Chattanooga Police Chief Celeste Murphy Reflects on Historic Tenure

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Chattanooga Police Chief Celeste Murphy stopped by last week for an interview with the Chattanooga News Chronicle (CNC). Chief Murphy expressed a strong interest in continuing to build relationships with neighborhoods and the business community. She believes these kinds of relationships will go a long way in helping to keep crime down. (Photo, from left, Camelia Ashford, Chronicle Associate Editor; CPD Chief Celeste Murphy, and John L. Edwards, III, CNC Publisher. (Photo: G. Faye Stoudemire)

On April 8, 2022, Celeste Murphy made history as the first woman, and the first Black woman, to lead the Chattanooga Police Department (CPD). As she took the oath of office, the city witnessed a milestone moment.

Her tenure has been marked by significant accomplishments. But now, just over two years in, an ongoing Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) probe into Chief Murphy’s residency threatens to tarnish her record.

The 27-year law enforcement veteran sat down last Wednesday for an exclusive one-on-one interview at the office of the Chattanooga News Chronicle, where she candidly discussed the department’s progress, and some of the challenges she faces.

Chronicle: “How are you and the CPD working to prevent violence and keep Chattanooga residents safe?”

Chief Murphy: “For years, we’ve tracked the data and we’ll deploy our resources where that data shows us those areas that have the most concerns. And then we also look at the community–what they’re voicing, what they’re saying, what are their concerns. But what we found was that we can’t come up with a plan and execute the plan by ourselves. We got to work together with the community in order for us to be a success.

The long-term plan is, of course, one of my passions. When I got here, I spoke about working in the community with the youth, because with some of the gang activity, we’re seeing children getting younger and younger entering into this gang, right. And the police department’s part of this is that we’re trying to get on the front end of that to make sure we create a path for children so that there’s no decision for them to go in the wrong direction. Sometimes we focus so much on the child, but then we’re not helping to mitigate some of the challenges of the child’s environment. It’s a collective thing. The point is to get children when they’re younger and create a path for them that’s safe and productive.”

Chronicle: “Can you discuss the department’s policies and procedures regarding use of force, and any recent efforts to improve transparency and accountability?”

Chief Murphy: “So, I’m glad you asked that. You know, one of the things that have been focused on me since I’ve been here is about me making sure that we make this department more transparent. I’ve spoken before about shaping the behavior of the officers on this department, so I streamlined policies to be a little bit more clear. And as far as use of force, our use of force policy right now is up for review. But it’s not just that particular policy, like there’s something wrong with it. We review all our policies every year.

And the reason why it’s taken so long to go through the process is because this time for that particular policy, I had a focus group created of community members to look at the policy before I signed off on it and implemented it department-wide. So that’s an extra layer of transparency that I added to even out our policy writing process. We hold people accountable when they go outside of policy, and I’m a stickler for that.

And another one of the, I guess, modes of transparency that also bridges the gap between us and the community is that about twice or three times a year, we do a community police academy.”

Chronicle: “How is the CPD working to build trust and positive relationships with residents in Chattanooga’s Black neighborhoods?”

Chief Murphy: “We’ve created units specifically for that. I’ve expanded my communications team. We have a director over public affairs. I have a social media coordinator. And then we have a sworn police sergeant who kind of bridges the gap between the time when we have to discuss investigations and then forward information to our non-sworn staff, because they know how to communicate to the community way better than we do. There has to be that bridge there to be able to translate how we speak, you know, in “cop talk” to make sure that it’s transparent. And not just transparent, but understandable for the community who definitely does not work with us every day, nor knows the ins and outs of handling investigations. So that communications piece is very, very important to be able to bridge that gap.”

Chronicle: “What specific initiatives are in place to recruit and retain Black officers in the Chattanooga Police Department?”

Chief Murphy: “Yeah, I admit that’s been a challenge. It was a challenge before I got here, and it’s even a challenge now. There’s just not that many Black applicants that have made a dent since I’ve been here to the overall numbers. So to enhance that, we’re doing things like partnering with our local high schools. And we’re hoping to do a partnership with Chatt State. We’re partnering with those areas where our children are going for activities, and it’s a feeder system into what I would ultimately hope to be this profession of law enforcement.”

Chronicle: “What role can the Black community play in working with the police department to improve public safety?”

Chief Murphy: “Come to us for your facts. Come to us when you have concerns. Because first, I don’t want people to get on the wrong foot with a narrative that’s not completely accurate. That instills fear. You know, again, we’re transparent. If there’s an issue somewhere, I’m going to come up front and say, ‘Yes, we’re having an issue in this neighborhood, but here’s my plan to address it. And I need your help. I need you to give us information. I need you to, and this can all be anonymously.’ I’m not making anybody feel in any way vulnerable working with us. But we absolutely need the support of the community to be able to combat some of the crime that we continuously and historically have issues with.” When asked about the inquiry surrounding her residency, Chief Murphy simply stated, “I’m being investigated by the TBI, but it’s not anything that I can talk about.”