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.


In the past three days, there’s been no shortage of drama. Seven shootings over the weekend left one West Philadelphia man, who was hit 14 times, dead. Today, Ramsey gets his homicide stats. Last week’s total was 10 — two below 2007 for that same week, but not low enough for Ramsey’s liking. They had a chance to gain more ground, but that’s behind him now. It’s the start of a new week. The magic number from last year is 10, and that’s all Ramsey thinks about: Beat that number. Keep pushing. Drive it down.

The only bright spot for Ramsey in the past 72 hours was Sunday mass with his wife, followed by a trip to King of Prussia for a matinee of The Dark Knight. He loved it. Much of the movie was shot in Chicago, and as war raged in the streets of Gotham City, Ramsey took note of his old haunts. Heath Ledger blew him away as the Joker, an “agent of chaos” and yin to the yang of Batman, who sees himself as a symbol of hope for the crime-ravaged city. One thing Ramsey didn’t contemplate was the parallel between The Dark Knight and what he faces in reality — an evil so great, so incomprehensible, so bludgeoning in its persistence, that it seems impossible to stop. No, films like these offer a chance to turn his brain off. “I just want to enjoy a movie,” he says. “I try not to think about the real shit.”

A FEW HOURS LATER, Ramsey and his deputy commissioners sit in a theater of a different kind — the Joint Operations Command Center in Washington, D.C. Ramsey hopes to bring the best of New York and Washington’s technology to the Roundhouse. The JOCC is impressive — 20 67-inch Mitsubishi screens trained to police cameras broadcasting in real time from some of D.C.’s worst neighborhoods. Ramsey loves the “temperature board,” an interactive screen that can deliver instant information to all the district’s stations and to cops via laptop computers. Nutter would love this stuff, too, but even he can’t shake loose the few million it would take to replicate it. That’s why Ramsey is rebuilding the Philadelphia Police Foundation, a nonprofit charity created by John Timoney. New York’s program has raised $81 million in police funding since its creation; in 2006, the PPF scrounged up just $12,600. Ramsey plans to use donations to purchase 10 Segways and revive the defunct mounted patrol unit; both help cops cover ground, and also spark dialogue with curious folks who might not otherwise talk to an officer. They’re a start, but the PPF can’t handle all the capital improvements Ramsey needs to make at the Roundhouse and at decrepit police stations throughout the city.

One of the D.C. captains shows Ramsey’s group his “Greatest Hits” tape, a highlight reel of violence that peaks with a Friday-afternoon shootout by a bunch of masked kids. Considering what Ramsey confronted when he left Chicago to lead Washington’s police force in 1998, he’s not easily rattled. The district’s crime rate was rising as its population was dropping, and internally, the department was in a state of complete dysfunction. The hits kept coming: the 2002 Pershing Park protests of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which ended with more than 400 arrests and stand as one of Ramsey’s greatest missteps; the Chandra Levy investigation, which led to charges that Ramsey and his department botched the case and spent too much time accommodating the media; the aftermath of 9/11; and the three weeks of senseless terror inflicted by the D.C. snipers. But when Ramsey was replaced after the 2006 mayoral elections, he’d cut the homicide rate nearly in half, using many of the same strategies he’s employing here. His success prompted the Washington Post to bid him farewell with an editorial titled “A Good Chief Goes.” Private security consulting jobs followed, but he missed the satisfaction of seeing his law-enforcement ideas through to implementation, tweaking them, watching their impact. When Nutter called, Ramsey knew retirement could wait.

By the time Ramsey heads back to Union Station for lunch, scores of beaming D.C. cops have greeted him with a hearty “Hey, Chief!” When officers see him in Philly, it’s either “Commissioner” or “Boss,” and the smiles aren’t always so wide. He’s still got a lot to prove, both to the people he serves and within his department. He knows how Timoney clashed with Philly’s FOP, one of the most powerful police unions in the country. On his first day, Ramsey met with the union president, John McNesby, in hopes of creating a partnership; so far, their uneasy alliance is holding up. But McNesby is confident the cops Ramsey fired in the beating case will get their jobs back, and while he’s rooting for his new commissioner, he’s not cutting him any slack.

As the northbound Acela slides out of the station toward Pennsylvania, Ramsey gets right to work with his team. Eventually, he’ll take a few minutes to close his eyes and rest. He’ll need the extra energy to make it through this night.