5 Things to Know About Philly’s Next Police Commissioner

Richard Ross said he'll keep many of the outgoing commissioner's policies. But already, he's struck a very different tone.

Philadelphia Mayor-Elect Jim Kenney, right, looks o as Philadelphia Police Deputy Commissioner Richard Ross speaks during a news conference Wednesday. | Photo by Matt Rourke/AP)

Philadelphia Mayor-Elect Jim Kenney, right, looks o as Philadelphia Police Deputy Commissioner Richard Ross speaks during a news conference Wednesday. | Photo by Matt Rourke/AP

Retiring Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey is the toughest act to follow in Philadelphia by far. He’s overseen a major decline in homicides, fought an admirable (though not always successful) war against bad cops, and won over the news media.

So who’s the poor guy who will replace him? Mayor-elect Jim Kenney announced at a press conference today that, as expected, Deputy Commissioner Richard Ross will become the the city’s next top cop. Ross is a lifelong Philadelphian who has served in the police department since 1989, working in the detective bureau, homicide, Internal Affairs and, most recently, as Ramsey’s No. 2 man.

“I think it’s safe to say we’re just two regular guys,” said Ross of himself and Kenney.

Though he is well-liked and respected in City Hall, much of the general public has never heard of Ross. Here are five things Ross revealed about himself Wednesday:

  • He comes into the Commissioner’s office with broad support from divergent groups. During the press conference, Fraternal Order of Police chief John McNesby stood on Ross’ lefthand side. “It’s going to be a great working relationship,” McNesby said. On Ross’ right was Philadelphia NAACP president Rodney Muhammad, who has spoken out against police brutality and the city’s stop-and-frisk policy. “We’re happy about this appointment,” Muhammad said. After the event, Council President Darrell Clarke issued a statement saying that Ross is “uniquely qualified to understand the complexities of crime and the need to reform our criminal justice system.” Oh, and rank-and-file cops are said to like Ross, too. Sensing a theme here? Kenney stressed the importance of compromise in politics on the campaign trail, and he was successful in keeping together a broad, diverse electorate in the mayoral race. We’ll be watching to see whether the cooperation lasts in the police department and elsewhere once Kenney takes office.
  • Ross doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel, and why would he? Ross was asked more than once on Wednesday how he would be a different commissioner than Ramsey. It’s an inherently awkward question, since Ramsey is still his boss and mentor. “We’ve had a great commissioner, and I don’t feel the need to act like we’re going to start from ground zero because we’re not. We are going to build on it,” said Ross. However, he added, “Commissioner Ramsey is his own man and he’s a great one, but he doesn’t expect me to be him. He doesn’t want that. And I’m not going to be that. I am my own man and so we will do the best we can. We will get feedback from not only the communities, but the police officers.” Ross said he plans to retain end even expand many initiatives that Ramsey has supported, including community town halls, foot patrols and the use of body cameras. “You’re going to see a lot of what you’ve already seen, and then some,” Ross said.
  • Ross would not say how he felt about a controversial bill in the state legislature that is backed by the FOP … which makes you wonder if there’s a downside to all this cooperation. Yesterday, a Pennsylvania House panel unanimously approved legislation that would hide the names of police officers who shoot civilians until an “official investigation” is completed. The bill was introduced by a major ally of the police union shortly after Ramsey announced he would begin releasing the names of cops involved in shootings. Recently, Ramsey said he would call on Gov. Tom Wolf to veto the legislation if it passed. Ross was asked if he would do the same. “I and the Mayor-elect will invariably talk about that,” he said. “We’ll deal with that as we go forward. We’ve still got some time. But I’m not ready to weigh in on that.”
  • Ross said he will change the internal messaging about stop-and-frisk in the police department. Kenney said on the campaign trail that he would eliminate the use of stop-and-frisk without reasonable suspicion. What does that mean to Ross? “You have to realize that we have to make stops based on reasonable suspicion. That is the law,” he stressed Wednesday. “And we obviously cannot arbitrarily stop people for no reason. But I think a lot of the discussions going forward will take place with [Kenney’s] transition team. … ‘Reasonable suspicion’ is the phrase that we use. That’s what we’ll be working on.” A reporter asked: So how would the new stop-and-frisk policy be different than the current one? “The only thing that would be different is the messaging and making sure that we train to that effect,” said Ross, referring to internal communications in the department. “Our officers are trained every year on legal updates, and that we constantly hammer home what the law is, and that we continue to message out properly what we will and will not tolerate.”
  • Ross isn’t talking tough about police corruption … yet. Ramsey was an incredibly effective police commissioner, and even he couldn’t root out corruption in the police department. Ross was asked what he would do to fight it. “You drive home the importance of integrity. You work very closely with the FOP and communities,” he said. “To John McNesby’s credit, and he doesn’t get enough of it, he does not support that. He’s come out vehemently against corrupt cops. And I think people overlook that. And he’s demonstrated that by his unwillingness to support, in terms of legal representation, those officers that are accused of those things.” He added, “It requires a partnership. There’s no easy fix.” It’s certainly true that there is no silver bullet here, but many people see McNesby and the city’s arbitration system as two major reasons that Ramsey couldn’t discipline more corrupt police officers. Critics argue that arbitration makes it impossible to keep bad cops off the police force. To be fair, the FOP says that arbitration protects good officers from politically-motivated firings. But as David Gambacorta wrote for Philly Mag last month, “Arbitrators side with the cops, and against the department, about 70 percent of the time, according to the FOP. ‘It’s hard not to have a high batting average,’ McNesby chortles. ‘It would be like Dave Kingman going against a Little Leaguer.'”