STAMFORD — Mayor David Martin’s pick for police chief was cited for valor in the line of duty, commanded a bureau of 1,000 officers, helped achieve a significant reduction in crime, combatted corruption, and built a reputation for earning community trust.

But Chris Murtha, deputy chief of the Prince George’s County Police Department in Maryland, will face questions when his appointment goes before the Board of Representatives for approval in a couple of weeks.

One reason is that, after former Chief Jon Fontneau announced his retirement in January, residents who took part in forums hosted by a search committee called for a replacement who came up through the ranks of the Stamford Police Department — someone who understands the communities within the city.

Another reason is that Murtha’s department in Maryland is being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department on allegations of discrimination against black and Latino officers. Murtha and other department leaders are named as defendants in the federal lawsuit brought by a dozen Prince George’s County officers and two associations of black and Latino police.

The plaintiffs allege that department leaders tolerated officers’ use of the n-word and texts about bringing back public hangings, which one officer reportedly wrote to another when entering a black neighborhood. The suit charges that racial bias affected hiring, promotions, demotions and transfers.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Martin praised Murtha for his “credentialed resume, strong relations with community leaders, and consistent professionalism throughout the hiring process.”

He chose Murtha after assembling a seven-member search committee and contracting with the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit search firm.

The forum assembled a list of 37 candidates, including some from within the Stamford Police Department, and selected 11 for interviews, according to Martin’s statement. There were five finalists.

Murtha’s career “shows he shares the same values that have made our police department so successful,” Martin said in the statement.

‘No merit’

After the initial statement, Martin’s office issued a second one addressing the Prince George’s County lawsuit. The mayor, search committee and Police Executive Research Forum knew about it and “concluded the allegations of misconduct made in the lawsuit had no merit — specifically in relation to Chief Murtha,” the statement reads.

It’s not uncommon for large police departments to be the subject of discrimination suits, according to the statement.

It quotes Prince George’s County Attorney Rhonda Weaver, who wrote to Martin saying, “The suit makes no allegations of discrimination directly attributable to Chief Murtha. In fact, a motion is pending to dismiss him from the lawsuit. It is not unusual for a senior official to be named in a lawsuit and our investigation has determined Chief Murtha has done nothing wrong.”

Martin said in the second statement that he was reassured by Prince George’s County community leaders and police department colleagues “who affirmed Chief Murtha’s integrity, character and accountability.”

Murtha said Wednesday that information expected to arise from the lawsuit will show there was no wrongdoing.

“I am 100 percent confident the department will be exonerated,” Murtha said.

Martin’s announcement also included several testimonials on behalf of Murtha from leaders in the Prince George’s County comunity, including Bob Ross, president of the county’s branch of the NAACP, who said: “He has a very good reputation within the community, he’s very receptive and communicates issues well.”

Family ties

In the meantime, if his appointment is approved he will join other members of his family who have settled in the Stamford area, said Murtha, 53, who is originally from Shoreham, N.Y., a small community on Long Island’s North Shore.

“My sister lives in North Stamford, I have a sister who lives in Westport and my parents live in Fairfield,” Murtha said. “This is kind of a reconvening of the Murtha family in the Stamford area.”

Murtha, married with four children in their 20s, said that, if he is approved, he and his wife “are going to work out the logistics, but the best-case scenario is to live in Stamford, and certainly in this area. I love this area.”

He praised outgoing Chief Fontneau, who stepped down last month, for his skill at establishing community ties.

“He left large shoes to fill,” Murtha said. “My goal is to take what he’s done and build on it. I would cast a different eye on the department; my experience might translate into taking a great department a little bit farther.”

No honeymoon

If approved, Murtha will face two immediate challenges.

First, four officers were just arrested and charged with first-degree larceny after falsified payroll vouchers reportedly were discovered in the department’s Central Hiring Office. The allegation is that the officers manipulated the vouchers to improperly pay themselves a total of nearly $200,000 in cancelation fees for extra-duty jobs directing traffic around road work sites.

“I know that extra-duty employment is something people are talking about in Stamford,” Murtha said. “A progressive agency looks at all policies and practices, but this is one that certainly needs scrutiny in the early part of my tenure, should I be confirmed.”

Second, the police union contract expires at the end of this month. Murtha said all he knows about the contract is that city and union officials “are working through issues.”

Many accolades

Murtha has an impressive resume from Prince George’s County, which borders Washington, D.C. He was named Police Officer of the Year in 2004, and received his department’s Gold Medal of Valor and Silver Medal of Valor for apprehending suspects under gunfire.

He has been cited for outstanding service to the community, and worked with federal and local partners to fight corruption in the police department and county government.

Murtha earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of New Hampshire and completed a program at the Senior Management Institute for Police, according to the mayor’s office. He began his career in the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and after two years joined the Prince George’s County Police Department.

Murtha worked his way up through the ranks in positions that include patrol supervisor, Internal Affairs investigator, commander of Special Operations, commander of Crime Scene Investigations and operations commander for the Bureau of Patrol.

The Prince George’s County department employs 1,600 police and 300 civilians — 43 percent black, 44 percent white and 10 percent Latino, according to Martin’s statement. The department serves 1 million residents.

’A hard spot’

Sgt. Kris Engstrand, president of the Stamford Police Association, said it will be difficult for some officers to accept that the department’s assistant chiefs, Jim Matheny and Tom Wuennemann, were overlooked for the top job.

“These are people we know and like who were vying for the position. It’s a hard spot for us to be in,” Engstrand said. “We weren’t involved in the process. The city did its thing, the mayor formed a search committee. What I felt was missing from the committee was someone from the department. Why was that point of view left out?”

Historically, he said, “we have looked for our leadership from within the department, so going outside the department will take some getting used to. On behalf of the association, if Chief Murtha is confirmed we will equally look forward to leadership from him.”

The Board of Representatives’ Appointments Committee is scheduled to interview Murtha when it meets at 6:30 p.m. June 25 in the Democratic Caucus Room on the fourth floor of the Stamford Government Center. The full board is slated to take up his appointment at 8 p.m. July 1.

acarella@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2296.