Captain's career spans six decades for EPD

Chris Durant

The Times-Standard

Capt. Murl Harpham of the Eureka Police Department didn't move to Humboldt County from Snohomish, Wash., to become a cop. He wanted to play football for Phil Sarboe at Humboldt State University and become a journalist.

"I was a journalism major and when I got out of school I went to work at the Humboldt Times as a police reporter," Harpham said. "I started writing for the paper in '54."

In 1957 Harpham learned the Eureka City Council approved the hiring of new police officers and his law enforcement career was born.

"I decided it would be more interesting to do the job rather than write about it," Harpham said. "There was a different relationship in those days between law enforcement and the media. We were much more friendly, much more open and it was very common to ride with the officers. So I got to know some of them and I liked what I saw."

With Harpham's hiring the department, which had 44 officers at the time, was able to schedule officers to five days a week rather than the six days they had been working.

"I came on as a patrol officer," Harpham said. "I was promoted to sergeant in 1968, to captain in 1978, deputy chief at one time in there, I forget the years, but they did away with the rank and I was reverted back to captain."

Harpham also had a stint as interim chief for nine months in 1989, between Chief Ray Shipley and Chief Kent Reesor.

Being a part of the department for 45 years, Harpham has been involved with nearly all of the more high profile cases that Eureka has seen.

"Some of the most satisfying ones was working on the ski mask rapist case," Harpham said. "We got that guy put away for life."

In 1986, Richard Stobaugh, the so-called Ski Mask Rapist, was sentenced to 50 years in prison after an intensive investigation.

"That was one of the highest profile cases in the county," said Detective Dave Parris of the Eureka Police Department. "Murl was commander of investigations and was very instrumental in solving the case."

Harpham was also part of some vice type busts in what is now called Old Town. When he first started, Second Street was lined with bars full of lumberjacks, fishermen and prostitutes.

"I was involved in closing up some night clubs," Harpham said. "We served red light abatements and arrested 67 prostitutes out of one of those clubs."

Under the red light abatements, if the police made a prostitute arrest in a bar or club, the doors were shut and the building could not be used for one year.

Harpham said the rehabilitation of Second Street is the biggest change he has seen in Eureka over the years.

"In the '50s that was all bars down there and we would spend our entire night down there," Harpham said. "We would come to work at 10 o'clock at night and we would be down there until 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning. We would never be able to patrol the other parts of the city because we would go from fight to fight and call to call. There were a lot of strong arm robberies and things like that went on and there was like seven bars on just one block alone."

The bars, or rather their patrons, became a problem and over the course of time and the attention of the right people, Second Street began its renovation process.

"Through the efforts of the City, the Police Department and Alcohol Beverage Control we were able to slowly move all of those (alcohol) licenses out of that area," Harpham said. "We removed the prostitution, for the most part, and the street was turned into what it is today, a little shopping center. Most of those places were all bars at one time, catering to the loggers, fishermen and lumber workers. Now you see more people in the daytime down there than at night, in those days you saw a lot more people at night."

Harpham said the Eureka Police Department is constantly changing, but one of the biggest changes is the high-tech crime fighting utensils.

"When I started, the officers basically had a patrol car and a radio and there connection was by radio with dispatch and we didn't have portable radios," Harpham said. "Now we have MBCs (onboard computers) in the car, every officer carries portable radios, we have tazer weapons, tear gas. Then, basically all we had were guns, batons and a police car. We've come into a world of technology."

When Harpham started, drugs were in Eureka but not in the same capacity as today.

"It was a problem, but nothing like it is now," Harpham said. "That's one of the major changes too, the problem was marijuana and heroin then but now it's methamphetamine. That is a more dangerous drug, as far as I'm concerned, than heroin and marijuana. When people are on marijuana and heroin they're kind of mellow, but when they're on speed they're very aggressive, very paranoid and unpredictable."

Harpham said over the last 45 years he has seen the public's perception of police officers go from one extreme to the other.

"The '50s were real great years, people were real respectful, it was a good time to be a cop," Harpham said. "We went to court very seldom because people took responsibility for what they did. Then along came the '60s and the country turned very violent with assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King and everyone was anti something."

Harpham said it wasn't uncommon to see a kid bring a gun to school, put it in his locker and go hunting after his classes.

"Today if you saw a kid walking with a gun down the street, my goodness we'd have the SWAT called out," Harpham said.

Harpham said he saw the public start to respect law enforcement and public safety personnel again in the '80s.

There were also changes in the laws over the years.

"There were some good laws and bad laws, most of them were good," Harpham said. "One of the best ones is the way we deal with domestic violence. That used to be one of the frustrating parts of the job, going someplace and somebody has just beat his spouse up and there wasn't much we could do about it. We had a law that became unconstitutional, it was called 'drunk in your own house.' We could arrest people for being drunk in their own house which we could no longer do, of course. But that was the only hold we had over somebody who beat a family member up if they didn't want to press charges because we could not make an arrest for a crime not committed in our presence. Now we can go in and we have reason to believe there has been abuse then we can make the arrest right then and there."

Harpham said another law that has helped police are the stricter drunken driving laws.

"We used to take more drunk drivers home, or send them home in cabs, than we actually arrested because there was so many of them," Harpham said. "We would have spent all night long at the jail if we would've booked every drunk driver."

Chief Dave Douglas said he has never seen Harpham in a bad mood.

"Murl is an absolutely incredible person and an incredible officer," Douglas said. "He is a believer that if you keep trying you get things done. He does the work because he loves it."

Harpham's main function at the department now is responding to community concerns and problems.

"If people have problems in their neighborhood, whether it be drug houses, loud parties, disruptive neighbors, garbage, you name it and I try to solve those problems," Harpham said. "That's my job, I'm a problem solver."

He said retirement's on the horizon but he feels no need to stop doing what he loves.

"I haven't set a date," Harpham said. "People ask me when and I say the day I don't feel like doing it anymore or I don't feel I can do it anymore. As long as I can serve the public and have a function then I'm going to be here for a little while. I love what I'm doing."