Philadelphia Would Miss Ramsey’s Common Touch

The police commissioner's personality has as much to do with his success as the lower crime rate

It’s looking a lot like Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey will leave Philadelphia for the top cop job in his hometown of Chicago. That’s obviously bad news for Mayor Nutter’s campaign against violent crime. But it’s worse than that. If Ramsey goes, the administration will lose its most effective ambassador to the public, the single high-profile Nutter official with the common touch. With Ramsey gone, it’ll just be Nutter and the eggheads. Now I like a lot of the eggheads. Many of them are very good at what they do. But none of them have Ramsey’s gift for communication, or his natural ease with average Philadelphians.

[SIGNUP]There haven’t been many police commissioners in Philadelphia who’ve won the respect of both rank-and-file cops and most residents. By and large, Ramsey has. Sure, some of that has to do with his actual policing accomplishments. Violent crime and homicides fell off pretty sharply in 2008, when Ramsey and Nutter took over. But I’d contend his personality has as much to do with his popularity as anything else. Nothing about Ramsey feels forced or fake. There’s something about him that makes him feel approachable (maybe it’s the freckles?), but nobody would suggest that he’s soft. He has a knack for finding just the right tone to meet the occasion, whether it’s mourning the loss of a fallen officer or firing rogue cops.

A big part of it is he sounds like a normal guy when he talks, which is a real rarity for this administration. He once told a writer for Philadelphia magazine that “the streets are a self-cleaning oven. You get dirty, it’s only a matter of time before you make enemies and someone takes you out.” He may not actually divulge more information than an average commissioner, but when Ramsey talks, you feel like you’re getting an unfiltered look at the truth.

Still, I’ve marveled at the way he’s emerged almost completely unscathed from incidents that would have sunk a lot of other public officials. The number of dirty cops who have been exposed on his watch is astronomical. Just ask Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker of the Daily News, who won a Pulitzer Prize documenting just some of the criminal behavior in the police ranks. And yet hardly anybody suggested that Ramsey should go.

To the contrary, Nutter is publicly lobbying Ramsey to stay. I hope he does. But don’t count on it. Chicago is home to him. It’s got a famous new mayor in Rahm Emmanuel, and—in Ramsey’s own telling—the crime in Chicago is easier to get a handle on than it is in Philadelphia. The money is better there too.

I’m sure Nutter can find a policing whiz to replace Ramsey if he does go. Reducing crime is one of Nutter’s top priorities, and the job would no doubt be attractive to a lot of candidates. But the odds are low the mayor can find anyone with anything like Ramsey’s innate talent for winning over the public.