Philadelphia’s Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey is stepping down at the end of the year, shortly after voters there elect a new mayor.
Under Ramsey’s watch, the city’s murder and violent crime rates reached historic lows. He also helped lead the national conversation on law enforcement and made many residents of Philadelphia feel safer about their city.
James Williams cuts hair at the $10 Barber Shop in West Philadelphia, and he says in recent years, the police presence around the business has gone up.
“Walking, cars, bikes, they patrol the beat a lot,” Williams says. “They’re walking up and down the street … you’re starting to see it a little more.
On the other side of town, in North Philly, there’s a different perception. Alyece Holt thinks police just respond more quickly to incidents in whiter neighborhoods around university campuses.
“And they are protected very well,” Holt says. “Their streets are clean and everything else. But around, in the more urban part of North Philadelphia, no … I don’t feel any safer.”
At a press conference announcing his retirement, Ramsey admitted that they haven’t done enough in some neighborhoods and that some remain far too unsafe.
“There are too many being shot on the streets of our city,” Ramsey said. “Too many murders, too many robberies, too much crime.”
It’s not clear how much credit Ramsey alone deserves for the plummeting crime numbers, but many residents think it’s no coincidence. Last year, the department reported a nearly 30-percent drop in violent crime compared to 2006, when violence hit a 50-year high.
Part of his focus was on community policing, meaning more foot and bike patrols.
“What foot patrols are doing is allowing officers to spend time on foot and get to know the good people in the neighborhood and the bad people in the neighborhood,” says criminologist Jerry Ratcliffe. “And you can’t do that driving down the street at 40 mph.”
Ratcliffe says Ramsey also tightened up the standards for becoming an officer. He also put new cadets through a program about the history of police brutality, something he first did when he oversaw Washington, D.C.’s, police force.
When Ramsey announced his retirement, Mayor Michael Nutter had a hard time containing his emotions.
“There are young people alive today, who ten years ago, may not have lived in our city but because of your work,” Nutter said.
In 2007, Nutter convinced Ramsey to come out of retirement to lead Philadelphia’s force of 6,500 officers. On most quality of life measures, the mayor says Ramsey couldn’t be outdone.
Philadelphia Daily News crime reporter David Gambacorta says Ramsey’s legacy will cast a long shadow.
“In the most recent election we had, Ramsey was more popular with voters than any of the other people running for office or other recent political figures in the city,” Gambacorta says. “And I think that’s significant: He’s not from Philly.”
Ramsey is from Chicago, and this is an important point. Because of his outsider status, he was willing to go toe-to-toe with the city’s powerful police union. And when police-involved shootings spiked, he asked the U.S. Department of Justice for an audit.
“I don’t think he’s faced as much criticism as you’d expect from a guy who’s spent eight years in a volatile city like Philadelphia,” Gambacorta says.
President Obama selected Ramsey to co-chair the Task Force on 21st Century Policing after the deaths of unarmed men in Ferguson and Staten Island. The group called for more diverse police forces, more transparency about tactics and a softer touch to policing in general.
Despite receiving national accolades, he does have detractors.
“Charles Ramsey’s tenure as Philadelphia police commissioner was always more about style than substance, always more about putting a national image out there than about changing policing on the ground,” says Drexel political science professor George Ciccariello-Maher.
Ciccariello-Maher has been critical of the chief’s defense of the city’s stop-and-frisk program.
“Well, I’m going to let you in on a little secret,” Ramsey says, “… I’m not perfect, and I’ve never pretended to be perfect.”
Finding Ramsey’s perfect successor will now be up to the city’s next mayor.