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Charles Ramsey: The Man Supposed to Fix America’s Relationship With Cops

Obama called on Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey, among others, to change the future of law enforcement. Will his unorthodox ideas make a difference or just alienate his fellow officers?

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey
(David Kidd)
American policing has a problem. Fifteen months after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., a majority of blacks and Latinos believe law enforcement operates unfairly. Subsequent cases of apparent police abuse -- Eric Garner in Staten Island and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, among others -- have reinforced this impression, deepening mistrust. 

At the same time that public confidence in police is falling, violent crime in many big cities has been rising. In the first nine months of 2015, homicide rates in the nation’s 60 largest cities were up by 16 percent, according to a statistical analysis conducted by High-profile slayings of police officers in the late summer and early fall contributed to the general sense of alarm and fear.

This combination of rising crime and a growing mistrust of police is a crisis that mayors, police chiefs and elected officials alike are struggling to respond to. Tactics such as “hot spot” policing that flood high-crime areas with police officers have been proven to reduce crime; however, they can also antagonize the communities they are meant to protect. In this difficult climate, what’s a big-city police chief to do? 

Charles Ramsey has an answer. The Philadelphia police commissioner, who last month announced he will retire in January, is familiar with the difficulty of reducing crime while building trust. At the age of 65, he may be America’s most universally respected police chief. This reflects, in part, Ramsey’s breadth of experience: 29 years working his way up the chain of command in Chicago, eight years as police chief in Washington, D.C., and eight years at the helm in Philadelphia.

Equally important is his passion for the profession and his care for his officers. In Ramsey’s office in Philadelphia, seven officer portraits occupy a position of prominence on the wall behind his desk. They are the officers who have been killed on the job since he became commissioner. Ramsey can recite the details of every single killing with encyclopedic precision -- date, time, circumstances, survivors.


Portraits of each officer killed in the line of duty hang on Ramsey's office wall. (David Kidd)

There are other reasons behind the respect that Ramsey commands. “His word is good,” says Laurie Robinson, the longtime head of the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs. “He is savvy. There is just a direct honesty about him.” It also helps, she adds, that “he has a tremendously good sense of humor.”

It was not surprising, then, that last year President Obama tapped Ramsey to take on the current challenges of policing by co-chairing, along with Robinson, his Task Force on 21st Century Policing. By accepting the position and helping craft a blueprint for change, Ramsey has put an emphatic exclamation point on his career -- and has taken a big chance. The task force’s final report, issued in May, includes ideas that challenge some of his profession’s most cherished tenets. In particular, it calls for moving oversight of alleged police wrongdoing out of police departments and even local prosecutors’ offices, vesting it instead in outside agencies or task forces. Ramsey has also promoted a promising, yet unproven approach known as procedural fairness as a means of strengthening police-community relations. He has endorsed radical changes to how police departments operate internally and questioned their current focus on intelligence gathering. “We got away from some of the basic things we were doing in the 1990s and 2000s, community policing primarily,” says Ramsey. “We got very focused on data-driven policing.” 

Ramsey adds that the focus on data-driven policing is not necessarily bad, but at the same time, “you have to be able to maintain close contacts with certain people, but also understand how fragile those relationships really are.” 

Ramsey isn’t a blame-the-police kind of guy. “Why wouldn’t there be an issue of race and policing when there’s a problem with race in America?” Like many other big-city police chiefs, Ramsey has struggled this past year with rising crime. He has tangled with activists from the Black Lives Matter movement, praising its potential while criticizing elements that he believes are not prepared to have a constructive conversation. The fact that he speaks from a position of respect within the profession makes his message all the more important. But at a time when many big-city police departments are struggling to deal with spikes in violent crime and charges of racism, of a weakening in the bond of trust between the public and the police, is Ramsey the right messenger? Will his prescription for policing be one his fellow police chiefs are prepared to take? How strong is the evidence that reforms advocated by the Task Force on 21st Century Policing will really work?

To an unusual extent, Ramsey finds himself wrestling with the same issues at the end of his career that he contended with at its beginning. 

Ramsey grew up in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago, an area that was at that time -- the early 1950s -- a diverse, densely populated one that was just beginning to attract African-American residents. As white families moved out, the percentage of African-Americans soared from 11 percent in 1950 to 68 percent in 1960. Construction on the Dan Ryan Expressway cut a swath of destruction through the neighborhood. But to the young Charles Ramsey, Englewood was just a normal neighborhood. “People tried to take care of their property. The kids I played with weren’t in gangs, or anything like that,” he recalls. 

Still, danger was nearby. One evening, a friend of Ramsey’s older brother was stopped on his way home by a group of kids. Recognizing that they were actually gang members, the friend ran but was overtaken and stabbed. Ramsey heard the commotion. “I saw them put Tony [the friend who was killed] on a stretcher,” Ramsey says. “He took that last gasp, I remember, because now I know what it means.” Ramsey was 15.

Ramsey grew up planning to be someone who could do something about such situations. He wanted to be a doctor. But first, he had to save up the tuition, so he took a job bagging groceries. One of the cashiers had a brother who was a cop. The cop got to know Ramsey and another fellow grocery clerk. One day the officer suggested that the two young men sign up for the city’s police cadet program. They would get training, tuition for college and a paycheck -- all in exchange for agreeing to work flexible hours with the police.

His friend signed up, but Ramsey was dubious. The year was 1968. That summer police officers had clashed with protesters at the Democratic National Convention in what some called “a police riot.” The Rev. Jesse Jackson had described Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley as a fascist; groups such as the Chicago-based Nation of Islam were ridiculing the early civil rights movement’s emphasis on nonviolence. Ramsey remembers asking his friend why he wanted to be a policeman. “He looked at me and said, ‘What do you have against the police?’”

Ramsey thought about it. He liked the police officer he’d gotten to know bagging groceries. So he signed up. Three years later, he exited the cadet program with a college degree and an assignment as an officer with the Chicago Police Department (CPD).

He loved the action -- the adrenaline that came from making a good “pinch.” But it was one incident in particular that pushed him to think seriously about his future as a beat cop. One night, he and his partner had been called to the scene of a homicide involving a local drug dealer. The dealer was long dead. Two “wagon men” -- older officers, both big guys, smoking cigars -- arrived and went upstairs to the top floor of the flat to retrieve the body. Ramsey watched them struggle down the stairs, panting heavily, lit cigars pointing straight up to the night sky, and thought: Those guys could be headed to the morgue soon too; that’s not who I want to become.

Ramsey signed up to take the sergeant’s exam the next day. His timing was good. After decades of effectively being segregated, the CPD was moving ahead to true integration. During the 1970s, the department embraced putting black and white officers in the same cars (“salt and peppers,” they were called) and deploying female officers to patrol.

Ramsey rose quickly. He made sergeant in 1977, lieutenant in 1984, became commander of a district and then of the narcotics division. When Superintendent LeRoy Martin announced he was stepping down in 1992, Ramsey applied for the top job. At the time, homicides were rising sharply; the mayor had announced his interest in responding by creating a community policing program. As a result, the application included a number of questions about police-community relations. “It didn’t take a mental giant to figure out that you needed to answer the questions in a way that would be consistent with the direction that they were taking the department,” Ramsey says. 

So he read every book he could about community policing. His applications and essays were good enough to put him into the final four. He didn’t get the job, though. Instead, he was tapped to be the project manager for the city’s new community policing program, the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS). 

The program’s goal was ambitious -- it sought to create partnerships between police officers, community members and other city personnel to identify neighborhood issues that contributed to crime and solve them. At first officers were skeptical. “They’d say, ‘Oh, you’re not going to have an impact on crime. Oh, this is not real police work,’” Ramsey recalls. To make it work, he joined forces with an unusual new recruit to the Illinois Department of Corrections: research and planning deputy director Nola Joyce. Joyce has worked with Ramsey in every job he’s held since.

CAPS was a success. A 2002 evaluation found modest improvements in community engagement, more positive perceptions of the police and decreases in crime compared to non-CAPS beats. 

Ramsey was promoted first to deputy chief and then to deputy commissioner. When Superintendent Matt Rodriguez announced he was stepping down in 1997, most observers expected that Ramsey would get the top job. Instead, it went to a colleague, Terry Hillard. The next day, Ramsey got a call from a headhunter asking if he’d be interested in applying for a position as chief of police in Washington, D.C. The nation’s capital had recently been taken over by a federal control board, which was looking for a new chief to turn around the troubled police department. Two board members flew to Chicago to talk with Ramsey. That spring, Ramsey moved to Washington and took the job. His family stayed in Chicago. “I didn’t know if I’d succeed,” he says. 

Washington and its police department were a mess. “It was a very dysfunctional, underresourced and demoralized department,” recalls Joyce, who moved to D.C. when Ramsey did. “I’ve never worked in a Third World country, but it had to be something like that.”

Ramsey and his team, together with the federal oversight board and, later, Mayor Anthony Williams, upgraded the training program, equipment and facilities. A Ramsey approach became evident: Be direct. Insist on high standards. Broaden the search for talent. Seek outside viewpoints. 

His tenure was not without its controversies. One of the largest arose after the city’s police department arrested hundreds of protesters and bystanders during the 2002 meeting of the World Bank. The department eventually had to pay out more than $20 million in damages for the arrests. Still, when Ramsey resigned in 2006, Washington, D.C., was by all accounts a safer city with a more professional police department. He retired to near universal acclaim.

At first, Ramsey did the kinds of things retired big-city police chiefs do. He consulted on security arrangements in Iraq and worked with police professional organizations, serving five years as the head of the Police Executive Research Forum and the Major City Chiefs Association -- the first time a police chief has held both positions simultaneously. He missed being a chief though. In 2007, newly elected Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter called Ramsey to ask if he’d be interested in pursuing the position of commissioner.

Philadelphia in 2007 had a serious crime problem -- gun homicides were rising, threatening the city’s fragile urban resurgence. During his mayoral campaign, Nutter had called for a more aggressive police presence in areas afflicted by gun violence. By increasing the likelihood that youths with guns would be stopped by the police, Nutter hoped to dissuade them from carrying guns in the first place.

Philadelphia wasn’t the only city in which an African-American mayor was proposing to address violent crime by more aggressive stop-and-frisk policing. Cleveland was experiencing the same problems. After offering him the job as Philadelphia’s top cop, Nutter asked Ramsey to produce an aggressive plan similar to Cleveland’s. Ramsey countered with a different strategy. The Philadelphia Police Department was overspecialized, Ramsey informed the new mayor. Ramsey proposed putting more cops in the highest crime areas at the right times, but as patrol officers, not special tactical units. Nutter endorsed the plan.

Ramsey not only expanded the number of officers walking the beats on foot patrols, he did so in a characteristically astute way. He structured a series of experiments to see not only if foot patrols succeeded in reducing crime and improving perceptions of the police and public safety, but also what aspects of the tactic worked. A single randomized experiment is unusual in the public safety world. A series of experiments, says Temple University professor Jerry Ratcliffe, who conducted the evaluation, is virtually unprecedented. That’s where Ramsey’s experience and confidence came into play. 

As Ratcliffe explains, the police chief’s job is a high-stress one with a lot of turnover. “Some police chiefs see themselves as vulnerable if they are seen as using scarce police resources to further some esoteric study from a university.” But without such studies, the policing field can never truly determine what works. Ramsey, Ratcliffe says, “understands that and is willing to take risks in order to learn what works.” 

As crime and homicides -- including assaults on police officers -- fell sharply between 2007 and 2013, Ramsey faced a different and increasingly acute problem. Police shootings of civilians, high to begin with, were rising. Between 2007 and 2014, Philadelphia police officers were involved in 394 police shootings -- an average of 49 a year. This was way above the norm. During the same period and with roughly five times as many officers, for instance, the New York City Police Department had a lower number of officers involved in “adversarial shootings.” The Philadelphia Police Department was at risk of becoming a target for a U.S. Justice Department investigation and possibly a federal consent decree.

Ramsey addressed the issue in his distinctly forthright manner. Instead of waiting for the feds to target him, he went to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) for help in conducting an investigation. Its report, dubbed the Collaborative Reform Initiative, identified 19 recommendations the department could undertake to improve training and procedures. Ramsey immediately pledged to implement “each and every one.”

Ramsey’s experience working with the feds on the problem of police shootings prepared him for the president’s call to action: co-chairing the Task Force on 21st Century Policing -- an assignment that he could use to spread his ideas about how to resolve the challenges of policing today.

Although the reform efforts of a previous generation were put in place to prevent political interference in police departments, Ramsey had found that some of them hamstrung efforts to upgrade to modern-day policing practices. The president’s task force offered him and the other members -- police chiefs, a union representative, academics and activists -- a chance to propose a new paradigm for 21st-century policing. 

From the beginning, Ramsey and co-chair Robinson of the Justice Department agreed to an ambitious goal: unanimity in the task force’s report and recommendations, a goal they achieved. 

At the heart of the final report is a radical concept: procedural fairness or legitimacy. The idea is rooted in research done by New York University psychologist Tom Tyler in the early 1990s. Tyler examined litigants’ satisfaction and compliance with court rulings. What he found was surprising. People’s levels of satisfaction depended not on getting a favorable verdict, but on whether they thought the process was fair. When people thought the process was fair, compliance increased. 

Other academics, notably Yale Law School professor Tracey Meares, another member of the president’s task force, applied Tyler’s concept to law enforcement. Many police practices, such as stop and frisk, were based on a deterrence model. Although such models sometimes worked in the short run, deterrence came at a high cost. To the extent that high-crime communities viewed these techniques as unfair, the police lost legitimacy. Residents stopped cooperating. Hostility between police and community flared.


Conflicts in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere have damaged trust in police. (AP)

The task force chose to highlight legitimacy’s importance by making “building trust and legitimacy” the first pillar of police reform. (The final report proposed five pillars. The others were policy and oversight; technology and social media; community policing and crime reduction; and training and education.) “Decades of research and practice support the premise that people are more likely to obey the law when they believe that those who are enforcing it have the legitimate authority to tell them what to do,” the task force wrote in its final report. Yet when it comes to legitimacy, says Ramsey, “I don’t think we ever had it in many communities.” To build it, Ramsey and the task force recommended a whole series of reforms, such as facing up to the role of law enforcement in past discrimination; committing to communicate quickly and transparently -- even about sensitive incidents; and training officers more like guardians than soldiers. 

Ramsey and the task force also embraced unorthodox ideas about how police departments should operate. In particular, efforts to increase legitimacy and perceptions of fairness should start with how police departments are managed. “We can’t tell officers to treat people with fairness and respect and expect them to listen if officers themselves don’t feel treated with respect,” Ramsey says. Decision-making within police departments had to become more transparent. 

At the same time, Ramsey and the task force recommended third-party investigations into serious allegations of police misconduct. These would be performed not by police departments or even by local prosecutors who, the report said, were often too close to police departments to conduct a thorough investigation. Responsibility could go to such outside entities as a state agency or perhaps a special task force. “It doesn’t mean that departments are incapable of doing thorough investigations,” Ramsey says. “Do we have the trust of the people, the legitimacy? In many cases, the answer is no.” 

Striking the right balance will be a challenging endeavor. However, it’s clear that what Ramsey has in mind are sweeping changes for the police profession as a whole. An earlier generation of police reformers had fought for the right of police professionals to discipline their own just as attorneys and doctors did. That is, policing deserved the recognition and autonomy of other professions. But here was Ramsey arguing that policing was different, particularly when it came to a police officer’s right to take the life of a fellow citizen. 

Ramsey’s most radical suggestion, though, is his own: It involves consulting communities about the intensity of law enforcement they want and levels of crime they are willing to accept. Ramsey notes that many of the so-called “broken windows” of the 1990s have been fixed. “The squeegee man is gone. The panhandlers at least are no longer aggressive. Some of the abandoned properties have been renovated,” he says, ticking off some of the accomplishments. But the question he raises is whether policing knows what to do now that the “broken windows” are fixed. “Have we adjusted our tactics, our strategies?” he asks. “Have we gone into community-building or at least maintenance mode? As we start to pull back, can communities take care of themselves?” 

The answer, says Ramsey, has generally been no. Instead, police departments aspired to push crime down further, without regard to consulting local communities about the tactics they are willing to accept in pursuit of this goal. “No one wants to have a discussion about what is an acceptable level,” he notes. “It ain’t getting down to zero.”

[click_to_tweet]"No one wants to have a discussion about what is an acceptable level [of crime]. It ain’t getting down to zero."[/click_to_tweet]

Crime in Philadelphia certainly isn’t headed toward zero this year. Compared to the same time period in 2014, homicides in Philadelphia were up slightly for the first nine months of 2015. Ramsey’s department has embraced the ideas of legitimacy and procedural justice. Yet, Deputy Commissioner Joyce admits that she has her doubts about whether building up the perception that police operate fairly will really reduce crime. “For the last eight-plus years, policing has been pushed, and I think rightfully so, to make decisions based on evidence -- evidenced-based programming, evidence-based decision-making, analytics and so forth,” she notes. “Now, all of a sudden, we’re told we ought to be doing x, y and z. I’m not saying it’s not a good idea, but where is the evidence?”

For his part, Ramsey insists that American police departments must take building legitimacy seriously. Both communities and police departments suffer from the tensions between the two. To neutralize that, Ramsey says, “We have to work together to establish relationships and trust.” 

Although high-crime communities have a role to play in creating a secure environment, police “have to conduct themselves over and above what is expected of other people,” Ramsey says. “That is because the responsibility we have is over and above that of other people.”

Whether Ramsey can persuade his fellow chiefs to accept procedural fairness and transparent management as important tools in fighting crime may be the biggest test of his credibility yet. But then, Charles Ramsey has always liked a challenge. “Crisis,” he says, “is what causes change to happen.” 

John is a Governing correspondent covering health care, public safety and urban affairs.
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