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.

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.

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