Police commissioner reflects on a rough 2010 as he looks to restore faith in his force

Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey speaks to the news media in the Kensington section of Philadelphia on Dec. 15, about a string of strangulation murders. (For the Daily News / Joseph Kaczmarek)

ONCE, HIS biggest task was persuading people to trust that he knew how to combat Philadelphia's violent crime.

But now, three years after Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey became the city's top cop, he's trying to persuade people to simply have trust again in the Police Department.

"Right now, really doing everything I can to restore the integrity of this department, that's first and foremost over everything," Ramsey said earlier this week in an interview with the Daily News.

Without question, 2010 was a long, tough, sometimes miserable year for Ramsey's department.

There were some positives: Violent crime fell 3 percent from a year ago, and the murder tally stood at 305 as of yesterday, slightly ahead of last year's total but about 100 fewer than the city recorded just four years ago.

The year also saw the department partner with Temple University criminologists for an initiative that tried several outside-the-box policing strategies.

But there were far more valleys than peaks.

The never-ending budget crisis forced Ramsey - whose crime-fighting mantra is patrol, patrol, patrol - to accept that he won't be able to hire more cops for another year, maybe two.

Several incidents drew national attention for negative reasons - including, most recently, the "Kensington Strangler," a serial killer who has murdered three women since Nov. 3 and who is still on the loose.

And then there was the corruption. Eleven Philadelphia police officers were led away in handcuffs, for charges such as murder, extortion and robbing a supposed drug dealer of cash and marijuana.

It was mind-numbing, the corruption, because there was no end to it. And there's more to come, Ramsey said, noting that he already knows about other crooked cops who will be locked up next year.

So, where do Ramsey and the Police Department go from here? Can integrity really be restored? Can more gains be made in the war against crime with fewer resources, less manpower?

And will Ramsey be sticking around if Mayor Nutter is re-elected to a second term next fall?

 

'I had no illusions'

 

Ramsey was not naive when he arrived in Philadelphia three years ago. He knew that there was a good chance he'd have to weed out crooked cops at some point.

"I spent 29 years in Chicago, nine years in Washington, D.C.," he said. "I had no illusions."

Still, he seemed to be blindsided by how frequently the scandals unfolded this year. As soon as he finished addressing one embarrassing situation, another popped up, requiring him to create remedies on the fly.

In May, when Officer Rudolph Gary, 26, was charged with murdering his estranged wife's brother over a neighborhood water-gun fight, the commissioner announced that he wanted to improve the department's hiring standards.

Beginning in 2012, applicants will have to be 21 years old, have three years of driving experience and have completed 60 college credits.

When Officer Kenneth Crockett, 56, was charged in July with stealing $825 from a bar in the Northeast, Ramsey responded by opening a hot line, an e-mail account and an online tip form for people to report crooked behavior among police.

In October, when Officers Sean Alivera, 31, and Christopher Luciano, 23, were charged with stealing 20 pounds of pot and $3,000 from an undercover cop posing as a drug dealer, Ramsey transferred 26 additional investigators to Internal Affairs and increased the number of cops detailed to a federal task force focused on corruption.

"You can't deny it's a problem," he said. "People have to have trust in their police department.

"The majority of our officers do a good job, but the few affect the many. One scandal overshadows 50 good jobs that are done out there on the street."

Nutter said he believes that Ramsey has "zero tolerance" for crooked cops.

"I know the commissioner is tremendously embarrassed to make that call to me," Nutter said, referring to when a cop has been arrested.

Creating an environment in which he doesn't have to make those calls is now Ramsey's top priority. It might, he acknowledged, become his legacy.

"There's no finish line when it comes to crime," he said, noting that violent crime will still exist in the city 50 years from now.

"But having integrity within our ranks is totally on us, and we need to do something about that very, very quickly," he said.

 

'Some good inroads'

 

The year was marked by other headaches, other frustrations and some successes.

In November, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit over the department's "stop-and-frisk" policy.

The lawsuit claims that the policy is unconstitutional, that cops have disproportionately targeted thousands of minorities without having proper grounds.

Ramsey said that any suggestion that the department is widely targeting minorities improperly is "just flat-out wrong."

A month before the lawsuit was filed, Operation Pressure Point, which floods the city's 12 most violent districts with local and federal authorities on weekends from early April to late October, wrapped up its second installment.

Pressure Point reported solid numbers: 1,473 suspects arrested, $1.7 million in drugs confiscated, 59 nuisance bars closed.

But Ramsey said that the effort didn't do as well as he would have liked: Weekend homicides during Pressure Point rose from 30 last year to 45.

"We've talked about whether we need to make adjustments," he said. "Hopefully, in 2011, we'll be able to reignite that spark."

Budget cuts led to the cancellation of two Police Academy classes that were scheduled for 2011. A class that graduated earlier this year might be the last the city sees for some time.

"Our preliminary budget for 2012 does not include any academy classes," Ramsey said.

Keeping the patrol ranks properly staffed might require him to reduce some of the department's special units, a robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul move that brings him no joy.

Despite the dwindling resources, the city's overall crime numbers don't suggest that the department is losing any of the ground it has gained since Ramsey started.

As of Monday, 956 rapes had been reported, a 4 percent drop from last year. There had been 2,574 shootings, a 5 percent increase from last year; 3,510 gunpoint robberies, a 9 percent drop; 15,115 thefts, a 6 percent increase.

"We're making good inroads in crime, but it's nowhere near where it could be," Ramsey said.

It appears - so far, anyway - that he'll be around to see if those numbers can get lower over the next few years. Nutter said that he wants Ramsey to return as commissioner if the mayor is re-elected in November.

When asked if he'd return, Ramsey said that it was Nutter's call. "I'd like to stay," he said. "The way I feel now, I'm not tired, I'm not burned out."