A Hopeful View On D.C. Crime
On April 21, D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey marked his eighth year on the job, becoming the District's longest-serving police chief in more than three decades of home rule.
Ramsey, a former top-ranking Chicago police official who joined the D.C. department in 1998, sat down with staff writer Del Quentin Wilber to discuss his tenure.
Q What went through your mind as you took the reins of the D.C. police force in 1998?
AWell, I had a five-year contract. My focus was to do as much as I could during my time. My primary focus was to assess the department and see what critical issues we were facing and to move accordingly.
The facilities were a major issue. We had terrible facilities. There was raw sewage leaking in a locker room. There were stories of community groups having to buy paper clips and paper for officers in their districts. My understanding, at one point in time in recent history, officers were using their own money to buy gas on patrol. Our fleet averaged about 10 years of age in terms of cars. That is pretty old for a police vehicle, which runs 24 hours a day. They were in very poor shape. Also, our computers were antiquated and insufficient in number. There was no command center and no way of tracking crime in an automated fashion. About 80 percent of our personnel hadn't undergone firearms training in three years.
Were you successful in tackling those issues?
Well, working with the [financial] control board, we went down to Capitol Hill and got $100 million over five years for facilities improvement. We used that money to rehabilitate our facilities, buy new lockers, things of that nature. We were able to get funds to improve the fleet. We went from the average age [of] 10 years to slightly under four years. We certainly have been able to put computers out in the field. . . . We totally changed the training standards, primarily focusing on the use-of-force continuum. We now qualify with our firearms, even me, twice a year.
Experts estimate that the average tenure of a big-city police chief is three years. To what do you attribute your longevity?
Well, you take it a day at a time. We have good people working with me. I haven't done this myself. Nothing is as good or as bad as it's portrayed. We had a lot of very good people, and they just needed some motivation and leadership. . . . We went from being focused on internal squabbles to being focused on crime-fighting.
With your boss, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), retiring and an important mayoral primary set for September, many in the department are speculating about your future. Do you plan to stay around until after the election?
Obviously, it depends on the next mayor. I don't know who that is going to be. Depending on who is elected, they will have to decide on what they want to do with all the different agencies, not just the police. If they want me to stay, I'm willing to do that. If not, they have the right to choose a new police chief. My contract runs through January '08, so we would have to negotiate that, of course. But if they want a new chief, I wouldn't stand in the way of that. . . . I have a contract, and as far as I'm concerned, I'm going to fulfill my contract. . . . I'm going to stay through the election.
How will your tenure be judged by crime historians?
The year before I came, there were 301 murders. If you [look] back historically 10 years or 12 years, they were in the upper 400s in terms of homicides. Last year, we had 195. We are also at our lowest level of reported crime since 1969. That's a positive accomplishment, looking at the history of the District over the last 15 years. You can't sustain positive economic growth if public safety is a major issue. We have reversed a deadly trend in terms of crime, but crime stats don't capture things like improved training, drop in inappropriate uses of force, improved equipment and facilities. All of these things put us in a better position to fight crime and build stronger relationships with our communities.
What would people say you could have done better as chief?
I don't know the answer to that. I've done the best I can. Granted that I'm not perfect, but who is? I just try to do what I think is best for the department and the city. Our focus is on crime-fighting, and I believe we've made a lot of progress while recognizing that more has to be done. In short, we are a lot better than we were but not as good as we will be.