Q&A With Distinguished Visiting Fellow Charles Ramsey: Community Policing and Black Lives Matter
Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey has been called “maybe America’s most universally respected police chief” by Governing Magazine. During his eight years helming the Philadelphia force, crime rates in the city dropped 40 percent. In 2014, he was tapped by President Obama to co-chair a President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
Retiring after eight years of service in Philadelphia, Ramsey joined Drexel in January as the inaugural Distinguished Visiting Fellow of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation. In a conversation with DrexelNow, Ramsey says that the Black Lives Matter movement is raising questions to serious issues that need to be addressed — but that everyone needs to stop pointing fingers and start solving the real problems.
After the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, and the riots that followed, President Obama selected you to co-chair his Task Force on 21st Century Policing to develop recommendations on better approaches to policing in American cities. What are some steps that you believe police forces should take to restore mutual trust?
Departments across the country are already implementing recommendations from the task force report. There’s already been a move toward better training: For example, we’re already seeing training around de-escalation as well as reality-based training scenarios that are created to really test an officer’s judgment when it comes to dealing with violence How do you take a volatile situation and, through your words and actions, ratchet things down so the situation becomes manageable and you don’t have to resort to higher levels of force?
We’ve also seen a focus on officer health and wellness. Officers are exposed to trauma. They see and are exposed to a lot of violence, sometimes on a daily basis. What impact does that have on them over time? What hyper-vigilance is created if there’s a violent or dangerous area that you’re assigned to patrol?
Major police organizations, including the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association, International Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, have embraced the report and are working with departments to help them in terms of implementation of recommendations.
So there has been a lot done, but obviously a lot more needs to be done. This is not something that’s going to be turned around overnight.
Q: Obama has been accused of starting “a war on cops” by appeasing Black Lives Matter protesters, whom some blame for inciting recent cop killings. Is it possible to walk the line between holding police accountable for misconduct without undermining their work or safety?
A: There is no war on police nor are cops at war with the community. President Obama is not responsible for any "war on cops."
The heated rhetoric you have coming out from politicians is not helpful — at all. That needs to stop. Somebody is looking to point a finger of blame. We need problem solvers, not finger pointers.
There’s enough blame to go around: extreme poverty, dysfunctional education systems that lead to a lack of job opportunities and over-incarceration with no real safety net in place for people after they’ve served their time.
These issues didn’t happen over the past eight years. These are problems and issues that have been around since I’ve been alive and before. That’s just not helpful at all. That does not lead toward solutions.
One way of holding officers more accountable is to conduct independent investigations of complaints made against police. The majority of police officers do not engage in acts of misconduct and neither does the majority of community members. Oversight and accountability are needed to gain public trust.
Q: Are politicians doing enough to address friction points in our justice system and society, or are they, as Dallas police chief David Brown has said, asking too much of cops?
A: Are police asked to do too much? Yes. We fill the gaps. How does society deal with people suffering from mental illness because they were put on the street decades ago with no safety net? We give officers crisis emergency training and try to get them to help people suffering from mental illness. Problems in schools? Let’s put more cops in schools.
Anything wrong with society: We’re asked to fix it. We have to deal with domestic violence. We have to deal with just about everything imaginable. You have to question whether we should be first responders in some of those areas.
We’re 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, the most visible arm of any government and we’re mobile. So we move around and we see things first. Cops see things on the street and there’s no one else to call to tell them to respond. We have to deal with it.
And that’s because of the breakdowns that have occurred over time. People say police need more training, they need more this, they need more that. It’s almost as if there’s not a societal ill in the world that police training won’t fix. Where’s everybody else?
Q: The involvement of technology — viral videos, dashboard cameras, citizen recordings and social media — in policing raises many complicated issues. The Task Force on 21st Century Policing did not issue an unqualified endorsement of police wearing body cams. Why not?
A: We were in agreement that body cameras are important, but we didn’t want to spend a lot of time focusing on body cameras because technology is developing so fast. Today, it’s body cameras. Tomorrow, it’s something else. We kept it broad and kept it with the core issues, such as how we apply technology as police and stay within constitutional guidelines.
We need the right people at the table — including the ACLU and others — to sit down and talk about technology and its application in the hands of police. We should be able to leverage technology, but at the same time, we have to do so in a constitutional framework and not wait for bad incidents to occur. We need to lead forward and have this discussion up front.
But we are in 100-percent agreement that body cameras are good. They capture an entire incident from beginning to end. With viral videos, something has to capture your attention before you turn the camera on. You’re in the middle of what took place. You’re not seeing the entire story. I’m not saying that actions recorded were good, but you don’t see the entire thing, and you need to see it, from start to finish.
Body cameras are on police from the time they step out of the car until it’s over. That gives more information to make judgments based on facts and information instead of just partial facts from which people jump to conclusions.
Q: Is there anything that you wish Black Lives Matter protesters and law enforcement supporters understood better about each other?
A: You have to see things from different sides and different perspectives. You don’t have to agree, but you need to understand it.
The Black Lives Matters movement has been labeled by some as being racist or as being part of the problem. They have a legitimate cause. I don’t always agree with how that’s being expressed and they have fringe elements like just about any other organization might have. But it doesn’t mean they aren’t highlighting a real problem that exists and we have to be able to find solutions to those problems.
That comes through thoughtful dialogue that leads to action that leads to change. Black Lives Matter has to be concerned not just with police officers and use of force. They have to be concerned about violence that occurs in black communities on a daily basis. If black lives really do matter, they matter no matter who may take that life. They should be equally concerned about violence that draws police into a community in the first place.
You can be concerned with those who may have died but you must also be concerned about the living. Those lives matter too. You get into issues with poverty, where people have to send their kids to a school they know is dysfunctional because they have no other options. Health care. Mental health care. People who are alive today — their lives matter, too, and they need to have things in place in order to be able to help them to meet the challenges of life. This can’t be just focused on police. We have, on average, 13,000 murders a year and I’m not talking about death at the hands of police officers. Most of those killings are minorities killing minorities.
What about that reality? How do we change that dynamic? Black Lives Matter has an opportunity to do that. I hope they do that by expanding their reach. That’s not saying police should not be held accountable.
Unfortunately, there are occasions where police need to resort to force or deadly force. But we do need to be mindful that it has to be a last resort.
Q: Dallas’ open carry law created confusion during the sniper killings, when one lawful gun-carrying citizen was labeled a suspect. Open carry is also legal here in Philadelphia, though it is not permitted on Drexel’s campus. Does open carry make policing harder?
A: It does. Not only that, but look at how it affects the average person. In today’s environment, you see someone armed walking down the street who is not a police officer. I think that would make someone a little nervous. You don’t know if this is a person who’s going to commit a mass shooting or someone exercising his Second Amendment rights.
If you think for a minute that having everybody armed in these situations, whether it’s in a nightclub in Orlando or a movie theater in Colorado, is going to make a situation safer… now you’ve got a bunch of citizens firing at one another. Who’s the bad guy? Talk about the fog of war. How is that helpful, when you have innocent people getting shot by other innocent people because they got confused?
In Pennsylvania, you can get a permit to carry. You don’t have to go through any type of training to demonstrate that you know how to use the weapon or understand the laws of deadly force. As long as you don’t have criminal background, you can get a permit to carry.
I’m not anti-gun, but I think there has to be some common sense approach to safety and responsible gun ownership. Look at the Republican National Convention that just finished in Cleveland with open carry. People can walk around with guns. It’s hypocrisy on the part of elected leaders. Just try walking into the Capitol or into any government building with a gun on your side. They need security. You couldn’t get into the Convention Center in Cleveland. If guns rights mean that much to you, let’s just open it up all the way. You’re not going to see that. There’s a double standard.
It’s not just confusing the police in today’s environment. Look at what just happened in France, in Brussels, in Orlando. It just goes on and on. People are on edge. And now you feel like you need to walk around with an AR15 — for what?