Bill Murphy started college as a business-finance major.
He might have ended up with that degree if it wasn’t for one class: Criminal Justice 101.
“It was just a heck of a lot more interesting than the business classes I was taking,” he said.
Murphy learned the job, and he learned it well. After 33 years in law enforcement, Wheaton’s police chief will retire on Sept. 25.
“I’m just proud of the fact that I did the best that I could, and I worked with some great people,” Murphy said. “And I tried to do things professionally and in a way that would make my family proud.”
Growing up in Oak Forest, Murphy had no police officers in his family. But he was drawn to public service. His mother was a nurse at Little Company of Mary Hospital, where he was born. His brother became a nurse. He likened his profession to theirs.
“They provide care for people. There’s a lot of personal fulfillment from the role, and policing is very much, at its core, helping people,” he said. “To me, as a person, or as a human being, an individual, it’s very, very rewarding to help people … when they need help.”
After steadily climbing through the ranks, Murphy took command of the department five years ago and navigated the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest in 2020. During his tenure, the city added two social workers who work with law enforcement and emergency medical services. The department rolled out a “neighborhood roll call” program and equipped all sworn officers with body-worn cameras about two years ahead of a deadline set by the state.
“Chief Murphy led our community’s police department during some extraordinarily challenging times, and he did so with professionalism, humility and a drive for innovation,” City Manager Mike Dzugan said. “I have been honored to work with Chief Murphy for more than 30 years, and this community has benefitted greatly in having an outstanding leader with a such long history of service in Wheaton.”
Murphy joined the department in 1990 as a patrol officer and never worked anywhere else. He stayed in Wheaton for the same reasons residents do.
“You have people that care about their neighbors,” Murphy said. “They care about the people they don’t know. It’s a very interesting piece of Americana here. It’s just a community of people that really believe in Wheaton and want to be a part of Wheaton.”
Back when Murphy was a rookie, Wheaton’s downtown wasn’t as vibrant as it is now. The corner of Roosevelt and County Farm roads was just a “field,” and the department still used typewriters. With Murphy in charge, the department has installed automated license plate readers to locate vehicles associated with suspects, missing persons, Amber Alerts or individuals in crisis.
“There’s probably more computing in one (squad) car than we had in the entire department in 1990,” Murphy said.
Over his career, he’s been a field training officer, then detective, officer-in-charge, sergeant, lieutenant and deputy chief before becoming Wheaton’s 12th police chief in 2018. He now oversees about 90 employees.
“I try to be inclusive and respectful and open to other perspectives both internally and externally,” he said. “I am charting the course. But it’s all the other people that are working the sails and the rudders and making sure that we get someplace.”
Murphy, for example, said the neighborhood roll call program was born out of a staff meeting about three years ago. The topic?
“What can we do to continue to develop those relationships with our citizens? And one of our sergeants, Angela Smith, had this idea,” Murphy said.
The outdoor community gatherings bring police and residents together to talk about crime trends, what’s happening in their neighborhoods, school security or safety tips. Police will next meet with members of Second Baptist Church on Tuesday and the Sikh Community Center on Aug. 22.
“This is a team effort,” he said. “When you talk about being inclusive, this is not about, my ideas are the best ideas. It’s about finding the right idea, the right thing to do.”
Murphy doesn’t have any specific retirement plans. He’s got two grandkids and another one on the way.
“I’m going to spend some time with my family and kind of see where life takes me,” he said.
Wheaton officials will recognize his career during a city council meeting on Sept. 18. The meeting will begin at 7 p.m. in the city hall council chambers.