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Former Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey Tallies Myriad Dilemmas in 21st Century Law Enforcement

Former Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey speaks at the law school

March 16, 2016

Retired Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey offered a nuanced perspective on the many challenges that face law enforcement and crime-ridden communities during a visit to the law school on March 15.

A national leader in law enforcement who was deputy superintendent of the Chicago Police Department before heading police departments in Washington D.C. and Philadelphia and being appointed by President Obama to co-lead the 21st Century Policing Task Force, Ramsey is currently distinguished visiting fellow of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation.

Through a dialog with Professor Emily Zimmerman, director of the law school’s Criminal Law Program, Ramsey offered perspectives informed by 47 years in law enforcement.

Training officers to understand and recognize implicit bias, to show respect for residents of communities they police and to understand the role of policing in history is essential for effective law enforcement efforts, Ramsey said.

“We have not always stood on the right side of justice,” Ramsey said, contending that police need to recognize that members of the law enforcement community played disturbing roles in chapters of history such as Bloody Sunday, when officers brutalized civil rights activists in Selma, Ala. “They were enforcing the laws that existed at the time, but you don’t forget your past. History is important to know, if you want to move forward.”

Putting officers on foot patrols so that they can get to know citizens is also important, Ramsey said.

Compstat, the computer-based system that many big-city police departments began using in the 1990s to identify hot spots for criminal activity, drove down homicide rates dramatically but diverted many officers from walking a beat and forging relationships with community members.

“You’ve got the lowest crime and more tension in some communities than I’ve ever seen,” Ramsey said, acknowledging that some officers show a lack of respect for citizens and forget that “there are more decent, law abiding people than criminals.”

Ramsey contended, however, that the Black Lives Matter movement “is missing a tremendous opportunity” by focusing solely on officer-involved homicides, overlooking the poverty and community-based violence that disproportionately affect communities of color.

Of some 13,000 homicides that happened in the U.S. and 208 that occurred in Philadelphia last year, Ramsey said 80 percent of the victims were people of color.

“Those lives matter, too,” he said. “If you had no police shootings, you’d still have 13,000 homicides a year, the majority people of color.”

Law enforcement is struggling to keep up with the pace and costs of technology, said Ramsey, predicting that the use of drones will pose new challenges to law and policy.

In the meantime, Ramsey recommended a top-to-bottom review of the entire criminal justice system that could identify improvements in probation, parole and re-entry programs and explore underlying social issues that contribute to drug trafficking.

“The last time there was a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system was in 1965, when Lyndon Johnson was president,” Ramsey noted.