Amid a violent month, Philly gets a new police commissioner
By Marcia Gelbart and Patrick Kerkstra
PHILADELPHIA — Against a backdrop of relentless and unsettling violence in the city, Mayor-elect Michael Nutter yesterday named former Washington Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey as Philadelphia's next police commissioner.
Ramsey oversaw a significant drop in crime and murders in the nation's capital, and Nutter made it clear that would be his mandate here as well.
The 57-year-old career cop said he was unfazed by the assignment.
"As far as expectations and so forth, I know what I need to do. I stay focused on it. I'll have my critics, I'll have my supporters, and that's just the way life is," Ramsey said after Nutter introduced him at a news conference. "I am focused on crime-fighting. That's what I do. ... That's why law enforcement is my chosen profession, and I'm pretty good at it."
During his nearly nine years in Washington, homicides fell from about 300 a year to 169.
Nutter said Ramsey had the "presence, record and passion" to lead the Philadelphia department. He will replace Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson, who is retiring in January.
Ramsey, who was one of about a dozen candidates considered for the job, spent three decades with Chicago's police department before becoming the top commander in Washington, a position he held from 1998 through last year.
He was credited with reducing the crime rate while overhauling the 3,900-member department, tightening policies on the use of deadly force, and embracing new technology.
He also forged friendly relationships with federal law enforcement agencies whose jurisdictions overlap the district's turf. He is regarded as media-savvy and comfortable taking the lead in high-profile cases.
"I found him to be remarkably honest and straightforward," said Thomas M. Brady, interim chief executive of the Philadelphia School District, who worked with Ramsey while serving as an executive with the Washington schools.
Last month, Ramsey was a finalist for Baltimore's top police job, but the position went to a veteran of that city's department.
In Philadelphia, he will be asked to lead a 6,600-member department struggling to contain a wave a violence that has increasingly engulfed its own officers.
John J. McNesby, president of Lodge 5 of the Fraternal Order of Police, said he was disappointed that Nutter did not select someone from within the department, but was looking forward to meeting Ramsey.
"There is plenty of talent that exists in the department," McNesby said. "... We're going to do our best to sit down with the commissioner and do what's best for the community and the officers on the street."
As Ramsey steps forward, Nutter signaled that he would step back and let his new commissioner take the lead on the city's anticrime strategy.
"He has 39 years of police service. I think he knows a little bit more about policing than I probably do," said Nutter, who made the much-anticipated announcement at the YMCA at 51st and Chestnut Streets, in one of the city's most violent neighborhoods.
For instance, Nutter said, Ramsey and his command staff would decide when to declare a crime emergency, which Ramsey did with some frequency in Washington.
"If the chief tells me we're ready to go on the first day, we'll go on the first day," said Nutter, who as a candidate promised to immediately call for such an action. "But it will be a police decision with, of course, input from the mayor."
After Nutter introduced him, Ramsey opened his remarks by offering condolences to the family of slain Officer Chuck Cassidy, saying no one in law enforcement ever learns to endure such a tragedy.
He was looking for a chance to "to do something positive, to make a difference," he said, adding that he shared Nutter's vision for improving safety and security in the city.
"We have a very good police department here, and my job is to lead that department in the right direction to make our streets safer," he said.
As for how safe the streets were, Ramsey was more measured in his assessment than Nutter has been.
"You've had a bit of an uptick in some areas," Ramsey said. "Philadelphia's got its issues, it's got crime problems, but these are fixable problems if we all work together. So I haven't seen anything I haven't seen in working in Chicago or the District of Columbia or any other major city."
Nutter has promoted aggressive "stop-and-frisk" police tactics to confiscate illegal weapons, as well as the use of crime emergencies to give police authority to set curfews and prevent sidewalk loitering.
Ramsey called those good tactics, but he stressed the need to balance public safety with civil liberties.
"We will be very aggressive and very focused in dealing with crime, but we'll do it within the framework of the law, because one thing we will not do is abuse the rights of citizens," Ramsey said.
Throughout the half-hour news conference, he carried himself like a battle-tested veteran of big-city policing. He was relaxed, cracked jokes, and appeared comfortable with the high expectations that await him and the next mayor.
Nutter said that he and Ramsey still needed to talk about his salary, but that his new commissioner would be competitively compensated. As commissioner, Johnson is paid $158,538 annually. Ramsey made $175,000 a year in Washington.
"This is a big city. He deserves a big-city-chief salary," Nutter said.
In Philadelphia, Ramsey takes over a department with battered morale and divided loyalties. Johnson has his supporters, but also some sharp critics within the department who viewed him as lacking the leadership ability to combat Philadelphia's rising tide of violence.
Chief of Detectives Keith Sadler, who was regarded as a top internal candidate, said it was important for the department to fall in line with the new commissioner.
"If you call yourself professional and you're truly professional, then the mission of this department hasn't changed since yesterday," Sadler said.
When Ramsey took over in Washington, he brought with him about a dozen civilians from Chicago to help him do his job. Philadelphia's charter allows the commissioner to appoint only his four deputies.
At the news conference, Nutter said he would pursue a charter change to give Ramsey the authority to pick more command staff.
Ramsey yesterday wasted little time, meeting with Mayor Street, Johnson, and newspaper editorial boards just hours after Nutter introduced him.
At his meeting with the Inquirer Editorial Board, he sounded every bit the demanding boss.
"I love good policemen, I cannot stand bad policemen," Ramsey told the board. "I don't like people who show up every day and you have to put a mirror under their nose to see if they're breathing because they do absolutely nothing."
Copyright 2007 The Philadelphia Inquirer
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