Eureka chief to retire after 55-year career

Murl Harpham is considering retiring later this year to spend more time roaming around his 25-acre mountain property on his beloved tractor, or lolling around on his houseboat on Trinity Lake, in Trinity County north of Redding If and when he does step down, Harpham – police chief of Eureka, the redwood-rich city situated along the Northern California coastline 280 miles north of San Francisco in Humboldt County – will cap a remarkable and singular career in California law enforcement.

Since June 1957, ever since he was hired as a fresh-faced kid barely of legal drinking age by the Eureka Police Department, Harpham has worked nowhere else. For those doing the math, that’s more than 55 years with the same law enforcement agency. And when his contract ends July 1 and a successor presumably will be ready to step in, Harpham will be one month into year 56 with the Eureka P.D.

 There are few who work in law enforcement that long – let alone with the same department.

“It’s been a good job,” says Harpham, 79. “Never a dull moment.”

A street cop most of his career – his favorite job, he says – Harpham has been interim police chief of Eureka four times, dating back to 1989. He was named chief on June 24, 2011 when the Eureka City Council was not able to find a successor. He’s had chances before to be chief of police, but says he’s never really been interested, preferring to be out on the streets, he says, “where the rubber meets the road.”

 Now, he says, he’s enjoying being Eureka’s top cop, overseeing a department with 52 sworn officers and given the green light by the city to add more personnel. As police chief, Harpham has hired eight officers and has two vacancies to fill.

 Throughout his career, Harpham has earned a reputation as a great cop with a can-do, positive attitude.

“I have a saying,” he says. “It’s your attitude, not your aptitude, that will affect your altitude at work and in life.”

That philosophy has helped shaped many careers, not only through Harpham’s work at the Eureka P.D. but also through 30 years of teaching at the College of the Redwoods Police Academy and as a trainer for P.O.S.T.

He fell into law enforcement by chance.

A native of Washington state (he grew up near Everett), Harpham came to Eureka on a college football scholarship. An end and a defensive back, Harpham’s squad at Humboldt State University won its first championship in history his first year playing.

He toyed with the idea of becoming a lawyer. While in college, he worked at a saw mill for a bit but found the job monotonous. He took journalism classes in high school and liked writing, so after graduating from college Harpham landed a reporting stint at the then-named Humboldt Times (the paper since has merged with the Standard to become the Times-Standard).

Harpham was a police reporter for the Times. Back then, in the early 1950s, cops and reporters shared a close relationship, he says – which all changed with the tumultuous 1960s. As a cub reporter, Harpham met his future wife, Blanche, who was a feature writer for the Standard. Their marriage lasted more than 50 years, ending with her death in 2005.

Harpham recalls making $200 a month and working six days a week as a police reporter when Eureka’s police chief told him he could make $385 per month as a cop while putting in 40 hours.

“I figured I’d rather be doing it (police work) than writing about it,” Harpham says.

Back then, there was no police academy to get through. Eureka’s police chief handed Harpham a copy of the state Penal Code and the California Vehicle Code and ordered him to study them in a room that cops referred to as “The Sweat Room.”

Harpham recalls the police chief coming into the room after two days and telling him, “You’ve been in this room long enough.”

Harpham was in uniform a day later as a patrol officer and learning more about law enforcement through senior officers who served as his mentors as well as through special classes taught by FBI agents.

He was appointed a sergeant in 1968 and a captain in 1978, but his passion always has been being a street cop.

  “That’s what police work is all about,” he says. “Helping people out.”

Harpham has thousands of stories, but a few that quickly come to mind include the day he helped deliver a baby in the back of a patrol car in the early 1960s, and the time he stopped a rape in progress while out on patrol at night, and another time when he broke up a robbery in progress.

 The city of Eureka has not grown in population much since the mid-50s when Harpham became a cop, still hovering at about 27,000 residents. But drugs, since the 1960s, have become a big problem, he says. Eureka is part of the notorious “Emerald Triangle,” the sparsely populated region encompassing Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties known for its marijuana cultivation. Methamphetamine also is a big problem, Harpham says.

 A city with a huge logging past and a significant military presence, Eureka has, over the years, also become a magnet for prostitutes – a problem that persists to this day, Harpham says.

  So the soon-to-be octogenarian has his hands full as police chief of Eureka.

“You’re as old as you feel,” he says of his age.

He recalls how technology has vastly changed police work.

“Back when I started,” he says, “we went out on the streets with a baton and a handgun and handcuffs. We had one portable radio, and it took two of us to carry it.”

Now, like most police agencies, the Eureka P.D. has fancy things like license-plate readers to locate stolen cars and cameras on buildings to help solve break-ins, as well as a vibrant presence on social media sites.

Personally, though, Harpham stays away from web sites like Facebook.

“I’m lucky to check my email,” he says.

Harpham says he will stay on during the transition when the next chief is named, and possibly will remain on in an advisory role, but his mind is turning to finally taking off his badge and spending time with his family.

  Harpham has five children, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Two of his sons are in law enforcement: Rocky L. Harpham is acting chief of police of Ione, and Ron is a senior detective with the Eureka P.D.

 A few years after his wife passed away, Harpham began seeing a fellow widower, Renee Mahler, a former secretary in the Eureka P.D. who also worked as a manager of the record department.

 Reflecting on his long career as mostly a patrol officer and a detective, Harpham paused a moment when talking about his new companion’s time with the Eureka P.D.

 “The records department, hmm,” Harpham said. “That’s one area I’ve never worked.”

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