Shortly after the 1969 inauguration of Richard M. Nixon as president, Mr. Murphy left his city government post and I left the DC Recreation Department’s Roving Leader Program for the Richard Nixon White House (Presidential Appointment).
As a decade of turbulent change drew to a close, Mr. Murphy was not without detractors. But he was widely viewed as a spokesman for police reform (50 years ahead of his time).
In 1970, he became police chief in Detroit. In the same year, when scandal threatened the department in his home town, he was called on by Mayor John V. Lindsay to head back to the New York City Police Department in the wake of devastating corruption.
In New York, he changed the formal policy on use of deadly force, permitting it only to defend life. The new approach became influential across the country.
“If you were a big-city mayor with a slightly berserk police department on your hands,” Washington Post reporter, James Lardner wrote, “there was one preferred remedy. You hired Patrick V. Murphy.”
Where is Patrick Murphy when we need him? I never got the chance to thank Mr. Murphy for saving so many lives in my hometown. He died 2011 at the age of 91. RIP to a real life “Officer Friendly”.
Footnote: Keeping Patrick Murphy’s Police Community Relations forums and community policing hopes alive decades later.