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.


Little boys on bikes steer clear of the yellow placards scattered across Tackawanna Street. Each marker has a number, starting at one and ending with 26. Near number 24, a toddler waddles on the sidewalk. To the police, the signs represent bullet casings or chunks of lead left behind after a gun battle that zigzagged across the street and through the barren lots. For those who live in these projects, the shooting death of an 18-year-old just minutes ago isn’t enough even to bring the kids inside for the afternoon. It’s a bizarre parallel to yesterday, when Ramsey met with the Dalai Lama, the human embodiment of serenity. They posed for a photo at the Four Seasons, shook hands, and that was that. Barely 24 hours later, here in the wake of another homicide, the notion of peace seems as foreign as the Tibetan holy man himself. “It’s constant,” Ramsey says of the violence, surveying the flags. “It’s just relentless.”

It’s barely 2 p.m., and it already feels like Ramsey’s working overtime. This morning he endured a mind-numbing 90-minute deposition for an illegal-search lawsuit against the D.C. police, and by noon, he was addressing the 87 new graduates of the police academy, all of whom will be on patrol in the Nine by Tuesday. Afterward, he posed for pictures with the young officers and their families, smiling through each snapshot as his crime-scene unit moved on Tackawanna. He knew he’d be there soon. There was actually some promising news from the morning briefing — one of the two suspects in the Wyoming Avenue job was in custody, and the investigators were confident he’d soon give up his accomplice. But the cops also learned what Amissi Ndikumasobo died for — $11 and a bag of t-shirts. Bintou, the shopkeeper’s wife, was still holding on at Temple. Ramsey didn’t think she’d make it this long. Maybe she’ll pull through after all.

By 4 p.m., Ramsey isn’t thinking about starting the weekend early. “I’d feel guilty if I didn’t give the company its money’s worth,” he says. His shoulders are slumped low. He’s yawning, and hoping the pounding doesn’t start again.

"HE’S GOT A GASH on his head,” Ramsey says. “Where all the flies are.”

The commissioner stands on an overgrown, secluded path behind the sprawling Kirkbride rehab center near the Market Street El. At his feet lies another body, the fourth he’s seen since Tuesday. The victim has no ID and appears to have been bludgeoned to death, judging by that bloody canyon in the back of his skull. He was facedown when they found him, but paramedics turned him over in a failed revival attempt. Now the man is staring up at Ramsey, mouth wide open in this 90-degree heat, flies swarming across his lips and nostrils and into any crevice they can find. A thick pool of crimson blood coats the blacktop near his head. The scene offers no clues as to who the man was. Could be homeless. Could be a crackhead caught smoking back here. Could just be an honest guy from the neighborhood taking a shortcut to the train at the wrong time of day. Ramsey’s only sure of one thing. “You know this body is fresh,” he says. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t want to be this close to the smell.” As the crime-scene team arrives and the sun shrinks from view, Ramsey heads back to Car 1, content that the company got its money’s worth from him today.