Ramsey improves his record

The Philadelphia Police commissioner has built his legacy considerably since he came to the city.

In November 2007, I wrote an article criticizing then Mayor-elect Michael Nutter’s choice of Charles Ramsey as commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department.

Today, I am writing to say Ramsey has proven me wrong.

In the first article, I cited Ramsey’s history as police commissioner in Washington, D.C., as evidence he would not be a good fit for Philadelphia. Ramsey presided over a police department that had been sued for human rights violations.

Since coming to Philadelphia, though, Ramsey has proven himself to be an able commissioner for Philadelphia’s police force.

It’s true that crime rates have not changed substantially, and property crimes are on the rise. However, property crime rates will always rise in a recession. Ramsey cannot be blamed for that.

Ramsey’s biggest success so far was his reaction to a police beating caught by a TV helicopter’s cameras. In May 2008, almost a dozen police officers were videotaped by the helicopter beating and kicking three suspects. Ramsey fired four officers and disciplined as many within two weeks after the incident.

The commissioner caught flak from the Fraternal Order of Police for doing so. The FOP said he should have let the investigation take place. Ramsey realized, perhaps better than the police union of this city, how important public relations are, especially when they are often far from warm.

In my earlier article, I wrote that the city’s public image could not afford to have Ramsey at the helm. I said so because Ramsey had left the District on mixed terms and had drawn criticism for some actions he took when large anti-war protests were held in the city.

As it happened, Ramsey has only improved the city’s image. Murder rates are down, which matters when they garner more headlines than other crimes.

Not only has he improved the city’s image, but Ramsey improved how Philadelphians perceive the city’s police force. This perception can be one of the most critical obstacles in bringing down crime rates.

Combating crime doesn’t just take officers and squad cars. It takes at least a lukewarm – if not cozy – relationship between the public and the police. Then, people feel more responsible to help the police, helping to bring criminals to justice.

Ramsey deserves accolades for what he has done for Philadelphia in his first year. The commissioner may not have solved all the city’s crime problems, and some problems are getting worse, but that isn’t the point. Getting stuck on the statistics after one year would be a mistake. No one could significantly change Philadelphia’s crime rates all on their own in a year, or even two, without committing some serious human rights violations.

The important point is that Ramsey is taking on Philadelphia’s problems with what a recent Philadelphia Inquirer article called “relentless energy.”

It is that energy that Philadelphia needs, especially from the upper echelons of its leadership. Ramsey has not lost his energy after decades as a police officer.

Some of Ramsey’s actions in Washington, D.C., will not look well on his legacy. But judging from his first year as Philadelphia’s top police officer, those actions may only be a footnote to a much more effective career in Philadelphia.

Stephen Zook can be reached at stephen.zook@temple.edu.

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