All it took was one ride-along for Leslie Murray to know exactly what she wanted to do with her life.
Murray was promoted to a Downey Police Department captain last December, another historic notch in a law enforcement career that is still ascending. She is the first female captain in the department’s 62-year history.
The promotion was a special milestone for Murray, who grew up in Downey and Norwalk. She went to Lewis Elementary for grades K-1, before her parents bought a house in Norwalk.
“My parents really wanted me back in the Downey school district and we moved into Bellflower but it was in the Downey Unified School District, just south of Foster,” Murray recalled in a recent interview with the Patriot. “So that’s really where all my formational years were spent.”
Murray started at South Middle School (now Sussman) as an eighth grader, before matriculating to Downey High, where she graduated in 1986.
As a teen, Murray worked at the Broadway at Stonewood Center, and later at Downey High, helping at-risk students find jobs. She was a junior at Cal State Long Beach, one year away from graduating with a sociology degree, but still no defined career path.
“Dealing with that group, the at-risk youth, and then being over at the mall, I had a lot of contact with Downey police officers,” Murray remembered. “I ended up going on a couple of ride-alongs and that’s really when I decided,’ Ok, that’s what I want to do.’”
Downey PD hired Murray as a recruit, sponsoring her way through the police academy. It didn’t go as planned; two-thirds of the way through the academy, Murray tripped on a group run. She didn’t think much of it at first, but an MRI revealed she’d need surgery to repair two herniated discs.
The surgery, followed by several months of physical therapy, knocked Murray out of the academy though it didn’t dissuade her desire to become a police officer.
“I was really upset and frustrated that I couldn’t complete what I had started,” Murray said. “So I was really determined to get back into shape and back into the academy.”
How determined was she? Murray left the academy in October, had back surgery in February, and was back in a new academy class that August.
“I was super motivated,” she said.
This time around, Murray finished the L.A. County Sheriff’s academy without a hitch and hit the streets as a patrol officer in Downey – the same streets she had grown up on.
“It was a lot of fun,” Murray said. “We were all new and young and excited and learning. My shift ended at 2 a.m. and there were times when I didn’t want to come back in yet.”
Today, Downey has approximately 15 female police officers, but the number was much smaller back then.
“You were never treated badly, that’s not the case at all,” Murray recalled. “Just developing relationships might have been a little bit tougher because you’re in a field where it’s primarily men. But I was never treated poorly, that was never an issue.”
It helped that Murray’s brother, Ed Kelly, was also a Downey police officer. She also met her husband, Dan Murray, early on at work, and they married in 1993. (Dan retired as a sergeant and currently teaches a law enforcement class at Downey High.)
In 1995, Murray was promoted to the detective bureau, where she investigated sex crimes and child abuse.
“It was a really rewarding job because you get to go after the worst of the worst,” Murray said.
Investigating heinous acts against children came with its obvious emotional challenges, and at the time, Murray’s first daughter was only 2 years old.
“When you see things that happened to children, it hit closer to home,” she acknowledged. “I did that for three years and at the end of three years I decided to do something else.”
Murray continued her climb through the ranks. In 2000, she was promoted to sergeant, the first woman to hold that position in Downey PD’s history. The promotion was front page news in the Downey Eagle newspaper.
Eight years later, Murray was elevated to lieutenant, overseeing field operations as a watch commander.
In her tenure at Downey PD, Murray has supervised the hiring and training of new police officers, and oversaw internal affairs, records management, information technology, neighborhood watch, the explorers program, and use-of-force staff.
City officials credit Murray with furthering Downey’s homeless outreach efforts.
“I think I always had that drive to continue to learn and develop,” she said. “You do so many years in a particular assignment, and you get to that point where you think, ‘Ok, what else can I do?’ I want to constantly learn.”
As the first female captain in Downey PD history, Murray has etched her name in the annals of Downey history. And she recognizes the significance of the promotion, not only for herself, but for other women in law enforcement as well.
“It’s personally a big deal to me, not necessarily because I’m the first female – those are significant accomplishments for me personally,” Murray said. “I think the female part, and I’ve only recognized this as I’ve gotten older and further on in my career, I think it’s significant for other women in law enforcement just to have women in positions that they can strive for, that they see as attainable.
“I never felt any barriers here, so it wasn’t like I broke through any ceiling. There just weren’t women. But I don’t think that there was anything in place to keep women from progressing here. So it was a personal accomplishment more than anything else.”
Age 50, Murray qualifies for retirement but that’s not something she’s currently considering, she said.
“When it comes, it comes,” Murray said of retirement. “I don’t think I’m done yet. I still love what I’m doing. I still feel like I have a lot to learn and I can continue to grow here at the police department.
“I don’t want to put any limits on myself.”