In the golden age of newspapers, a newsroom would be filled with reporters and editors. Each reporter would have a “beat.” 

Sean Murphy

Sean Murphy

One might be on city government, another on county government and a third on city crime and courts, etc. That is what each reporter did and that’s all they did. 

Being able to focus on one “beat,” reporters could get to know their subjects well, work sources and, hopefully, get some coveted scoops.

When I walked into the newsroom at the Leader-Call, we had no beats. There weren’t enough of us. Oh, we tried — me on Ellisville city board, Mark on Board of Supervisors. When it came to crime, Mark had a good relationship with the sheriff’s department — ah, the halcyon days of yesteryear — and had a touchy relationship with the Laurel Police Department.

When the cavalry arrived from Vicksburg — me — Mark happily offered me Laurel police.

I was competitive when it came to the beat, having to get the better of b0th the Chronicle and WDAM. For a newbie coming in to a city in which he knew very little, getting to know cops well enough to earn their trust is not always an easy undertaking.

Police are skeptical of reporters — for many reasons — and the feeling is mutual on many fronts. The police deal with plenty of sensitive topics that make for great newspaper copy.

I worked the beat hard and slowly got those in the LPD to trust me, knowing that I don’t give away my sources. Sometimes I would get a text message with an address and other times I’d just get a phone call with a voice disguised on the other end.

Over the years, I have fallen in and out of favor with the LPD. One time, when my competition at the Chronicle got a scoop on a robbery arrest and I didn’t, well, I lost it.

I deal mostly with Capt. Tommy Cox. We have a love-hate relationship, which is mostly on good terms. He doesn’t give me too much extra information, which is his job as not only a captain but media liason. (Imagine that, a law enforcement entity that uses a high-ranking official as a public relations person instead of wasting nearly $40,000 per year on a radio deejay.) 

But back to Tommy Cox. When my friend Eloria James got the robbery scoop and Jim the Boss chewed on me as to why I was scooped, I hauled my hind end to the LPD for a meeting with Cox. He didn’t know why I was there.

I stormed into Cox’s third-floor office and threw a fit — and several copies of the Chronicle — right at him. He looked dazed as I launched newspapers all over his office.

Cox doesn’t give scoops. He holds things close to the vest. But someone did give Eloria that scoop and I jolly well wanted him to know about it.

We still laugh about that episode, now going on five years ago. He is still professional, although he has threatened to throw me down the LPD stairs on numerous occasions. To which, I always respond, “At least let me call Mark a few minutes ahead of time because that will make a helluva headline.” 

On Wednesday, Laurel Mayor Johnny Magee recommended Cox as the next full-time chief of the LPD. It now has to wait on getting City Council approval, and that scares me a bit.

I fear that because Tommy Cox has a certain skin tone, he will be looked upon skeptically by some in the community. I certainly hope that is not the case.

I have dealt with him professionally for nearly six years. I have talked to members of the district attorney’s office who have told me that of all of the LPD investigators, Cox is the one they have the most faith in. 

Our world has become more black and white. Dividing the races is a cottage industry that stokes the fires of the most emotional of us. That frightens me with this selection. The Laurel City Council over the past six years — maybe a bit longer — has been able to find a way to make the best decisions based on the quality of the individual and not the color of the skin. 

I pray that continues when making this decision. There will be some in the community who will be chewing their ears about having a “white” chief in a predominantly black city, when it shouldn’t matter one bit. 

Cox is the right choice for that department. And, remember, that endorsement is coming from someone who he routinely threatened to throw down a flight of stairs. (Note: I never really believed him and never was in fear that he actually would toss me down the stairs.)

If you don’t want to take my word for it, consider this. On many occasions on an off-deadline day, I would venture to the LPD third floor just to be seen, shoot the breeze with Lt. Earl Reed about Steve McNair, Cox about Southern Miss football and Chief Tyrone Stewart about, usually, the on-field exploits of his son Justin, who starred in football at Northeast Jones, the same school the chief starred at.

When we would talk about the LPD, the chief spoke freely — especially when my notebook was closed. He would talk about his years at the LPD, his impending “retirement” after he got his 25 years, his cooking ability and his love of fishing. Those conversations sometimes would lead to who he wanted as the next chief, if he could choose. He never hesitated when saying it would be Tommy Cox.

I imagine if you asked Cox right now, he would choose being captain for life if he could get Tyrone back into the big office. But life is cruel, as we all saw when the chief passed away at a far-too-young age of 48 earlier this winter.

Since the chief’s untimely passing, the big office has been run by three men — Cox, Deputy Chief Billy Chandler and Capt. Shane Valentine — but a permanent replacement is needed.

So, please, city leaders — don’t let black and white blur this decision. Cox is the best choice. Chief would tell you so if he could. He absolutely would. He did to me … many times.

Sean Murphy is editor of the Leader-Call. Email him at murph@leader-call.com.

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