When tensions between law enforcement and communities of color rise to a boiling point, President Barack Obama has often, of late, turned to Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, formerly the top cop for Washington, D.C., a 46-year law-enforcement veteran and now CEO of the Police Executive Research Forum.
After the spate of police killings of unarmed black men in 2014, President Obama appointed Ramsey to co-chair the Task Force on 21st-Century Policing. In 90 days the group delivered a 109-page “six-pillar” set of recommendations (pdf) that included independent investigations of police shootings, emphasis on community policing, and better education and training of officers. If all goes as planned, Ramsey could be overseeing a historic revamp of American policing unlike any seen in recent memory.
The commissioner took a few moments to speak with The Root about those recommendations and more, including recent tragedies in the City of Brotherly Love:
The Root: Task forces in Washington, they come and they go. Some say these recent recommendations lack enforcement teeth …
Charles H. Ramsey: Well, we’re actually working with the White House to find ways to put teeth behind them. They are recommendations—they don’t have the force of law behind them. But certainly there are ways in which we can make state and local departments move in the right direction.
The areas of training and education are where we’re already seeing movement. Revamping training. Fair and impartial policing. Concepts like procedural justice, legitimacy. These are terms that police chiefs around the country are now using on a regular basis. Use-of-force policies are constantly being reviewed and revamped. Reality-based training is something that really focuses on officers making decisions around using their verbal skills to de-escalate situations.
TR: What about residential requirements? Some legislators have proposed or introduced this concept. Shouldn’t police live where they patrol?
CHR: I don’t see how you can force people to move from point A to point B simply because they have a particular job or a particular assignment. I do believe there can be incentives to have people live in communities they patrol, but I don’t know how you can enforce it. I don’t favor putting anything like that in the report or the recommendations.
We need to work to be sure that no matter where you may be from, and if you’re working or serving in an area where you—perhaps—don’t live in or didn’t grow up in, you have the kind of respect you need to have for the people who do live there. That just takes a person who cares, and that’s what we need to focus on.
TR: But you do agree that the police officer should reflect the complexion or the cultural composition of the communities they are patrolling?
CHR: There should be more diversity in hiring; there’s no question about that.
But I also think that we need to recognize that unless we’re talking about having a segregated community, I don’t think that’s what we really want. What we need is as diverse a police force as we can have so it does reflect the demographics of the city as a whole, not necessarily the area they are patrolling, because that’s a dangerous path we go down.
I came in the job in the late ’60s and there was a lot of that, and none of it had anything to do with community policing—it was just segregation. We don’t want to go back to that.
TR: Is shutting down a police department or having it absorbed into a larger state or county jurisdiction a good model?
CHR: I don’t know that much about Ferguson because I’m not there. Will that actually lead to a better form of policing in that jurisdiction? Maybe. Maybe not. But if it’s just firing everyone and starting over again, is what you’re getting going to be better than what you just got rid of? Or is that just a reaction to make people feel good for a certain period of time, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into anything more positive?
We need to think about these things before we have an overreaction. I don’t know if throwing the baby out with the bath water is always the best solution.
TR: Are you worried about rising tensions there in Philadelphia?
CHR: Sure. But I also think that every time a police officer uses force, we can’t assume it’s not justified. Certainly, there are going to be people who will disagree. But not every time an officer resorts to deadly force or otherwise is it inappropriate. We have a lot of violence that takes place, and there are a lot of people in our community who are committing that violence, and we have to deal with that. To think that’s it’s only an issue of police and not take a look at the other issues that impact our communities … that, I don’t understand.
That’s not to say that every time an officer does something, such as using force, it’s the right thing to do. There are instances when it’s not. But then again, every time something happens, we can’t make an assumption that somehow it’s wrong.
I just had one of my officers—an African-American officer, by the way—shot to death during a burglary attempt by African-American suspects. I have not heard one peep out of the same folks that are protesting the [Brandon] Tate-Brown incident. All lives matter, period.
You’ve got to deal with the reality. Do I have to have an officer murdered before any use of force against the offender is something that people say, “OK, well, I understand that”? Does it have to be to that extreme?
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.