Karen Heller: Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey has changed the force

At the 17th Police District in Point Breeze, the cops showed Rio to the neighborhood kids, right in the station, even renting a popcorn machine. The 17th held a family fun day and launched several outreach programs working with local groups and churches. The district's website promises "A caring partner in the community."

The 17th can be a dangerous place, one of the dozen targeted city districts where most violent crime occurs. "We realize that we can't just arrest our way out of this problem," said Capt. Anthony Washington. "We have to be in different places to help."

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Charles H. Ramsey says police once "were slaves to 911, running from call to call."

Cops are loath to call their efforts social work, but that's what they're doing. If residents feel comfortable around police, they're more likely to be trusting and share information, reducing brutal statistics. The captain said: "We're climate specialists."

Washington's vision, the work his 152 officers perform daily, echoes the mission of Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, set forth in a five-year strategic plan being released Wednesday.

"You spend so much time dealing with the day-to-day crap that you can never focus on where you're going," Ramsey said. The plan envisions a police department more lateral in organization, structured on a corporate business model, embracing old-fashioned policing on a highly localized level - 64 micro-districts dubbed Police Service Areas - while using the latest computer analysis and academic research.

During his three years in Philadelphia, Ramsey has radically altered the police force's culture.

Violent crime is at its lowest since 1978, yet flat from last year. "I'm not satisfied," Ramsey said. The department can plan for almost everything, and still stuff happens. Weather, new drugs, social media, anything can affect crime. "Three years ago, we wouldn't have mentioned flash mobs."

Police long worked in reactive mode. "We were slaves to 911, running from call to call," he said. "Every call for service is a failure." The cops hadn't kept the peace.

With crime, there are two distinct Philadelphias, each requiring different policing. In targeted districts, violent crime is systemic and constant. Sometimes making one small change - getting a streetlight fixed to illuminate a troubled corner - makes an enormous difference. Trust is low. "Plenty of the residents are skeptical," Ramsey said. "The government has let them down more than once."

In other neighborhoods, property theft is the great concern. More residents are victims of burglary and theft than violent crime. "At one time in my career, I thought violent crime was all that mattered," Ramsey recalled, "and then my parents' home got broken into. They never felt so violated, and never again felt safe in their own home again."

Illegal guns remain a monstrous problem. If two men get into an argument using their fists - most homicides begin with a fight, generally over "respect" - no one dies. Guns explode the dynamic. There have been 196 homicides this year, way down from 276 at this time four years ago, but still horrendous. Almost all the dead were African American males between the ages of 18 to 24 felled by bullets. The killers are, in so many ways, indistinguishable from the victims.

Ramsey wants tougher sentencing: "I'd like to see the mandatory five-year sentence for use of a firearm enforced, increased to 15 years. There's no disincentive to carrying a gun."

The department created a new shift, 8 p.m. to 4 a.m., when most violent crime occurs. Ramsey long ago got the cops out of cars, on their feet and onto bikes, making them active participants in the neighborhoods. Now the force relies more on cameras and statistics. Academy standards have been raised, a minimum of 60 hours college credit. The department's plan, like any business plan, lists strategic objectives, almost 150, and a progress report on earlier goals.

"Law enforcement is a very small slice of what we do," Ramsey said. "We're not here to feed the criminal-justice system. We ought to be here to starve it."

 


Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com, or @kheller on Twitter. Read her past columns at www.philly.com/KarenHeller