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 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.

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