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Hero photographer, or sloppy cop?

Sergeant Sean Murphy has a 25-year record of service. Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Massachusetts State Police Sergeant Sean Murphy doesn’t deserve public adoration for slipping unauthorized photos of Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to Boston Magazine. Murphy let his emotions get the better of him. And the last thing the public should be applauding is a police officer who allows his anger to trump his professional judgment and training.

Murphy, who shoots photos for the department’s Office of Media Relations, was taking aim at a recent cover of Rolling Stone that featured a floppy-haired Tsarnaev looking for all the world like a member of an alternative rock band. Murphy blasted the magazine for “glamorizing the face of terror.’’ Then he countered with a photo of his own depicting a bloodied and bowed Tsarnaev leaning over a boat at the time of his capture by police in Watertown.

Supporters on the Internet emerged by the thousands to praise Murphy for his skill and courage in capturing the true essence of a terrorist bomber. Experienced law officers cringed. State Police Colonel Timothy Alben got it exactly right when he said that the integrity of the department was compromised when an employee took it upon himself to “cherry-pick’’ which pieces of confidential information could be shared with the public during a pending investigation. Federal prosecutors, meanwhile, fear that Murphy’s photo could turn out to be a gift to Tsarnaev if his attorneys seek a change in venue based on pretrial publicity.

No matter how unpopular the decision might prove with the public, Murphy should be relieved of his camera and removed permanently from the State Police Office of Media Relations, which is responsible for providing the public with information about law enforcement efforts. An officer with a solid, 25-year record of service like Murphy shouldn’t be terminated from the force for making a mistake, even a big, dumb one. But he should serve an unpaid suspension and then be reassigned to a desk job where he can contemplate the difference between an act of honor and an act of self-righteousness.


Murphy has written that he was motivated to act, in part, because the “fluffed and buffed’’ image of Tsarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone might provide inspiration to an aspiring terrorist. That’s conceivable. But it’s also conceivable that Murphy’s photograph of Tsarnaev — complete with laser dot from a police sniper’s gun — might inspire some demented jihadist. Does a terror group get more mileage from a bloody Tsarnaev or a backlit Tsarnaev? Who on earth knows? Probably not a State Police photographer whose duties are mostly related to departmental public relations.


Cops are only human. But they are trained to keep their emotions in check while everyone around them is falling apart. It would be hard to find a police officer in this state who hasn’t responded to a domestic call and encountered some pathetic excuse for a man who battered his wife or child. The urge to inflict similar punishment on the batterer must be great. But officers routinely swallow their anger and arrest such people using only the level of force necessary to gain control of the situation. The officers’ ability to control their emotions at such times is what defines them as professionals.

Metaphorically speaking, Murphy walked in and beat up a detestable suspect. The public will rise and cheer. But as the internal affairs investigation of Murphy’s actions gets underway, his superior officers are probably harboring doubts about his fitness.

“Life is good,’’ Murphy told reporters at a Tuesday hearing on his job status. But it’s not so good when you’ve blindsided the colonel of the State Police and jammed up federal investigators who are mounting what could be a capital case against the man suspected in four deaths and the wounding of scores of others.


Murphy’s rank is also significant in this case. Police sergeants are supposed to serve not only as first-line supervisors but as trusted sources of information on general law and departmental regulations. Patrol officers and troopers look to their sergeants for authoritative answers based on book knowledge and practical experience. Sergeants who elevate their personal sense of justice above the established justice system can’t serve that important function.

If photographer Murphy’s aim was to hit us all between the eyes, then he succeeded brilliantly. If Sergeant Murphy’s aim was to protect the public, then he fell down on the job.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com