By Heather Muller the eureka reporter
The Eureka Police Department threw a party 50 years in the making for Capt. Murl Harpham, who joined the EPD as a beat cop half a century ago. His career has outlasted four police headquarters buildings and five police chiefs — eight if you count the three times Harpham served as interim chief. The guest of honor, however, no fan of the spotlight, threatened for weeks not to show up for his own party. "I think I might be sick that day," he said with a wink. "I feel a little something coming on." But he seemed well enough at the open house Friday, as he greeted more than 100 fellow officers and community residents who stopped by the station to celebrate with him. He posed for a photograph with EPD Reserve Officer Butch Manos, who told the photographer, "I'm the new guy. I've only been here about 40 years." Harpham, who holds two master's degrees and is a graduate of the FBI National Academy, began as a patrol officer in 1957, earning his sergeant stripes 11 years later and his captain bars 10 years after that. He said he's seen a lot of changes in 50 years, within the department and the community it serves. "Back then, 'computer' wasn't even a word," Harpham said. "We had no concept of that. We didn't even have portable radios, and now an officer wouldn't leave the station without a portable radio." The only radios we had were in our cars. You'd run a record check on someone, and you got the results the next day when you came to work. Same thing with license numbers." In many ways, the job was more dangerous then. "When I started, you didn't have SWAT teams. When you had a situation with an armed person firing a gun, you went in. It was crazy, because the chances of something bad happening to you were high." He said that changed after the University of Texas shooting in1966, when a sniper in a campus tower sprayed bullets virtually unimpeded for more than an hour and a half, killing 14 and injuring 31. "After that, departments all over the country set up SWAT teams," Harpham said. Change came again following another campus massacre, +his one at Columbine High School in 1999. Special weapons and tactics teams, Harpham explained, take time to respond and get in position. In the meantime, he said, "you have bad guys inside killing innocent people." Police departments now use what he called an "active shooter" approach. "Our officers arrive at the scene where there's a shooting going on, and first responders go in and try to stop it. It can be very dangerous, but that's the job." Harpham said people who have criticized the EPD for the spate of four fatal shootings that began with the death of Cheri Moore in 2006 "don't understand what real life is. They think you can shoot a weapon out of someone's hand like they do on TV. But that's not reality." He said the shootings took a very real toll on both the community and the department." In my career, I've seen little bumps in the road, but never as bad as that patch we went through. Things happen on the full moon, and they happen in groups of threes. Some of these were on the full moon, and then of course the cluster turned into more than three." Harpham said each of the people killed by EPD officers had some connection to methamphetamine, and he called the proliferation of that drug one of the most ominous changes be has seen in Eureka. "It's like nothing we've ever seen before. We had very little drugs in the '50s when I started. I'd never seen marijuana until I joined the department, and it was very underground. People would go to great lengths to conceal it. "Then we had heroin starting in the '60s. People on heroin would commit crimes, but they were rarely violent. But the meth people, they're paranoid, and they become very aggressive and very dangerous. It's the No. 1 crime problem in this country, as far as I'm concerned." But his concerns Friday were limited to mugging for photographers and trying not to blush as women of a certain age showered him with hugs and even a few kisses. Although Harpham said he is proud of his service to the city, he was characteristically demure when asked to name a few accomplishments. "1 delivered a baby in the backseat of a police car once, but that wasn't anything. I got a nice letter from the mom. I stopped a rape in the act one night. We pulled up, and a guy had a woman down in the doorway of a restaurant that was closed, and he was taking off her clothes. "I also prevented a duel one time. It was the late '60s, at a Laundromat. A guy walks in carrying a case with two guns in it. He opened the case and challenged another guy to a duel. It was over a girl," he said. "Probably the thing I'm most proud of is the fact that I have the reputation in town that people know they can come to me with their problems, and they'll get solved. I'm the only officer in town with his number in the phone book, and it's been there for 50 years. Sometimes people feel that I'm their personal cop, and I don't mind that. I'm proud that people trust me to solve their problems."