Part of a Family
The click-clack tapping of toenails could be heard strutting down the hallway of the Murray Police Department as the agency’s K-9, Tiko, happily carried his ball into MPD Chief Jeff Liles’ office.
Following right behind him was his handler, Anna Wicker, who has been working alongside Tiko for the past year and a half. Wicker is like much of Murray’s force, Liles said – young, with only four years on the force. Of the 40-officer staff, Liles said nine officers graduated from the Department of Criminal Justice Training’s Basic Training Academy in 2017. A tenth officer graduated this spring.
“We have been struggling, losing men and women to other surrounding agencies,” Liles said. “One thing we have just accomplished is a pay-scale progression plan. The officers just got a raise in January, and the second part of that will take effect in July, making us competitive with other agencies around us.”
The city of Murray, with a population of just over 19,000, has been growing steadily since Liles joined the department 27 years ago, he said. At that time, he was one of just 20 officers employed by the agency. As the need for more officers to police the growing city has increased, the agency has outgrown its building – twice.
MPD officers have been operating out of two buildings just across the street from one another for the past several years as a result of the growth. In late summer 2018, the agency finally will be consolidated again under one, much-larger roof.
“It’s not the best situation because you want all your people in one facility for the simple fact of morale and being able to communicate with your people better,” Liles said. “The new building will at least double our space. We’re going to add a sally port onto it, locker rooms – there are several things we are going to do to upgrade the facility.”
The new facility formerly was used as city hall, Liles said, and the council chambers occupied a large space upstairs. Once the police department transitions to the new building, the chambers will be converted into a large training space, capable of hosting both internal training as well as opportunities for training alongside other nearby agencies.
Training is a top priority for the agency, demonstrated by the number of officers who serve in the dual role of trainer for a wide variety of skills. Certified trainers are invaluable given the agency’s distance from the DOCJT training academy, which is just shy of a five-hour drive each way, Liles said.
“It’s great anytime we can bring training our way and have the men and women at our department teaching the class,” Liles said. “Anyone who wants specialized training, I encourage them to get it if the budget allows. We have instructors for Taser, ASP, firearms – we have two or three of those. Any weapon they have on their belt; we have a trainer for all that in-house. We have a defensive-driving instructor, STOPS training instructor, CPR – just about any trainer we need, we have them right now.”
The commitment to training is shared from the top down. MPD Sgt. Brant Shutt, the agency’s public information officer, listed training as a source of pride for him in his department.
“We’re always looking for that training,” Shutt said. “We’re always trying to work within a budget, so we are really spread out with responsibilities as far as who is certified in what skills. If we’re in a pinch and we’re not able to send somebody out to training, it’s likely we have an instructor here. We have several new officers, and when they come back from the academy, if they need help with something we have somebody here who is certified who can show them what they need. I think that’s great.”
Several years ago, MPD officers got together and built their own firearms range, which now is utilized not only by Murray officers, but also several surrounding law enforcement agencies, Liles said. Because of the trained instructors and availability of facilities, the department can host diminishable skills training. Once the agency has moved into its new building with the dedicated training space, Liles said he hopes the department can serve more agencies in need of local training.
Just as many officers serve in the dual role of trainer, many Murray officers juggle multiple duties. Shutt, for example, serves as sergeant of support services in addition to his PIO role. He is responsible for the agency’s three school resource officers, all the agency’s social media and oversees the Alcoholic Beverage Control and code enforcement officer.
“The city is growing around us, and we have to grow with it,” Shutt said. “That means growing with duties, too.”
Anyone who visits the Murray Police Department Facebook page will undoubtedly see photo after photo of smiling faces. The department enjoys considerable support from the community. Any time a resident brings food or treats for the department, Shutt said the receiving officer asks for a photo, and it is then shared on the department’s social media.
Sharing the photos recognizes the residents’ kindness, but also serves as a morale booster for officers who might not be in the department to see the community support.
“We see so many negative things about law enforcement, and sometimes it gets to be all that you see,” Shutt said. “Especially a road officer who is typically on a shift and not dealing with the best of people in society in their day-to-day contact. To see the good in the community come out and support us is a great morale boost to a lot of the officers. It’s amazing to see.”
Patrol Officer Tim Fortner, who also serves as the ABC officer, code enforcement officer and polygraph examiner, has spent 14 years with the Murray Police Department. He assumed the code enforcement role four years ago and is in his third year as ABC officer. In many communities, both code enforcement and ABC enforcement are roles assumed by civilians. But Fortner said his sworn status has both benefits and challenges in his dual roles.
“People are not going to question it too much when they see the uniform,” Fortner said of his enforcement duties. “That can be a good thing or a bad thing. I don’t want to demand respect, I’d rather gain it, but that is one of the benefits. I accompany other departments such as the building official or the stormwater people – I get calls from different people to go with their department within the city to look at something because somebody has been upset with them because of restrictions they have to place on them.”
Of course, the primary challenge with any job when your attention is split between multiple responsibilities is that it is difficult to devote 100 percent to any one role, Fortner said.
Since Murray is home to Murray State University, Fortner said there are occasional challenges brought about by college students in rental housing or underage drinking, for example. However, MPD has an excellent working relationship with the MSU Police Department, Fortner said. Of the 45 establishments in town that sell alcohol, Fortner said he works to make sure everyone follows the rules.
“The police department recognizes that we are in a university town and things are going to happen,” Fortner said. “We can’t get a grasp on everybody and everything. We do what we can to deter underage consumption and sales. We’re polite but firm with the establishments so that they know they need to respect the rules and regulations, and if they don’t, then we do what we have to do and they understand that.”
On Jan. 23, 2018, an active shooter struck the Marshall County High School campus, leaving two students dead and several others wounded. The campus is just 22 miles from the Murray Police Department, and while outside of their county lines, MPD officers were among the responding local law enforcement.
It was a tragic and frantic situation as parents and loved ones sought their students and responding officers worked to reunite families while securing the scene and maintaining the safety of hundreds on the campus.
Recently out of retirement, Murray Police Officer Kendra Clear was an officer 20 years ago when an active shooter at Paducah’s Heath High school, an hour from Murray, killed three students and wounded five others. Clear returned to the force six months ago and was one of the officers who responded to MCHS.
“It’s my hometown, so they’re actually my family members and people I had gone to school with who were there picking up their kids,” Clear said. “They’re distraught, and I felt like they were looking at me as a way to… you know, if I’m strong, then they’re going to be strong.”
Clear said she and the other responding officers made sure the Marshall County Sheriff’s deputies on scene knew they were there to support them and go wherever they were needed.
“They’re our brothers and sisters,” she said. “We know them on a personal level. These aren’t just our neighboring law enforcement. These are people we go out to eat with and our families know each other. They’re just like family to us. If something like that happened here, we wouldn’t even have to call. They would show up for us, too. That’s all it really takes.”
That arm of support extended beyond Marshall County in the following days, as Murray Independent Schools welcomed the increased uniformed presence on its campuses. In addition to the department’s SROs, Liles and Shutt both visited the schools to offer their support.
The SROs are an important part of how MPD involves its officers in the community daily, not just when tragedy strikes. Murray officers regularly interact with residents through summer programs, a Citizens’ Police Academy and more. To Chief Liles, it’s about family – both inside and outside the police department.
“We are a close-knit family,” Liles said. “We preach that here. It doesn’t matter what goes on, we are part of a family here, and you take care of your family first. My plan is to make sure that nobody goes on that (Kentucky Law Enforcement) memorial wall and to make sure these officers go home to their families. My job as the chief of police is to make sure they have the tools and resources to protect and serve. If I’m not doing that, I’m not doing my job.”