Murphy Paul didn’t grow up with dreams of becoming a police officer.

When he was in elementary school, his goal was to become a doctor. By high school, he turned to the idea of truck driving, a profession that his uncles and father pursued, only he wanted to own the truck too.

On a break from the University of New Orleans, Paul actually moved to Florida to try out a gig with a relative's trucking business. But he got too homesick and returned to New Orleans. Faced with an ultimatum from his mother to get a job or get out of the house, he soon walked into a civil service office and took the police exam. 

Twenty-six years later, all of them spent on the job with a law enforcement agency, Paul found himself back in a civil service office in August. This time he was in Baton Rouge on the last day to apply to become the Baton Rouge Police Department chief, a position that he later beat out 11 people to get.

“I’ve always had plans and things that I wanted to do post-retirement from state police,” said Paul, formerly a lieutenant colonel over investigations at the Louisiana State Police. “Baton Rouge chief wasn’t one of them.”

Paul, who now lives in Gonzales with three of his four sons, had been at a leadership training weekend in Orlando, Florida, with leadership guru John Maxwell when other participants encouraged him to think about himself at the helm of the Baton Rouge police agency, where the top job had come open. Paul said it was the words of his fellow trainees, saying they believed he had what it takes to lead a police department, that pushed him to take the leap. 

"I think for me it was a calling," Paul said. "I got off the plane, ... came down and grabbed my application from the office and turned it in ... right before they closed."

New Orleans childhood

Paul, 48, grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward, or, as he explains, "where the levees broke." He was raised along with two sisters by a single mother, Patricia Price, who stressed the importance of education, even organizing rides for Paul's younger sister to get to a school in Metairie after she won a scholarship there. Paul's sister, who is about five years younger than him, studied the same subjects at Metairie Park Country Day as Paul was studying at Alfred Lawless Senior High.

"That was the difference from going to private school to public school," Paul said. "That was my first realization of the difference from a private education and an Orleans Parish education."

Paul today credits his mother — who died in 2002 — with instilling confidence in him, particularly about his identity as a black man. "She would reinforce that black was beautiful and don’t let nobody tell you anything different," Paul said. "I think all of that helped me become who I am."

Kirk Robinson has known Paul since kindergarten when they lived around a corner from one another. They've remained close, like family. Robinson held his childhood friend’s police chief cap after Paul’s swearing-in ceremony and remembered him as a young boy who loved gumbo and always did his homework. 

When it was time for a school dance, Robinson recalled that Paul was always the one to persuade Robinson’s mother to let them go, and take the car too.

“He looks at the future," said Robinson, who drove in from out of state for the ceremony. "He dissects stuff real quick, but also he’s a people person and he can bring the people together.”

Paul joined the Orleans Levee District Police in 1991. After a few years, he was accepted to join the Louisiana State Police with Troop L in 1994.

“(I) decided that if I was going to do this law enforcement thing, I might as well go with the best, which I believed at that time was the state police,” Paul said.

While a trooper, Paul also returned to classes at UNO, Southern University at New Orleans, Southeastern and Loyola University at New Orleans, where he ultimately graduated with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in 2005.

Paul avoided the public eye as he rose through the ranks until he was put on the shortlist for the state police superintendent job after Mike Edmonson retired while under investigation by the state Legislative Auditor's office. Though he was well known in law enforcement circles, Paul said the public anonymity allowed him to be in the background and learn, particularly in his last leadership post as deputy superintendent over investigations.

"I was like a sponge ... over the last three years, learning from mistakes that I’ve made and learning from mistakes that others have made," Paul said. "Louisiana State Police is a great organization and there are some great leaders there and guys that I have the utmost respect for."

Major Doug Cain, a state police spokesman, remembered working with Paul in the early days of the state Fusion Center, which gathers and shares intelligence between agencies, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. Paul was a trooper at the time collecting information while Cain was tasked with analyzing it.

"He was a tremendous help to me on the analytical side, giving me perspective from the boots-on-the-ground troopers who are collectors in the field," Cain said.

Former Louisiana State Police Superintendent Henry Whitehorn saw a strong work ethic in Paul as he mentored him from trooper to sergeant and on to a captain with the narcotics section of the bureau of investigation. Whitehorn, now the U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Louisiana, predicted Paul would be a boots-on-the-ground leader.

“You recognize people with talent that you want to try to help, and Murphy was one of those people that I recognized early on that was going to be something in life,” Whitehorn said.

Officer interaction

At the very end of his public interview in December, before a committee that Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome asked to review the candidates, Paul shifted away from his initial carefully-thought-out answers to questions, in which he spoke about police practices in largely technical responses. One committee member asked him to share an experience that had impacted him as an officer and Paul got personal in his reply, his voice rising as he questioned why he was "treated unfairly" by a fellow officer.

As a young trooper, Paul said he was stopped without probable cause or reasonable suspicion. He grew afraid as the officer tried to put handcuffs on him during the uncomfortable role-reversal. His sister and cousin stood crying nearby.

Top stories in Baton Rouge in your inbox

Twice daily we'll send you the day's biggest headlines. Sign up today.

“Even once they learned that I was a law enforcement officer, it was ‘Well, you didn’t tell me?’ Well, first of all, you didn’t give me a chance to tell you, but why do I have to be a law enforcement officer to get respect? I thought, ‘If I’m a trooper, wow, I wonder how they treat some of the guys who are not troopers out there,” Paul said.

In an interview with reporters, Paul declined to give further details on the incident or say what department the officer was from. But he said the encounter changed the way he interacted with the public, always telling people why he is detaining them and communicating his intentions.

“I will do it in a very respectful and professional way because people might not remember everything you say, but they will always remember how you made them feel,” Paul said.

Growing up in New Orleans, where the local police department has repeatedly fallen under federal scrutiny, Paul acknowledges he “wasn’t very fond of law enforcement.” But he declined to elaborate on his encounters any further, instead focusing on what he described as his first positive experience with an officer when he was in his early teens shopping at the K&B drugstore in Chalmette.

“I kind of bumped into a state trooper going in there and he called me ‘sir.’ I’ll never forget that. He was like, ‘Excuse me, sir.’ And I’m like, ‘sir’? It was just different,” Paul said.

Now as chief, Paul will be tasked with leading the department forward from the difficult summer of 2016, starting with the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling by a Baton Rouge Police Department officer and the protests that followed. Less than two weeks later, two Baton Rouge police officers were killed in an ambush attack that took the lives of three law enforcement officers. Not long after, many officers lost their homes in the August floods. 

Paul will also oversee the discipline decision for the two officers involved in the Sterling incident, who remain on paid leave while Attorney General Jeff Landry's office reviews the case. Once that is completed, the BRPD will need to complete an internal affairs investigation of whether the officers followed policy in their confrontation with Sterling.

Perhaps the toughest job will be repairing what many in the black community say has been a sometimes rocky relationship with the BRPD over the years, brought to light by the Sterling shooting and protests. This was a key priority named by Broome when she talked about finding a new chief.

Paul has said that mending these relationships will be one of the department's biggest challenges, promising that he will build relationships with existing community leaders and organizations.

Becoming chief

Since Paul has taken over as chief, other law enforcement leaders say he has been running nonstop, meeting with officers, civilians and other officials to hear their ideas and concerns. A move to Baton Rouge is also on the table. Although Broome has not asked Paul to relocate, he said it's the right thing to do and he plans to move with his sons after they finish the school year. 

Former interim chief and current provisional Deputy Chief Jonny Dunnam said Paul, whom he called a “very democratic” leader, has made an effort to learn everyone’s names as he has made his way around the large department, even asking for pictures of the administrative staff to aid him.

After a recent meeting at the city emergency preparedness office about the freezing temperatures and interstate closures that paralyzed the city, Paul spontaneously decided to pay a visit to the communications staff stationed in the basement, Dunnam said.

“They were all like ‘Wow, this is the first time that a chief has ever come down to talk to us,’” Dunnam said. “They kind of felt like a forgotten entity.”

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said Paul has already surrounded himself with strong leaders from inside the agency who can lend him their varied expertise as he faces challenges to come, especially the pending Sterling decision and manpower shortages. Paul announced Dunnam, police chief finalist Robert McGarner and former BRAVE team leader Herbert "Tweety" Anny as his temporary deputy chiefs during his second week in office.

In addition to picking leaders, Moore said Paul, who is his fifth chief in his 10 years as district attorney, will have to win over the officers on the ground as well. “He’s going to have to convince the men and women through his leadership and personality that he’s going to be here for a while ... and they’re going to be the ones that are going to do the work,” Moore said.

Paul's predecessor, former Chief Carl Dabadie Jr., ended his career in a tense standoff with Broome, who had wanted to replace him after taking office but was constrained by civil service rules. Dabadie retired last July.

Walter "Geno" McLaughlin, a community activist, said he has been impressed with the new chief, both in his candid stories about his run-ins with police earlier in his life, but also in keeping the good leadership already in the department nearby.

McLaughlin said it’s positive to already see Paul on the ground, but he's still worried about the civil service protections that make it hard to get rid of what he called "bad cops," and also he wonders how much rank-and-file culture change Paul can make from the top.

"He's a good guy," McLaughlin said. "But how much can he change, is the real question."

Though Dunnam initially thought Paul coming from the outside would be more of a challenge, he now believes an outsider might be in an easier position to make changes.

So far, Dunnam said he has been impressed with Paul’s stamina.

“Somebody even made the comment, it’s like drinking water through a fire hose,” Dunnam said. “But he’s been able to manage to keep up.”

Advocate staff writers Grace Toohey and Lea Skene contributed to this report.

Follow Emma Discher on Twitter, @EmmaDischer.