Who Will Replace the Irreplaceable Charles Ramsey?

The field is tiny, and one man — First Deputy Commissioner Richard Ross — seems likely to get the job.

Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, right, and his likely replacement, First Deputy Commissioner Richard Ross Jr., salute the family of slain Philadelphia Police Officer Robert Wilson III on Friday, March 13, 2015, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, right, and his likely replacement, First Deputy Commissioner Richard Ross Jr., salute the family of slain Philadelphia Police Officer Robert Wilson III on Friday, March 13, 2015, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

How do you replace someone like Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey? The man is far and away the most popular public official in Philadelphia, an exceptionally gifted communicator, a native Chicagoan who somehow intrinsically got and loved Philly and, oh yeah, arguably the best big city police chief in the nation.

Of the 1,000,002 decisions Mayor Michael Nutter has made these past eight years, hiring Ramsey may have been the single best one.

But when Nutter steps down, we now know Ramsey will as well.

The writing has been on the wall for a while now, really. Publicly, Democratic mayoral nominee Jim Kenney — who, barring a meteor strike on his house, will win the November election — has said that the job is Ramsey’s as long as he wants it. Remember, way back in the mayoral primary, when Anthony Williams set his already-flailing campaign on fire by attacking Ramsey and proclaiming he’d sack him? Kenney’s campaign was simultaneously releasing artfully worded statements that said a Mayor Kenney would “welcome” Ramsey, but also hinted at the possibility Ramsey might well be moving on: “Jim has always praised Commissioner Ramsey’s leadership and repeatedly stated that if the Commissioner’s national profile didn’t take him elsewhere that Jim would welcome him in his administration”

It turns out the “take him elsewhere” bit was the important part. It seems that Kenney, like Williams, wants his own commissioner. There are plenty of ways to make that clear without publicly insulting Ramsey, and Kenney has made it clear enough.

A different commissioner might have forced Kenney’s hand. Ramsey is popular enough that he could have created a real predicament for Kenney by just staying put, or even publicly campaigning for the job. But that’s not who Ramsey is. I asked him about this very scenario a year ago, and he was adamant that the next mayor should get to pick his or her police chief, and not feel pressured into keeping Ramsey just because he’s got the job now.

“A new mayor ought to pick his own police commissioner. I think it’s a very important position. In fact, I know it is. Police commissioner and who runs your schools are probably the two most important appointments any mayor can make. And they ought to be free to make whatever choice they want to make. And, that’s just the way it is. We take these jobs…it’s at will, and I fully understand that, and I don’t have a problem with it at all.”

And now Kenney will get to make the all-important appointment. Who’s on the short list?

Really, it’s just one name: First Deputy Commissioner Richard Ross Jr., a 26-year veteran of the force who was born and raised in Philadelphia.

Yes, there are other qualified candidates: Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel, SEPTA Police Chief Thomas J. Nestel III, and Chief Inspector Joseph Sullivan, not to mention the universe of candidates outside the city.

So why is Ross the overwhelming favorite for the job? A bunch of reasons.

  1. He’s the PPD’s #2, and by all accounts he’s very good at his job. Ross is seen as having a real mastery of core policing operations. At this morning’s press conference Ramsey was asked about Ross. His reply? “There’s nobody out there any better.”
  2. He’s popular in the department, among both brass and rank and file. That’s important. Ross is considered a cop’s cop. He’s respected, but also genuinely liked.
  3. Sources say he’s the choice of the politically potent Fraternal Order of Police. That would be the same FOP that endorsed Kenney for mayor.
  4. Ross is adept at politics, without being seen by City Hall figures as overly political. Ross has solid relationships with City Council President Darrell Clarke, and with Northwest pols like Dwight Evans and Marian Tasco, whose early endorsement of Kenney in the primary election was pivotal. Those sorts of relationships are important in a city like Philadelphia, and so too are his political skills.
  5. He’s African American, in a city where African Americans comprise 44 percent of the population, the largest racial demographic in Philadelphia. For reasons of equity, common sense and politics, a white mayor would be unlikely to choose to a white police commissioner in a city like Philadelphia, particularly in the post-Ferguson age.

Those practical racial considerations alone probably rule out Nestel and Sullivan, particularly given that Ross is already the designated #2 cop in the city.

That leaves Bethel as an alternative to Ross. Bethel has fans in the city’s progressive criminal justice reform circles, and Kenney has talked at length about changing the city’s approach to incarceration, re-entry and other aspects of the criminal justice pipeline. If he wants a chief who’s seen as a reformer, Bethel is a strong candidate.

On the other hand, sources say Bethel is not as widely liked or respected in the department as is Ross, and he does not have the FOP’s support. And Ross is not viewed as hostile to reform.

Will Kenney tip his hand? So far, he’s been mostly mum about senior appointments to his likely administration. His campaign clearly thinks its premature to talk about personnel — and some policy as well — before next month’s election is held.

Will he keep quiet on his police chief appointment as well? It’ll be interesting to see. The question is sure to come up in next week’s final debate between Kenney and the GOP candidate, Melissa Murray Bailey.