When Col. David Murphy was a young conservation officer stationed in Braxton County, a chance encounter on a Sutton street made it painfully clear that he and his fellow officers had an identity problem.
“A woman came running up behind me, begging for help,” Murphy recalled. “But when I turned around and she got a look at my uniform, she froze. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I was looking for a police officer.’ And before I could say anything, she ran off toward the courthouse.”
That was in 1984. Today, thanks in part to Murphy’s influence, employees of the Division of Natural Resources’ Law Enforcement Section are called Natural Resources Police officers. Murphy, the section’s chief since 2007, said the name change has made a profound difference.
“Before, we would yell, ‘Stop! Conservation officers!’ and people would give us a blank look and say, ‘Huh?’ Now we yell, ‘Stop! Natural Resources Police!’ and people freeze in their tracks. Everyone knows and understands the word ‘police.’”
Murphy reflected on that change as he sat in an almost-empty office on his final day as a DNR employee. After 36 years on the force, the 66-year-old Mingo County native had traded his gun and badge for a banjo, a table saw and a tool belt.
“There comes a time when you know you’re ready to move on,” he said. “Did I like my job? Absolutely. Did I like the people I worked with? Absolutely. I’m blessed to have been here. But it’s time to let new guys with new ideas come in and do the job.”
As Natural Resources Police officers go, Murphy came late to the profession. He was 30 when he joined, and had already worked as a mine-reclamation specialist, a schoolteacher, a loss-prevention specialist and a Williamson city police officer.
“I had applied for the State Police, but got turned down because I was 30,” he said. “After talking with a couple of the [conservation officers] who worked in the county, I jumped ship and signed on with the DNR.”
After 12 years as a field officer in Kanawha, Mingo and Braxton counties, Murphy, who by then had attained the rank of sergeant, became the Law Enforcement Section’s boating and hunter-education coordinator.
Further promotions came rapidly, first to lieutenant, then to captain, major and lieutenant colonel. As he advanced through the ranks, Murphy served as the section’s training officer and its head of field operations. He had hardly gotten settled into his duties as lieutenant colonel when the law enforcement chief at the time, Col. James Fields, decided to retire.
“So I got chosen to replace Jim,” Murphy said. “Throughout my career, I’ve had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time.”
That was in 2007. Before then and since, Murphy witnessed changes to DNR law enforcement, many of them for the better.
“We’re a much better equipped agency now than we were back when I started,” he said. “Our officers now have bullet-resistant vests, rifles, [semi-automatic] Glock .45s, and when they’re in the field they dress in [military-style fatigue uniforms]. On top of that, our boating fleet has been upgraded.”
Murphy said that when he worked in the field, he wore the DNR’s distinctive chocolate-brown dress uniform and carried a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum revolver. Even though he and fellow officers routinely confronted poachers armed with shotguns and rifles, they did so without the protection of ballistic vests and with only the limited firepower their six-shooters could muster.
Back then, it wasn’t unusual for officers to work 60 to 70 hours a week. That, too, has changed.
“Now our people are restricted to 40-hour weeks,” he said. “That’s good, but it’s also bad. In more than 30 counties, we only have one officer on station. Forty hours a week isn’t enough to give an entire county the coverage it needs.”
Murphy said the Law Enforcement Section has fewer officers today than when he joined.
“I think right now we’re down to about 123 people, including headquarters and administrative staff, and that’s not enough to give us the coverage we need in the field. We should have at least two officers to a county,” he added.
Adding more officers isn’t an option because the money isn’t there. The DNR gets most of its funding from sales of hunting and fishing licenses. By law 40 percent of the money gets spent on fish and wildlife programs, 40 percent gets spent for law enforcement, 10 percent gets spent on capital improvements and 10 percent gets spent on administrative costs.
“We operate on a shoestring,” Murphy said. “After the bills all get paid, there isn’t much money left to make improvements with, and definitely not enough to add personnel. So the challenge of running law enforcement is always to direct our limited funds and manpower to the best possible places at the best possible times.”
High-ranking officials in state agencies sometimes complain of having their arms twisted by politicians. Murphy said the political aspects of his position were never his focus.
“Dealing with politicians and the Legislature was no big deal,” he said. “To me, the biggest challenge of the job was keeping my responsibility to hunting- and fishing-license buyers to provide the best law-enforcement services possible with the resources we had.”
Now, as Murphy heads off into retirement, he leaves those concerns behind. He plans to stay busy, though. He’s taken banjo lessons for the past couple of years, and looks forward to jam sessions with fellow musicians; he has a wood shop, and wants to spend hours there making furniture or turning bowls on a lathe.
Mostly, though, he suspects he’ll spend a great deal of time on projects his wife dreams up.
“My wife has a ‘honey-do’ list that will last until after I’m in the grave,” he said with a grin. “So I’m going to play my banjo, work in my wood shop and do honey-do things for Sissie.”