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.

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.

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