Charles Ramsey’s War

by Richard Rys | August 27, 2008 7:43 am

THE POLICE COMMISSIONER REMOVES his glasses, wipes his forehead with a napkin, then grinds his right thumb and forefinger into his temples. He’s sitting shotgun in a white Explorer marked Car 1, and as his driver steers him away from the nightmares of Wyoming Avenue, he feels the pressure building. A migraine is coming on. Charles Ramsey gets them sometimes, and today’s grisly reminder of what he faces has triggered one, as if what he’s up against is hammering its point home:

BANG. BANG. BANG.

IT. WON’T. STOP.

The body was lying facedown, bleeding from the chasm left by a .32-caliber bullet that tore through the skull, rendering the brain — and all the joy and hope that filled it with life and made it human — useless. Amissi Ndikumasobo was defined by hope. What else would inspire a West African immigrant to work 13-hour days alongside his wife, Bintou Soumare, to sell t-shirts and knockoff sunglasses in their cramped clothing store? At his mosque, Amissi prayed that one day he would save enough money to bring their sons to America from Mali. Maybe then he could move his shop from Feltonville, on the eastern edge of the city’s notorious Badlands. Through the doorway of Urban Wear on Wyoming Avenue, Ramsey saw an industrial-size floor fan looming motionless above Amissi as homicide detectives paced. At 41, the dead man had been a husband, a father, a man of God, a dreamer. To Ramsey, he became something else: the 172nd homicide in Philadelphia this year. One hundred seventy-two bodies already on the new commissioner’s watch. It’s only July.

When Ramsey was hired by incoming mayor Michael Nutter last November, the optimism was palpable. During his eight years as the top cop in Washington, D.C., violent crime plummeted, and a department in ruin was rebuilt. Just as Ramsey’s predecessor here, Sylvester Johnson, suffered for the sins of his mayor, everything Nutter touched early on looked like solid gold, including his new commissioner. With a master’s in criminal justice, Ramsey viewed crime the same way Nutter viewed running the city — not so much looking, but thinking, analyzing. City Hall and the streets below it needed a clean sweep, and these guys, these bespectacled intellectuals who weren’t afraid to roll up their shirtsleeves or put their asses on the line, felt like exactly what this city needed.

The weight of those expectations hung on Ramsey’s face as he surveyed the murder scene. It was the middle of a cloudless day, and despite all the neighbors sitting on their stoops, witnesses were hard to find. Ramsey was told Amissi’s wife was in critical condition at Temple Hospital with a gunshot wound to the head. He’d seen enough to know what would come next — even if brain function hadn’t ceased, the organ would swell, pushing against the skull, hemorrhaging, dying. “She’s holding on for now,” he said, “but if she’s hit in the head … ” His voice trailed off. “That’s not good.”

Over the course of five long days stained by murder and mayhem, the nature of the violence in this city surfaces, in all its horrible complexity. Up close, it’s the mythological Hydra come to life — cut off one head, two grow in its place. In the face of such stacked odds, the questions hang in mid-air, almost too grim to ask aloud: Can this man, or any other, stop the bleeding? Can Charles Ramsey become a symbol of something bigger than a badge? The city needs a reason to believe in itself again, to wipe away its new nickname: Killadelphia. It needs hope. But Ramsey’s head pounds like the bass drum in a marching band. Bintou Soumare hovers in that shadowy place between light and darkness. And the bodies keep falling.

DAY ONE: TUESDAY, JULY 15th

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.”
MICHAEL NUTTER CLOSES HIS eyes as Ramsey sits in the Mayor’s cavernous, still mostly bare office. It’s not a sign of disrespect — actually, it’s the opposite. As Ramsey brings Nutter up to speed, the Mayor listens, and thinks. Ramsey wants to create a network of businesses with security cameras so cops will know where to look for footage that could aid an investigation. Nutter gives him the green light. Ramsey asks for new bicycles for his two-wheeled patrols. Done. No problems with this year’s Greek Picnic. Great. If it could only be this easy for the next three years.

On the surface, the two seem like funhouse mirror images of each other. Nutter, in his well-tailored tan two-piece and orange creamsicle tie, now seems perfectly mayoral. Ramsey doesn’t make as much sense. His stomach pillows out over his belt, and his round frame is complemented by cheeks that practically scream “Pinch me!” And those freckles — across his face, along his arms, everywhere. He would be teddy-bearish, almost boyish at 58 years old, if not for the perpetual hangdog look he wears, like a mask that hides his sense of humor and his smile, both of which are generous but usually below the surface. That’s where they need to be — in their proper place, compartmentalized. That’s how he’s survived nearly four decades of policing in which the bad weeks usually outnumber the good ones. Consider what was, by a mile and then some, Ramsey’s worst week in Philadelphia. Within three days in May, Sergeant Stephen Liczbinski was murdered, and a Fox 29 chopper caught a gang of cops engaged in some Rodney King-style rough stuff. Once the 24-hour cable nets got their hands on that, well, shit — Al Friggin’ Sharpton came to town crying for justice. But Ramsey had a cop to bury, and that’s all he focused on. One day at a time, one week at a time, one crisis at a time. Mere hours after Liczbinski was lowered into the earth, Ramsey watched the Fox tape again. Forty screenings later, he fired four officers. Buried one, canned four, and added 12 corpses to the homicide total in just two weeks.

Compartmentalize.

Keep pushing.

BANG. BANG. BANG.

AFTER LEAVING THE CLEANUP on Wyoming Avenue, Ramsey stops at a pizzeria on Spring Garden for his favorite sandwich — grilled chicken on a toasted hoagie roll, provolone, mayo and ketchup. As he waits in line, talk turns to movies. He likes superhero flicks — go figure. Didn’t see Iron Man. Liked the Spider-Man series, though. And he’s excited about The Dark Knight. He took a chance on Wall-E with his wife of 23 years, Sylvia. They left after a half-hour. “Two robots, no dialogue, everything’s bleepin’ and bloopin’,” he says. “Not interested.”

The Batman stuff reminds him of his childhood, reading comic books and watching the old serials on TV. Ramsey wanted to be a doctor, ever since the day Tony Brown, his little brother’s best friend, left the Ramsey family basement where they all played table tennis and never came back. Brown lived next door, and in that short distance, he was stabbed by some gang-banger. Ramsey watched the paramedics lift him into their wagon, and heard his last breath. He felt helpless, powerless in the face of death, yet compelled to do something about it. Years later, Ramsey was working his way through the University of Illinois’s pre-med program when a cop he befriended told him about the police cadet program. Reimbursed tuition and a chance to save folks like Tony Brown? He was sold.

Ramsey’s BlackBerry buzzes again. A black male shot so many times, the entry wounds are hard to count. There are whispers it was a retaliation killing. “The streets are a self-cleaning oven,” Ramsey says. “You get dirty, it’s only a matter of time before you make enemies and someone takes you out.”  
DAY TWO: WEDNESDAY, JULY 16th

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.

DAY THREE: FRIDAY, JULY 18th

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.

DAY FOUR: TUESDAY, JULY 22nd

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.

THE TURNOUT IS STRONG at this, the fifth of six town-hall meetings Ramsey has held this month as part of his outreach strategy. Among the crowd at the Penn’s Landing catering hall is the owner of Black Caesar, who kept his promise to attend. Questions from the crowd of about 100 range from the police surveillance cameras (installation is behind schedule due to poor picture quality, and Ramsey won’t come close to his goal of moving from 26 cameras to 250 by year’s end) to the casinos (Ramsey doesn’t dispute that it will take an estimated 165 officers and $17.5 million to create a new police “entertainment district” here). Then a community group leader takes the microphone and raises the issue heard so often at these meetings.

“Commissioner, how do you get the guns off the street?”

“Until people start getting very stiff sentences for committing crimes with a gun, I don’t see anything making a difference,” Ramsey says from the stage, flanked by his captains. That’s blunt talk in light of Nutter’s ongoing attempts to pass city gun-control laws. “They’d rather be caught with it than without it. I’d give 15 to 20 years just for having a gun, then address the crime.”

“Some people are concerned there’s not enough room in prison — ”

“Then build another one,” Ramsey says, to loud applause. “That’s just me. I ain’t speaking for anyone else. Other than that, I have no opinion.”

As for the depth of the crime problem, Ramsey describes a murder from earlier this year: A woman stabbed a man to death over a bag of potato chips. “Just insane,” Ramsey says, as the room falls silent. What can a cop do in the face of such madness? What can anyone do?

WHILE THE CITY’S DISCERNING gastronomes were dining at Osteria on Broad Street, a man was shot to death in a parked car three blocks away. As Ramsey tours the scene after the town-hall meeting, a text comes through — someone’s been gunned down at 20th and Boston. This knocks the tally down from 51 ahead of last year’s pace to 49. Ramsey isn’t happy. It’s a numbers game out here, and he just fell two back. “This,” Ramsey says, “is one of those nights when you can feel the bullshit in the air.”

By 9 p.m., he arrives at Boston Street. The body’s been removed, but that doesn’t make the block any less dismal. More shocking than the murder itself is how similar this landscape is to so many others Ramsey has seen. Mangy, underfed cats roam in the shadows of abandoned houses and in desolate lots. Neighbors huddle on their stoops, not out of fear, but out of curiosity; for families in neighborhoods like this one, police tape and sirens have become a macabre alternative to television. One of the block’s elders sits and watches, expressionless. How many times has he experienced this déjà vu? How many bodies has the six-year-old on a bike up the street seen loaded into ambulances? For now, units will cruise with their lights on to reinforce their presence in the neighborhood. From the looks on the faces of its residents, that won’t make them feel any safer.

After a half-hour, Ramsey has seen enough. Frasier is steering Car 1 toward home to call it a night when he pulls up to Edgar’s Place, a hole-in-the-wall bar at the corner of Cumberland and Cleveland. Directly to Ramsey’s right, on the sidewalk just feet from his window, a hulk of a guy known in the neighborhood as Bear hauls off and cracks another man in the face, sending the scrawny victim, who goes by Possum, straight to the concrete.

As Frasier pulls over and hits his lights, Ramsey throws open his door and grabs a retractable nightstick from the truck. His wrist flicks, and the nightstick whips open with a booming crack, like a hundred shotguns pumping at once: BANG! It’s a “Let your big stick do the talking” approach, and it works — Bear stops cold as Ramsey approaches him. A few onlookers gather, and everyone seems to have a beef with Possum, including Bear’s sister, who says it all started when Possum grabbed her ass. “Get up, nigga,” yells a young guy holding the hand of a wide-eyed child. The victim seems to be living up to his name and playing dead. “You’ve taken worse ass-whuppin’s than that!” Frasier radios for help tidying up the scene, and in seconds, nine cop cars fill the intersection. “Nothing like a night in the 22nd,” a deputy says with a laugh, seeing that the situation is well under control.

A minute later, though, the chaos escalates when six more cars come flying in with lights and sirens blaring — when Car 1 needs help, they all drop what they’re doing, especially with the memories of Liczbinski and Cassidy still fresh on every cop’s mind. The commotion brings half the neighborhood out to see what the hell is going on, and the feeling of bullshit in the air is suddenly palpable, like anything could happen. It’s not clear to all the cops that the boss is fine, and so tensions are high. Somehow, no one loses his cool, and in a few minutes, the cars and crowd disperse, dousing the combustible atmosphere. Back in his SUV, Ramsey still can’t believe Bear would be so brazen as to throw a punch in plain view of a police car. “We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Ramsey says as Car 1 drives off into the darkness.

DAY FIVE: WEDNESDAY, JULY 23rd

As much as Ramsey belongs out on the streets, he’s built for this, too — a press conference outside the Roundhouse to address a much bigger problem than Bear’s attack. When officers responded to the call from Car 1, radio traffic was so heavy that it crashed the Motorola system and three backups, forcing some cops onto a fourth backup and plunging others into complete radio silence for nearly an hour. The results could have been tragic. The collapse should have been a black eye for the police and the entire city, since the fire department uses this same system, which has been plagued by failures since its installation in 2002. Instead, Ramsey stands with the Mayor’s deputy for public safety and an FOP representative to present a united front. “Two minutes of downtime is not acceptable,” Ramsey says to a crowd of reporters. “Motorola’s got to fix it, period.”     

The rest of Ramsey’s day is spent in a wide-ranging series of meetings: a pretty young Main Line wife who wants to use her foundation to help inner-city kids; the president of the local Young Presidents’ Organization who wants to share his Rolodex of power players; and, finally, the gay community group from the 6th District, whose session begins fabulously when a black transsexual named Jackie, in a cleavage-spilling sweater, walks into Ramsey’s conference room and announces to the cops already gathered here, “Pleeease remain seated!” Jackie has been clean for more than 20 years. Her only complaint with the police: not being told her favorite officer in the Gayborhood was getting married. Then she beams at Ramsey: “I want to give you a transgendered welcome to Philadelphia!”

Ramsey laughs, but once his conference room clears out by 7:30, he’s got his game face on, ready to hit the road again. The city’s managing director, Camille Barnett, wants to know why they’re not on pace to hit Ramsey’s violent crime-reduction goal. “We just keep having bad luck,” he told his deputies at this morning’s briefing. “Last night, if we don’t have these two, we’d be down 51, not 49. But we have to defend being down six percent. We’re still down. We just have to keep it up.”

IT’S BEGINNING TO FEEL like another night of bullshit when the wind starts to pick up, whipping against Car 1 just minutes after Ramsey and Frasier leave the Roundhouse around 8 p.m. for some cruising. That’s when the hail pours down — marble-size stones pound the windshield, forcing the car to the side of Arch Street. The assault only lasts a minute, but it feels much longer, like it won’t end until something shatters. For a moment, nature’s wrath rivals that of the city itself. But the tempest passes, and the streets remind Ramsey that their violence doesn’t subside. He stops at a 7-Eleven that’s been held up some 15 times. He sees a barbershop on Ogontz Avenue where the owner was shot to death, just up the way from where soul singer John Whitehead was murdered. On the radio, KYW announces that police have identified a “person of interest” in Friday’s bludgeoning death beside the El. The body Ramsey saw belonged to Corey Moody, a hardworking father of seven who was headed home to his family. While the commissioner studied his corpse, the accused killer was just a few blocks away, using Moody’s credit card to buy knockoff jewelry. A camera caught him admiring his purchase, with two little boys in tow. Two kids seeing firsthand that murder brings necklaces and new baseball caps. What storm is stirring inside them?

ANOTHER ENDLESS DAY WINDS down in upper North Philadelphia, at a 10 p.m. press conference showing off the fruits of 83 search warrants executed today: 25 guns, $24,637 in cash, $171,753 in crack, heroin and other drugs. The chief narcotics inspector does the talking while his undercovers stay away from the cameras here in 35th District headquarters. “The narcotics team went out there to give these neighborhoods some relief,” the chief says. “To the drug dealers we haven’t visited yet, we’re coming.”

It sounds like a line from one of Ramsey’s action flicks, but afterward, as Car 1 rolls down Roosevelt Boulevard, the commissioner knows there will be no Hollywood ending here. Ramsey is no superhero. He’s just a cop in an unwinnable war, one in which victory simply means leaving this city in a little better shape than he found it, as he did in Washington. The headaches will come. So will the murders. And Ramsey will keep pushing back, keep driving it down, knowing all along it will never stop. He glances up at a billboard of Batman on his souped-up motorcycle, speeding off to save Gotham City, and for an instant, he seems to forget about the real shit, like Shawn Bender, the Crown Vic killer, whose health is improving, just as Ramsey expected. His daughter didn’t make it. In a movie, Bintou Soumare, the wife from the Wyoming Avenue shooting, would defy Ramsey’s prediction and survive. Three days from now, her husband will be buried in Mali. The following day, she’ll slip away, too. The search will continue for her killer. Another number is stacked against Ramsey’s body count, and more migraines will follow.

Five days.

Seven murders.

BANG. BANG. BANG.

Source URL: http://www.phillymag.com/articles/2008/08/27/charles-ramsey-s-war/