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.

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.”  

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