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IACP 2013: Commissioner Charles Ramsey envisions a thin blue thread

During the opening ceremonies of the 2013 IACP Conference, Host Chief Charles Ramsey shared some of his insights and perspectives on policing’s past, present, and future

Following a prelude of pipe and drum, the posting of the colors, the singing of our National Anthem, and an invocation, IACP President Craig Steckler officially opened the 2013 IACP Conference Saturday afternoon in the Terrace Ballroom of the Philadelphia Convention Center.

Past President Russ Laine then delivered some poignant comments on the life of Francis “Fran” Looney, who passed away in August, just shy of his 97th birthday. Looney’s storied police career — including his time as Nassau County Police Commissioner and NYPD Deputy Commissioner — was just the beginning of his tremendous contribution to the law enforcement profession.

Then Philadelphia Commissioner Charles Ramsey approached the podium, saying, “Welcome to Philadelphia. They call us the city of brotherly love and sisterly affection, but we’re best known as the birthplace of our nation, and we’re proud of that fact.”

From Reactive to Proactive
“I was asked to share some of my thoughts about policing — where we’ve come from, where we are, where we’re headed, and what we must do to create the future of law enforcement,” Ramsey said. “The profession of policing is still based on the principles of Sir Robert Peel, and yet our profession changes and reflects the values, social structure, technology advancements, and political demands of the times.”

Ramsey noted that in the 45 years since he first began his career as a Chicago PD academy cadet, we’ve gone from call boxes for communications and pin maps to track crime trends to high-tech solutions for those things. He also noted that the profession has evolved from being primarily — if not solely — focused on reactive activities like investigating crimes and arresting criminals.

“The first half of my career, I believed my sole job was arresting bad guys, and I got pretty good at it,” Ramsey said.

“But let’s fast forward 20 years, when then-Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department Matt Rodriguez put me in charge of developing and implementing community policing in Chicago ...  As a result, I began seeing policing differently ... and began to accept the fact that the police must have the help of many people, agencies, and organizations.”

Technology to Fight High-Tech Crime
Ramsey noted that the law enforcement profession has entered an era of proactive and preventative policing, relying on precise data derived from evolving information technology to help agencies and officers make better-informed decisions. This is equally true whether those decisions are about long-term strategic initiatives or immediate life-and-death incidents.

Technology has enabled many improvements in police services, but technology also influences the very nature of crime itself. Crime and criminals are more networked, and more global. Fraud, identity theft, and other criminal enterprises can take place entirely in cyberspace.

“Why rob a bank with a gun when you can do it from overseas with a computer?” Ramsey said.

Interestingly, when Ramsey spoke of the immediate future, he cautioned about the potential for misuse of the technology law enforcement has at its disposal.

“Technology is a powerful tool,” he said. “Moving forward, we must be thoughtful about technology. We must drive technological solutions to our problems and not be driven by the technologists. We will increasingly face challenges surrounding the issue of individual privacy versus public security.”

“For example, license plate readers are in use now. They could be the predecessor of facial recognition equipment in patrol cars. Imagine instead of driving down the street scanning license tags, driving down the street checking the faces of individuals walking down the street. We have to remind ourselves, just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do it.”

Facial recognition software is here already, and it’s in use — albeit not in the squad car scenario Ramsey warned about. What will the landscape of policing look like for a 45-year veteran who is in the police academy right now, as Ramsey had been in 1968?

“What if public safety was measured by graduation rate and not just incarceration rate, or harm reduction and not just arrests,” Ramsey said. “What would a COMPSTAT session look like? And who would be sitting at the table?”

Ramsey said, as have many before him, that the best way to predict the future is to create it.

“We certainly must build on what has worked for us so far, but we can’t afford to hold onto the status quo. We must constantly strive toward excellence ... We must lead our departments into this interdependent, complex, and global world for which we are charge with keeping the peace,” Ramsey said.

The Thin Blue Thread
In closing, Ramsey said something really quite interesting: he challenged the metaphor of The Thin Blue Line separating good and evil — separating law-abiding citizens from the dangerous and violent criminals who intend to do them harm.

“The problem with being a line is that you’re separate and apart from those two things. You’re really not a part of either side. I like to think — and as I’ve gotten older and more mature in this job, I’ve come to see — a more accurate metaphor, in my opinion. It is one in which seem as a thread woven thorough the communities we serve — a thread which helps hold those communities together, creating a tapestry that reinforces the very fabric of democracy.”

With that tone now set, it will be very interesting to see what the rest of this week’s seminar sessions hold...

Stay tuned, my brothers and sisters.

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