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.


As Car 1 winds through Port Richmond, the city reveals itself to its new commissioner block by block, illuminated by the midday sunshine. His driver, officer Chris Frasier, is like a human GPS system, steering with confidence through each neighborhood thanks to his 13 years patrolling them. Ramsey, though, is still learning these streets, so he submerses himself in them whenever he can. It took a year before he could visualize each block in Washington. Here, when he first heard of Strawberry Mansion, the name evoked an urban Mayberry, an idyllic vision that disappeared once he saw it for himself.

As Ramsey cruises, he hopes his prediction about Bintou Soumare, who’s still in critical condition, isn’t accurate. But he’s not optimistic. Ramsey made another prediction at this morning’s briefing after hearing about Shawn Bender. He’s the 19-year-old charged with chasing his ex-girlfriend across Roosevelt Boulevard last night, battering her car with his Crown Vic, killing the driver and critically injuring Bender’s one-year-old daughter. Bender himself was in critical but stable condition. “Nineteen priors,” Ramsey said of Bender’s rap sheet. Of the 141 shooters arrested in the first half of this year, 75 percent had criminal records, and 11 percent had been arrested at least 10 times. “Fuckin’ asshole. He’ll live, I guarantee it. They always do. That’s the stuff we deal with out here, man. People say, ‘Why don’t the police do something?’ Nineteen priors — it’s someone else’s job to keep him off the streets. We have to get our house in order, but other parts of the system need to work, too.”

Frasier plays tour guide, and the same themes keep surfacing, like a funeral hymn with no end. There’s the playground at 30th and Jefferson that was built for an M. Night Shyamalan film; on this postcard-perfect summer afternoon, it’s empty and covered in graffiti. There’s NFL wideout Marvin Harrison’s mom’s house, not far from the bar Harrison owns, where a recent shooting allegedly involved one of his handguns. The millionaire owns a tiny car wash on this block, while just up the street, empty lots serve as landfills, and house after house sits dark and abandoned.

As dusk approaches, Ramsey stops at Black Caesar, a clothing shop run by an ex-con he met recently. The owner introduces Ramsey to two boys he’s mentoring — it’s hardly an internship in the traditional sense, but keeping a kid occupied in the summer is a civic service here at 52nd and Woodland. Ramsey sees a chessboard on a crate outside. “That’s a great game,” he tells the boys. “It teaches you to think, to strategize, to consider the consequences of your actions.” He raises his hands and makes like he’s mashing buttons on an Xbox controller. “None of that kung-fu shit.”

Say what you will about Sylvester Johnson — one thing he had was love from the streets. Cops tell stories of tense confrontations that would have boiled over into lead stories on the news but for Johnson making peace. Ramsey is still “that commissioner boy,” as one ’hood rat called him as he passed by. He’s an outsider. To the folks in the Nine, he’s no more real than Nutter or Will Smith or anyone else they only see on television. Outreach like this, he hopes, will narrow that gap, one block at a time.

As he heads back to Car 1, Frasier points out a t-shirt that reads, “It’s not illegal if you don’t get caught.”

“No,” says Ramsey, smiling. “This is the one, right here.”

He grabs a black tee off the rack and spins it around to reveal the logo: “The Man,” with an arrow on the chest pointing up, and below it, “The Legend,” with an arrow pointing down. As Car 1 pulls away, Ramsey leaves his mask off for a moment, and both men are still laughing.



THE MOOD SOURS ON 27th Street, just below Tasker. A pair of elementary-school kids, a boy and a girl, pass Ramsey’s car on the sidewalk and wave awkwardly, unsure what else to do when two cops are looking in their direction. “It’s right around the fifth grade that you lose them,” Ramsey says. That look is back on his face. “Another year and they won’t wave to you.”

Four blocks away, Frasier points out an unremarkable house with a weathered porch, home to a family that was identified on the War Room projector screens. Along with a handful of other clans across the city, this bloodline is so corrupt, from Grandma on down, that they’re monitored like a gang. There’s a cop at one end of the street and a mobile mini-station on the other. “One of them’s locked up on murder,” Ramsey says as a middle-aged man on the front stoop gives his car an unflinching staredown. “Another one will probably be soon.”

The day ends at the Crazy Leprechaun, an anonymous corner bar in the lower Northeast where a patrol car with Liczbinski’s badge painted on the hood runs its lights continuously. Ramsey tries to stop by every fund-raiser like this one for both Liczbinski and Officer Chuck Cassidy, who was murdered last fall. Tonight, he bullshits with his deputies, buys a $20 memorial shirt, then heads home to Lincoln Drive. It’s only 8 p.m., and he’ll make it back in time for a rare dinner with his wife and their son, if the 21-year-old isn’t out with his girlfriend. No one was killed today. No migraines, either. For now, at least, the pounding is gone.