May 15, 2015
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey has been the consummate professional about being made a target in this city’s mayoral campaign. He’s not talking about it, period.
But I wanted to hear from the man who’s so well respected that it set off a firestorm when mayoral candidate Anthony Williams, complaining about the city’s “stop-and-frisk” policy, said Ramsey deserved to be fired.
“Every place he’s been he’s exhibited strong leadership, and reached out to engage with people." – Darrel Stephens, executive director, Major Cities Chiefs Association
Lucky for me Ramsey's got a sizable footprint in the YouTube universe as well as a detailed bio. And after watching a lot of what the commissioner has had to say over the years, I agree with Mayor Michael Nutter, who said anyone who wanted to get rid of Ramsey “wasn’t smart enough” to be mayor. Consider me an educated part of Ramsey's 78 percent approval rating, according to a recent Philadelphia Inquirer poll.
Not only do I think we’d be crazy to let him go, I wish it were Ramsey’s name on the ballot.
“And you’re not the only one,” said Marissa Bluestine, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, which recently awarded Ramsey its Hero of Justice Award. “He’s an absolute leader, both nationally and internationally, when it comes to professionalizing police. He’s always talking about the importance of getting it right, and making sure they get the right guy.”
Here’s a leader who has not only reached the very pinnacle of his profession, he’s earned widespread respect while doing it. He’s won that respect the hard way, by tackling real problems and taking on the status quo. And he’s done it all while asking smart, compassionate questions like this one:
“What if public safety were measured by graduation rates, and not incarceration rates? Or harm reduction, and not just arrests? What would a CompStat session look like, and who would be sitting at the table?"
One national law enforcement leader lauded the man.
“I can tell you that Ramsey’s among the most well-respected leaders in policing, not just in America but in Canada as well, and large city police chiefs all over feel a really personal admiration for him,” said Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. “Every place he’s been he’s exhibited strong leadership, and reached out to engage with people. He’s open, he’s honest, and he’s constantly looking for ways to solve problems.”
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, right, was tapped by President Obama to co-chair his Task Force on 21st Century Policing, seen meeting on March 2, 2015 at the White House. (Jacquelyn Martin / AP)
It’s a respect that extends all the way up to the highest levels of government. Not only did President Barack Obama handpick Ramsey to co-chair his Task Force on 21st Century Policing, he also sent a personal letter of tribute when the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives honored Ramsey last Friday. And Vice President Joe Biden made a video for him.
Like everyone else, Ramsey’s not perfect. He’s made some mistakes, some of which made headlines. While police commissioner in Washington, D.C., he collected data from drivers during random traffic stops, which some critics described as an invasion of privacy. Then there were the 2002 mass arrests of 400 demonstrators in that city's Pershing Park, who had assembled to protest meetings at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Many of those arrests were later found to be unconstitutional and resulted in D.C. paying out more than $1.65 million in legal settlements.
"As a thin blue line we can suppress crime in neighborhoods. But as a part of a tapestry we can collaborate with others to create safe and healthy places to live and work." – Charles Ramsey
And we can’t forget that terrible period two years ago, when Philadelphia police shot suspects for four days in a row. Ramsey responded by asking the U.S. Department of Justice to step in and review his department’s use of deadly force, and what they found was sobering: The department lacked regular and consistent training on its use of deadly force, and too many police didn’t understand when they should shoot, and when they shouldn’t.
But mistakes are inevitable in any long career – especially one that brings so much change. And change is what Ramsey’s always been about.
He won national acclaim early in his career for introducing a community-policing model in Chicago, a time when many others were calling for draconian enforcement for minor offenses as well as harsh sentencing. In D.C., he continued pushing to build relationships between the police and the communities they serve, and took qualify of life issues so seriously that he helped create that city’s 311 non-emergency response system. Here in Philadelphia, he’s done similar things: increasing the number of cops on the beat and getting police out of their squad cars.
I’m also struck by his list of career awards – less by their sheer number than by the surprising presence of groups that one hardly expects to be honoring a cop: The Innocence Project, The Anti-Defamation League, The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, The Peace Islands Institute and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
There are good reasons to question this city’s use of stop-and-frisk – a policy that is set by the mayor, and not the commissioner. But this is hardly the resume of a man who just wants to rough people up.
Ramsey’s approach works. Crime dropped 40 percent during his tenure in D.C., and here in Philadelphia, the murder rate has dropped 37 percent in the seven years he’s been here. Last year the city experienced fewer violent crimes than at any time since 1985.
But crime stats and awards are not what people mention most when they talk about what makes Ramsey so great. Instead you hear words like innovation, evidence-based decision making, and accountability.
And I can see why.
Here’s some of what Ramsey had to say last year, when he addressed the 2013 gathering of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
“We need to start by shifting the way we see ourselves, and change the metaphor of the thin blue line that stands between good and evil," he said. "As I’ve gotten older and more mature in this job, I’ve come to see that a more accurate metaphor is one in which police are seen as a thread woven throughout the communities we serve, a thread that helps hold those communities together, creating a tapestry that reinforces the very fabric of democracy. As a thin blue line we can suppress crime in neighborhoods. But as a part of a tapestry we can collaborate with others to create safe and healthy places to live and work.”
He also spoke to the way that police can and should help shape the policies most likely to deliver on that promise. And it’s pretty clear that he’s looking for more than just a way to lock people up.
“There are questions about the use of stop-and-frisk,” he said. “And now there’s growing agreement, on both the political left and right, that we need to de-incarcerate large numbers of offenders.”