Ramsey: Philly can cut homicide rate in half

February 5, 2008 12:47:11 PM PST
Just weeks into the job, Philadelphia's new police chief harbors ambitious plans to cut the city's murder rate in half. Commissioner Charles Ramsey will steer more patrols to the city's nine most dangerous districts, especially at night.

And he plans to find some of the needed manpower among the more than 600 officers - about 10 percent of the 6,600-member force - currently on medical leave or desk duty.

"We've got to do something. The bottom line is cops need to be around when crime is taking place," Ramsey, 57, said in a wide-ranging interview this week with The Associated Press.

Philadelphia has experienced a surge in murders over the past two years, when it averaged about 400 killings.

The new mayor, Michael Nutter, vows to slash the murder rate by 30 percent to 50 percent within three to five years. Ramsey hopes to trim the total by 100 this year.

The "Killadelphia" label slapped on The City of Brotherly Love hardly deterred Ramsey, who spent 30 years on the Chicago force and nine years as chief in Washington, D.C., from taking the job.

But the department's rigid hiring rules, which restrict his ability to pick all but a few top aides, nearly did.

"It's certainly something I thought about long and hard before I took the job," Ramsey said Monday. "You've got to be able to hold people accountable."

Ramsey was named to the post by Nutter, a Wharton School graduate who led the fight for ethics reform and anti-smoking laws in his years on City Council.

Washington had seen its crime and homicide rates fall during Ramsey's 1998-2006 tenure and Ramsey had no doubt he could do the same in Philadelphia, despite grim headlines about school yard shootings, witness slayings and police shootings.

"Four hundred, that is not an acceptable threshold. I'm sorry, it's not," Ramsey said. "For a city of 1.5 million people, there's no reason it can't be lower."

On the gun issue, Ramsey said he accepts Pennsylvania's right-to-own laws. But he believes large cities need the ability to set restrictions and demand stringent background checks to weed out criminals and the mentally ill.

In Washington, Ramsey enjoyed a virtual ban on handguns that is now the subject of a Supreme Court challenge.

"I think reasonable gun laws are really what we need," Ramsey said. "Nothing's going to be absolute. The only people that obey laws are law-abiding citizens."

Ramsey, whose mother was a nurse, planned to go to medical school until a Chicago officer took him under wing and steered him toward the department's cadet program. He signed on at 18, and soon found he loved the work.

"People make choices in life. If you make a choice to go the wrong way and hit somebody in the head in order to get ahead yourself, I'm afraid I'm not going to spend much time crying over the fact you came from a single-parent family," Ramsey said.

"There is no excuse for taking advantage of another human being," he said.

A sports fan, Ramsey and his wife watched the Super Bowl in his office because they did not yet have cable service. Their only child, a son, is a Penn State junior leaning toward an FBI career.

Ramsey came to the AP interview alone, with no entourage in tow. He voiced concern over the use of deadly force, while acknowledging that six officers were shot last year, one fatally.

Philadelphia police shot and killed three dozen suspects in the past two years, two of whom proved to be bystanders to the celebratory gunfire that erupts in some neighborhoods on New Year's Eve.

Ramsey believes that more timely reports on such shootings will bolster public confidence.

"Get it over with as quickly as possible, and let the cards fall where they may," he said. "But if an officer's justified in shooting, and ... it's a last resort, then we support them."


On the Net:

Philadelphia Police Department: http://www.ppdonline.org