CHAMPAIGN — Not long after Police Chief R.T. Finney retires in January, the department is expected to lose one of its second-in-command, Deputy Chief John Murphy.
Murphy, 48, said on Tuesday that he plans to retire on March 12, 26 years to the day after being sworn in as a Champaign police officer.
He has been thinking about retiring for a few months, but Finney's announced retirement played a big role in his decision. Murphy has served under five different police chiefs.
"It's an uncomfortable period when you're transitioning from one chief to another," he said.
When he retires, Murphy will be more than a year short of age 50, when he is allowed to begin collecting a pension. City Manager Steve Carter said the city has agreed to pay Murphy half a year's salary with health coverage following his March retirement.
Murphy's exit will leave city administrators looking to fill two high-ranking police positions in a department that has faced much scrutiny from the public within the past couple years. He said he hopes the community can engage the department in the future.
"The department is approaching a crossroads as a lot of positions turn over, and I think it's critical for the community to get involved in the department," Murphy said.
City Manager Steve Carter said he expects some of the department's philosophies will shift by the time a new slate of leaders are hired.
"I think it will have an impact because you're replacing several of your top leadership positions, and people will come in with their own ideas about how they will want to move the department forward," Carter said.
With a lieutenant now away from the department and planning to retire in November, Carter said, the number of people available to run the department could become an issue.
"That is a concern, just to make sure that we have the folks in place that we need to have in place," Carter said. "We have talented people over there that I'm sure can step in."
Murphy's career at the department has been eventful — sometimes not always for the best. Murphy acted as interim police chief in 2003 before Finney was hired. He worked for several years as a narcotics officer and loved the experience, he said.
Carter said Murphy played an important role in protecting the city from Chicago drug gangs trying to lay down roots in Champaign and other downstate communities.
"John (Murphy) was really the leader of many of those efforts and engaged in many tactical situations, and in the end, I'd say, was successful in arresting and prosecuting many of those folks," Carter said. "And eventually that threat was removed, one way or the other."
That leadership continued as he moved up through the department ranks, Carter said, and he has always pushed to maintain a "progressive department, up with best practices."
In 2007, Murphy was one of three officers wounded in a shooting near West Side Park. A bullet struck his protective vest in the abdomen, and another officer was hit by a bullet fragment in the leg.
Officer Shannon Bridges was the most seriously wounded of the three — she lost part of her left lung after being shot in the chest. Bridges never returned to work, and Murphy said the biggest tragedy of the event is that she likely never will.
The shooter, a homeless man who was also wounded when police returned fire, was found not guilty of attempted murder of Murphy and Bridges by reason of insanity and was sent to a mental health facility.
The shooting changed Murphy's outlook on his officers.
"I think it certainly put me in a better position to know what their needs are," he said.
More recently, in August, Murphy was implicated in an email from an anonymous group of police sergeants to city leaders. The email claimed he and other department brass enabled unfair promotions practices for lieutenants.
The claims were frustrating, he said, but "by no means the pivotal issue that made me decide and pick a date" to retire.
On Tuesday, he disputed the allegations in the email.
"The fact that it's unsigned is a problem for me with the credibility of the email," Murphy said.
The email alleges Murphy assigned Lt. Scott Swan to write a test that would favor then-Sgt. Tom Walker's promotion. The two were on a "short list of Deputy Chief Murphy's closest friends," the email said.
Walker scored significantly higher than the other test-takers and eventually got the promotion, but Murphy said the claims are preposterous.
"Tom Walker and Scott Swan are two of the most honorable people that I have had the occasion to know," Murphy said on Tuesday.
And Murphy suspects Walker would react harshly to anyone suggesting he cheat on a test.
"Tom (Walker) is a smart, ambitious guy," Murphy said. "And he's smart on his own merits, and he doesn't need or want anyone to help him cheat on a testing process."
Swan has been away from the department and plans to retire in November due to a shoulder injury, Carter said.
Murphy said there are some "interpersonal dynamics within the department that have to be addressed." That existed before the email leaked, he said, but "it didn't make things easier in terms of people getting along."
Carter said he has since spent "quite a bit of time" meeting with police department employees "to get a sense of what some of the issues may be in the department that may have led to that, or if people have information on some of the activities that may have happened in the email."
He said Finney is finalizing a formal response to the email, the city's human resources department has thoroughly investigated the testing process, and Carter expects to have a report finalized toward the end of next week.
"Hopefully we'll have a good bit of information that we can take a look at and draw conclusions from that and what recommendations, if any, we'll have moving forward," Carter said.
Carter hopes the incoming chief, who he expects to be in the office by February or March, will help quell some of the relationship issues inside the department.
As Murphy moves toward retirement, he hopes city administrators will hold the line on police staffing, too. Reductions will have an effect on service if budget levels are not held to a certain threshold, he said.
"People expect the police department to be everything to everyone, and that's not realistic" given the financial limitations, he said.
Murphy said he is willing, if asked, to help with the transition for whoever takes his office.
"Communication is important, I think, for whoever takes over my job," he said.
Murphy has worked as an electrician when he's not on duty, but he said he has reached a limit on what he's able to do for that business in addition to the full-time police job.
"I've got some ideas for expanding that a little bit," Murphy said.