The Out-of-Towners

Ramsey's record worries this former D.C. reporter.

By Jonathan York
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 2, 2008

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Copping to it: Charles Ramsey's D.C. Police revised 2006 statistics to show a 9 percent increase in violent crime.

Charles H. Ramsey will stand up on Jan. 7 and swear to protect Philadelphia as its new police commissioner. The former chief of the D.C. Metropolitan Police dons his badge just as our police have lost the power to stop people from killing on the open street.

Near the end of a year that has brought nearly 400 killings to date, some have pointed out that crime is the whole city's problem. We can't solve it by installing a squad car on every Center City corner. We must beat it in the neighborhoods. This is what we've asked Ramsey to do.

Michael Nutter says the new commissioner is a serious professional. With long stints in D.C. and his native Chicago, Ramsey has experience. And with a drop in D.C.'s violent crime numbers over his tenure, he boasts a good record.

Let's hope Nutter knows what he's getting us into.

I covered D.C . police and courts when Ramsey was in charge, and he seemed to have one way of doing things. If there was a high-profile appearance (Bush speeches), a high-profile disappearance (Chandra Levy) or any action at all in well-developed parts of Northwest Washington, he brought a flood of blue and white.

But if there was a stabbing, a shooting or a beating in the neighborhoods--which there was almost every night--he hardly changed a thing.

This was the line I heard from a neighborhood activist, from street-level cops and from anyone I met in the city's underserved police districts. They took it for granted that police didn't show up with speed or force in parts of the city that got the most killings. If you visited those places, you saw men dealing on corners and women turning tricks--but you didn't see cops.

The police who did work in those districts were overwhelmed. I once watched two officers run down a crack dealer who was driving a car with hot tags. As they stood on a curb near some open-air drug sales, they complained that nobody knows what they deal with every day. They had too much crime and not enough help.

Any urban police official might make the same legitimate gripe. After all, cops were all over the gentrified Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan neighborhoods in the Third Police District, and 3D still had the most robberies in the city. But the guys across the river had multiple shootings in a week--sometimes in a day. Downtown and its environs did not often have that problem.

East-of-the-river D.C. compares to North or Southwest Philly. There's extreme poverty and extreme crime. But under Ramsey's reign, police neglect extended to parts of town that were more like Center City.

On the southeast side of Capitol Hill, where I lived, you could walk around the corner and see the Library of Congress 12 blocks away. The neighbors all worked for government, nonprofits or the media. But there were housing projects across the street, which meant that drug deals, muggings and gunshots disturbed our quiet block.

Did the police care? Rarely. We were about eight blocks from the First District station, but we waited a long time for any response.

Ramsey's successor Cathy Lanier took control last January. When she began making changes, I asked a few longtime cops about one of Ramsey's old policies, which made every officer work a regular patrol shift in order to get enough cops on the street.

In theory, it sounded like a fine way to bust the complacency of the brass. In practice, it meant that investigators from neglected police districts were watching traffic when they could've been following leads.

Cops hated this system, and their union was pushing Lanier to abolish it. That didn't surprise me. But I was surprised that some of the veterans had unreserved dislike for Ramsey, whom they believed was putting forces downtown at the expense of the neighborhoods.

These are anecdotal observations, and Ramsey supporters can always say D.C. crime statistics prove his success. After all, violent crimes decreased during his tenure. In 2006, his last year as chief, murder rates reached their lowest point in 21 years. But there's one footnote.

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