Charles Ramsey’s War

Five days, seven homicides, one citywide crisis, a Bear attack, a sassy transsexual, and the Dalai Lama. It’s just another week in the life of our new police commissioner as he sets out to do the impossible — stop the violence in Philadelphia’s streets.


Black coffee in hand, glasses perched on his freckled nose, the Philadelphia Police Department shield on the wall behind him, Ramsey sits at the head of his conference table for his daily 8 a.m. briefing. The news isn’t good. Yesterday alone, there were six shootings and a sexual assault throughout the 23 districts of the city — his city now. Filling out the seats are Ramsey’s deputies: four he inherited, and four he handpicked for promotion; he had to rewrite the City Charter just to do that. Their very presence here in Ramsey’s office on the third floor of the Roundhouse is a major victory — change in a place where the air is stale and the walls ache like old bones. Every day for Ramsey is a mélange of meetings, public events, cruising in Car 1 to explore the city, and, when his BlackBerry hums with deadly news, visiting murder scenes. Homicides are his priority, and each Tuesday, Ramsey studies a weekly tally of murder victims, comparing this year to each of the past three. Last week’s total was six, three less than the year before. The department is ahead now — the count is the lowest it’s been in four years — but not on pace to meet the commissioner’s goal of a 25 percent reduction for 2008. The only relief this morning comes from the homicide unit. No one died last night.

By 9 a.m., Ramsey moves down the hall to the War Room, where captains present weekly reports on the city’s nine deadliest districts; 65 percent of all murders and 64 percent of all shooting victims were claimed by the Nine last year. This is the centerpiece of Ramsey’s crime plan, and the drumroll leading up to its presentation in January was long and loud, thanks to the Mayor’s election-year tough talk about stop-and-frisk tactics, barricading drug corners, and taking guns off the streets. With Nutter by his side at the Wachovia Center, Ramsey’s first public act as commissioner was this — identifying the Nine and flooding them with cops. He also disbanded a high-profile special unit and sent those 46 officers back to the front lines. It made sense, but felt underwhelming: That’s it? You looked at a crime map and shuffled your roster? “There’s nothing fancy about the plan,” Ramsey said then. “This isn’t Batman and Robin coming out of a cave somewhere and suddenly solving all our problems.”

Ramsey’s strategies aren’t far removed from those his old friend John Timoney brought here from New York — track crime stats, analyze trends, and follow the “broken widows” theory that links quality-of-life issues with serious offenses. Back when Ramsey, climbing the ranks as a young cop in his hometown of Chicago, was placed in charge of a new “community policing” program, the notion that interacting with folks in the neighborhoods could help combat crime was foreign. Now, it’s a staple of American policing, but in the face of increasing violence and the “stop snitching” code, cops have a harder time earning trust where they’re needed most. That’s why patrols — on foot or in cars, highly visible and inter-active — are Ramsey’s focus. “The first thing we have to do is take control of the streets,” he says. “We’ve got to get back to basic crime-fighting. We got way overspecialized. The bread-and-butter is uniformed patrol.”

The War Room is no Batcave full of high-tech gadgets, just two projectors showing maps of the city that are pockmarked with dots representing everything from pedestrian stops to murders. Blue circles with bars through them are “releases,” or convicts returning home from jail; where there’s a cluster of blue, it’s time to step up patrols. Ramsey leans back in a worn-out chair as he hears that one squad is running low on personnel thanks to overlapping vacations. No signs of sympathy from the boss — as in D.C., Ramsey isn’t taking time off for the first year he’s here. Another unsolved shooting has left a veteran detective furious: “There had to be 100 people out there,” he says. “No one said anything. That’s how frustrating it is.” Ramsey grinds his spearmint gum while the maps reveal their grim portraits of a city overrun by crime — the Nickel and 7th Street gangs are fighting for turf in the Southeast, and across Broad Street, the Sex Money Murder crew is raising hell.

“Is that a new one?” Ramsey asks of the 8-Ball Gang at 18th and Carpenter.

“Brand-new, sir,” says a captain.

Compared to Chicago and D.C., Ramsey says, this city’s crime, specifically the shootings, is the worst he’s faced. Though the numbers were down last year, they’re still too high. His long-term goal is to cut the murders by 50 percent, but even that feels inadequate. “You can’t have an arbitrary figure and say it’s okay,” he says. “If you have one murder in a year, the family will say we didn’t do enough. And guess what? They’re right. That’s why you just keep pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing. You gotta keep driving it down and down and down and down.”