With Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey moving on from Philadelphia after the end of the year, many are pondering the legacy he’ll leave.
He’s been one of the city’s most praised public officials, both for his ability to bring coalitions together and push for change.
Mayor Michael Nutter pulled Ramsey out of retirement to be police commissioner, and the mayor sees the city’s drop in violent crime and the ticking down of the homicide rate over several years as partially due to Ramsey’s decisions.
At a Wednesday press conference, Nutter became emotional describing how much of an effect Ramsey’s leadership had on quality of life in the city.
“There are young people alive today, who 10 years ago may not have lived in our city but because of your work,” Nutter said. “Thank you for coming to Philadelphia, and thank you for making my city a safer city.”
With a new mayor on the way, it’s not altogether shocking that he would see this moment as a natural point to leave. A new city leader should bring on a new team, Ramsey pointed out.
“It’s just time. I mean, I’ve been at this a long time,” Ramsey said.
During a career spanning nearly 50 years, he led police departments in his native Chicago and Washington, D.C., before arriving in Philadelphia.
“I’m not tired. I’m not burned out,” he said. “In fact, I’m actually in my prime.”
Many expect him to take a national job, parlaying his experience co-chairing President Barack Obama’s federal task force on police reform.
Obama was one of those lauding Ramsey Wednesday.
“I want to offer my heartfelt gratitude to Commissioner Charles ‘Chuck’ Ramsey for his nearly five decades of leadership and service with some of this nation’s largest law enforcement agencies,” the president said in a statement from the White House.
Policies praised, questioned
While in Philadelphia, Ramsey increased community policing, including more foot and bike patrols, and gave police captains more power. His advocates also say he brought greater accountability to the department and bolstered the reputation of police in the city.
“More than half the people who are shot in Philadelphia are shot within two blocks of their home address,” Temple University criminologist Jerry Ratcliffe said.
“A lot of the violent crime in Philadelphia takes place between two people who know each other and have a dispute. So what foot patrols are doing is allowing officers to spend time on foot and get to know the good people in the neighborhood and the bad people in the neighborhood,” Ratcliffe said. “And you can’t do that be driving down the street at 40 mph.”
Yet others, including Drexel political science professor George Ciccariello-Maher, question whether community relations are really less fractured since Ramsey moved into the Roundhouse.
“Charles Ramsey’s tenure has always much more about rhetoric and image than it has about substance,” Ciccariello-Maher said. “He’s been dogged by protests for the past six months surrounding the murder of Brandon Tate-Brown by Philadelphia police. It’s gotten to the point where Ramsey can’t even make a single public appearance without being disrupted.”
And on the ground, he says, things have not changed much.
“With regard to the fact that police in Philadelphia continue to shoot and kill suspects at a much higher rate than many other cities,” Ciccariello-Maher said.
Kelvyn Anderson with the Police Advisory Commission said Ramsey has gone out of his way to make the department more open. His push to publicly name officers who fire their weapons is just one example, he said.
Much work awaits
Still, Ramsey’s successor will have a lot of work to do.
“I think we still have some significant issues on the table with respect to stop and frisk,” said Anderson, referring to the police practice of stopping and questioning or frisking an individual. “The ACLU reports on that topic over the years have showed disappointingly slow progress.”
But even Ramsey himself said there’s only so much one guy can do.
“We haven’t done enough in some neighborhoods. There are still some neighborhoods that are far too unsafe. There are too many people being shot on the streets of our city. Too many murders, too many robberies,” Ramsey said. “We have to keep working to find a solution.”
Part of that solution, Ramsey said, will be carrying out most of the 91 recommendations about new police training from the U.S. Department of Justice that he’s leaving to his successor.