Philly cops under Richard Ross: Steady as she goes

Dozens of local and national journalists in late July packed into the bunkerlike room in the city's Office of Emergency Management on Spring Garden Street, hurling questions at six Philadelphia officials about the impending Democratic National Convention.

How can the city prepare for tens of thousands of protesters flooding the streets? What if something goes wrong?

After a few minutes, Police Commissioner Richard Ross calmly approached the microphone.

"These things," he said at one point, "come as no surprise to us."

The performance, in retrospect, was quintessential Ross: measured, self-assured, and steeled by nearly three decades in the Philadelphia Police Department.

The first year under Ross' stewardship was marked in large part by steadiness, the same characteristic he exudes behind a podium or in meetings with fellow commanders.

The department under Ross has carried forward many of the crime-fighting strategies used under former Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey. And during large-scale protests - such as at the DNC and others in Center City throughout the year - it has continued seeking to minimize arrests.

The results: The city's 2016 murder total was nearly identical to that of 2015, the number of officer-involved shootings was exactly the same, and overall violent crime - which includes rape, robbery, and aggravated assault - was down about 5 percent, according to police statistics. The department was widely praised for its restraint during the DNC, when it handed out 106 citations and did not file criminal charges against any protesters.

Ross, in an interview last week at Police Headquarters, said he has intentionally sought to project stability since he took over last January. As Ramsey's top deputy for eight years, he was given a hand in developing many of the tactics and strategies the department uses. Why shake things up simply because he was promoted?

"I didn't and don't feel the need to act like, 'Let's throw up something brand-new, let's tear down everything that [Ramsey] did,' because I was such a big part of that," said Ross, 52. "For me, it's about continuing what worked and what is working - and tweaking what you feel you can do better."

Some potential tweaks for 2017, he said, include adding staff members to the homicide unit; implementing a body-camera program in two of the city's busiest districts; beefing up community relations programs, particularly those aimed at youths; and developing a new unit for investigating police-involved shootings.

Observers generally give Ross positive reviews. District Attorney Seth Williams sang his praises at a news conference Thursday, and the Rev. Mark Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, said in an interview that he was hopeful Ross could continue to foster positive relationships between police and the community.

Although some in the department say they wonder whether Ross - the consummate insider - can push the department to remain forward-thinking, many say they're happy with him atop the ranks.

Kelvyn Anderson, executive director of the Police Advisory Commission, a civilian oversight agency, said he has found Ross' consistent approach shrewd.

"I'm less worried about him establishing some personal stamp in the first year of his tenure as commissioner [than] I am [about] keeping the department moving forward in the positive things it's achieving," Anderson said.

Perhaps the biggest shift Ross imposed in 2016 was eliminating a requirement that police recruits have at least 60 college credits. Ross said the aim was to broaden the pool of potential applicants and, hopefully, to add more men and women to the department. With about 6,200 officers, Ross said, he is 265 people short of his desired staffing level.

"That's a lot of people," he said. "That's bigger than any police district we have, and you can do a lot of things with that amount of manpower."

It's too soon to tell how effective the shift has been, but Ross said police have noticed more interest at recent recruiting events and hope that foretells more cadets.

In occurrences outside of his control last year, Ross saw two officers survive separate ambush-style attacks. Officer Jesse Hartnett was struck three times in the arm in January when a gunman started shooting at his patrol car in West Philadelphia. And Sgt. Sylvia Young was hit with six bullets in September when Nicholas Glenn fired at her in her patrol car, also in West Philadelphia.

During the Democratic National Convention in July, the commissioner was a visible presence on the streets, and the event passed largely without incident for police - even amid thousands of protesters and stifling heat.

And while the year ended with a slight decrease in overall crime, police-involved shootings also remained at historic lows. Officers shot 23 people in 2016, the same number as 2015 and the lowest total of any year in the last decade, according to police statistics.

Ross said the department would continue to work toward implementing the changes recommended by the U.S. Department of Justice regarding the use of deadly force. And, he said, the department was never satisfied with crime numbers.

"The minute that you rest on your laurels and say we've had a modicum of success . . . in my estimation you've just failed," he said.

A year into the top job, Ross says he's not surprised by much. And even if he's seen by some as steady at the expense of appearing different, he seems just fine with that, too.

"I like to just do the job," he said. "All I want to do is continue to move the ball forward."

cpalmer@phillynews.com

215-854-2817

@cs_palmer