Q&A With Charles H. Ramsey
"Levey Live," appears each Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern time. It is a live, moderated discussion offering washingtonpost.com users the chance to ask questions directly of the people who make the news and the people who report it.
Good afternoon. I'm your host, Washington Post columnist Bob Levey. My guest today is D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey. A native of Chicago, Ramsey joined that city's police department in 1968 as an 18-year-old cadet. After becoming a police officer in 1971, Ramsey spent the next 30 years working his way through the ranks, from sergeant to Deputy Superintendent of the Bureau of Staff Services.
Ramsey was a key player in the development of CAPS, the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy, considered a landmark in community policing. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees in criminal justice and is a graduate of the FBI National Academy. Ramsey become Chief of Police in Washington, D.C., on April 21, 1998.
The text of the chat follows.
Washington, DC: What is your opinion of the tactics used by Rudy Guiliani in New York of addressing "quality of life" issues as a way to combat crime? Do you think this would work in D.C.?
Charles H. Ramsey: I think that the quality of life type of crimes are very detrimental to communities as a whole, and it's imperative that police address those issues. What's happening in New York has had pretty dramatic results, and again illustrates the need for police to pay close attention to minor crimes. As far as D.C. goes, we will also focus on quality of life--or disorder-related types of crimes. One word of caution, however: The zero tolerance policies used in New York and other cities can easily result in abuse of police power and authority in some instances. So we must be careful that the police enforce laws equally and fairly in all communities.
Bob Levey: You made headlines just after you arrived by cracking down on prostitution. But when you crack down on prostitution in one neighborhood, don't you just move it to another?
Charles H. Ramsey: I believe that two crimes make a city look totally out of control. That's open prostitution and open air drug trafficking. I was appalled at the blatant prostitution taking place in the District and I have been determined to put an end to it. You're right that often times a problem is simply displaced when strong enforcement action is taken, that's to be expected, actually. The key is to shift resources to the new location and continue to take strong enforcement action wherever the problem crops up. Eventually, people engaged in this kind of activity either stop or leave the area altogether.
Does the police force have a policy about taking breaks during a shift? I mean this as a constructive questions--I'm honestly not trying to merely rehash old jokes about cops hanging out in donut shops. Realistically though, it's not at all uncommon to see 4,5, or 6 cops hanging around inside or outside 7-11s for significant stretches of time, talking, reading magazines or eating. I do realize that cops, perhaps more than many other workers, need breaks, and I'm not denying them that. I'm just wondering what the regulations regarding these breaks are--perhaps these breaks are within regulations.
Charles H. Ramsey: Police officers are limited in the number of breaks they can take during a tour of duty. They are normally limited to two 15-minute breaks plus a half-hour lunch. Officers should not congregate at any location, whether it's a 7-11 or a restaurant. The problem you've identified points to a lack of supervision in the field. I'm in the process of putting in place accountablility measure for supervisors that will include how well they manage field personnel, making sure they are available for assignments and on patrol in their assigned areas when not involved in problem-solving activities.
Bob Levey: When you were appointed to your present job, The Chicago Tribune noted that there were problems, to say the least, in the D.C. Government. You were quoted as saying: "I'm sure things will be worked out in terms of chain of command and lines of authority." Has that happened?
Charles H. Ramsey: I report directly to Mr. Bob Watkins, the vice-chairman of the Control Board, who oversees public safety. Since coming to the District, I've enjoyed a very good working relationship with all of our elected officials, as well as Dr. Camille Barnett, Chief Management Officer. The lines of authority or who I report directly to has not had any adverse impact on my ability to perform.
CAPITOL HILL PSA 510: CHIEF RAMSEY. MY QUESTION TO YOU IS ABOUT COMMUNITY POLICING. I KEEP HEARING OVER AND OVER THAT WE WILL HAVE MORE OFFICERS ON THE STREETS THAT INCLUDE FOOT PATROLS,BIKES AND SCOOTERS. I AM SORRY TO SAY THAT I HAVE NOT SEEM ANY OF THESE PLANS BECOME REALITY IN PSA 510. I WOULD LIKE A STRAIGHT ANSWER WITHOUT THE USUAL FANFARE.
Charles H. Ramsey: Last month I announced a major reorganization of the Metropolitan Police Department. Along with the reorganization, comes a new staffing plan.You will see additional police officers in your PSA and in the District as a whole. We are in the midst of finalizing the staffing plan, the Regional Operations Command Centers will become operational in early November, and the reassignment of personnel to districts will occur shortly after Christmas. Be patient. Changes of this magnitude don't happen overnight. My goal is to put more police officers on the street to serve their communities.
Washington, DC: What can be done about the disruption to the flow of traffic in downtown caused by pedestrians disregarding the "Walk", "Don't Walk" signals?
Charles H. Ramsey: I think there's a general disregard for traffic regulations in general in the District of Columbia. As part of our reorganization, we are going to devote more attention to issues involving traffic. That will include citing pedestrians who violate the traffic laws, as well as drivers. It will also include assigning personnel to high-volume intersections for traffic control during peak traffic hours.
Bob Levey: Every police officer I've ever known thinks he or she could do a better job if judges weren't setting criminals free. Do you feel the same way? And do you have any impression yet of how much of a problem this is in Washington?
Charles H. Ramsey: I think that police officers need to focus on providing quality police service first and foremost before pointing fingers or criticizing others for not doing their jobs. It is a problem in some cases, keeping dangerous criminals off the streets. But we have to work together with prosecutors, judges and citizens to find solutions that will correct the problem.
Washington, DC: There is a crackhouse in my neighborhood, that is also being used for prostitution. What do I have to do to get this placed closed down?
Charles H. Ramsey: Contact your District Commander and provide him or her with the information concerning the address, the names of any individuals involved, and other information that may be helpful in trying to build a case against the individuals involved. You do not have to provide your name if you do not wish to do so.
Arlington, VA: Can you talk about why you decided to disband the sexual assault unit. Tey were well trained. Now beat officers will be responding to crimes that they are not prepared for.
Charles H. Ramsey: First of all, detectives will still be handling sexual assault. In the reorganization, the majority of detectives will be assigned to districts. Those assigned to the Violent Crimes Section will be responsible for investigating sexual assault, homicide, robbery and assault with intent to kill. Detectives assigned to property crimes will be responsible for investigating burglary, theft, auto theft, fraud and those types of crimes. As we speak, training for detectives is taking place and will continue so that they learn how to conduct investigations in these various areas. Actually, we will have more people investigating sexual assaults--not fewer.
Half an hour remaining with our guest, D.C. police Chief Charles Ramsey
Bob Levey: You said you don't feel compelled to accept all the recommendations in the recent $6 million study of the police department, which was conducted by Booz-Allen Hamilton. But $6 million is a lot of money. Do you feel you're wasting those dollars if you don't follow Booz-Allen's recommendations?
Charles H. Ramsey: No, I don't feel I'm wasting $6 million. That is a contract that was entered into prior to my arrival. I have reviewed the recommendations made by Booz-Allen Hamilton and in some instances, such as the PSA concept, which they developed, I've chosen to build on that. Other recommendations I do not feel go far enough in correcting some of the problems that plague the Metropolitan Police Department. So I have decided on taking my own course of action in order to correct those problems. Booz-Allen was needed to move the department in a positive direction at the time they were hired. It's time now for the department to take on that responsibility and continue.
Dupont Circle / Washington, DC:
When are you going to stop acting like we hired a PR director and become chief? Do you REALLY think we're going to feel safer just because we *recognize* the police in our neighborhoods? I *RECOGNIZE* them now!! Illegally parked doing personal errands, double-parked gabbing with each other, etc. My car has been broken into twice in less than a year! My neighbors have had their license plates stolen. The list of crimes in the paper is getting longer, not shorter. Would you kindly tell me why we should be paying you so much money to do nothing?
Charles H. Ramsey: Sorry you are disappointed in the police service you're receiving in your community. I promise to work as hard as I can to correct that and to also earn your trust and respect. All of us, including you, have a role in making neighborhoods safer. Perhaps it's time you began playing that role, and rather than complain, roll up your sleeves and get personally involved in making a difference in your community.
Bob Levey: You recently sat in on the final day of trial for Antwaun Delonte Brown, the man convicted of killing Officer Oliver Wendell Smith Jr. Brown might receive the death penalty. Do you favor the death penalty for him, and for all convicted cop killers?
Charles H. Ramsey: I am very pleased at the outcome of the Antwaun Brown murder trial. I am personally a proponent of the death penalty, not just for cop-killers, but for those individuals that commit heinous crimes. I do feel that we need to continue to provide as many safeguards as possible to insure that the rights of those accused of these crimes are protected, so that innocent people are not punished. However, there are some crimes that I personally feel are appropriate for the death penalty.
Washington, DC : A group of teens hangs out on our street. They harass the owners of our corner market on a regular basis, and have committed acts of vandalism (broken hedges, fence, car window) from street games. Neighbors are afraid to report for fear that there would be reprisals. What can you offer these kids? Wouldn't crime go down if they had somewhere to go?
Charles H. Ramsey: This isn't just a problem for the police. The kids that you are describing have parents. It is essential that parents, schools, clergy, community and police all work together to provide alternatives for our young people. We are currently involved in a fund-raising campaign for the Metropolitan Police Boys and Girls Clubs. These clubs can provide an alternative for kids rather than hanging out on corners and creating problems in our neighborhoods. In the meantime, I suggest you contact your District Commander with specifics about where this is occuring and who is involved, so we can see to it that we take action to stop the loitering in that area.
Bob Levey: Homicide investigations have flipflopped for years between downtown headquarters and the eight districts. You recently sent homicide detectives back to the neighborhoods. Why? Will this really affect the closure rate?
Charles H. Ramsey: It's true that homicide detectives have been decentralized in the past. There are three distinct differences in how it's being done this time as opposed to previous attempts. First, all of the homicide detectives are being reassigned to districts. This was not the case in previous attempts at decentralization. Second, they will be under the command of the District Commander. Previously, even though they were working in the District, they reported to a separate chain of command located in Headquarters. And finally, they will not remain specialists. Rather, they will become part of the violent crimes group responsible for investigating homicide, robbery, assault with intent to kill, and sexual assault. By assigning detectives to smaller geographical areas, they should become more familiar with the individuals responsible for committing these types of crimes. It is my belief that the clearance rates will improve as a result.
Arlington, VA: Chief Ramsey, I, for one, would like to hear more good news about the brave men and women of the Washington, DC police force. It's unfortunate that the media tends to cover news like an off-duty officer being shot, while the day-in, day-out heroics of your officers often go unnoticed. Once your improvements and changes in staffing are in place, do you have any plans to increase media visibility for the department?
Charles H. Ramsey: Yes, and we have already begun. We recently began broadcasting a cable television program called "D.C. Crime Watch." It airs on D.C. cable four times a day and highlights many of the crime-fighting efforts taking place throughout the city. We are also developing a website that should become operational in early November. That wesite address will be www.mpdc.org.
Atlanta, GA: What efforts are in plan to make the city safe for out of town visitors? I come to D.C. alot on business and I don't feel safe, partly because of the reputation of crime in the city and partly because of all of the panhandlers or homeless people on the street.
Charles H. Ramsey: Unfortunately, over the years, Washington, D.C. has developed a reputation as an unsafe city. The reality is that over the past two years there's been a steady decline in crime and in many areas, such as those heavily traveled by tourists, very little crime occurs. My goal is to make every neighborhood in D.C. safe. We are also working with the city to deal with the issues around panhandlers and homeless people.
Washington DC: Like you, I lived in Chicago before moving to Washington. Traffic at rush hour MOVES in downtown Chicago, in part, I think, because of aides who direct traffic in/off of Michigan Ave and other potential tie ups. Would this kind of staffing help in Washington? Do you have plans for emulating Chicago in this area?
Charles H. Ramsey: Yes, we are looking at the possibility to hire traffic control aides to assist with the flow of traffic during rush hour.
Washington. D.C.: I read with dismay that you oppose the D.C. medicinal marijuana initiative. I have a good friend who is currently growing 2 marijuana plants in her home in DuPont circle because her doctor told her that she should smoke marijuana to treat her multiple sclerosis. She is terrified of being arrested. Please answer yes or no: Should she be arrested?
Charles H. Ramsey: I am opposed to Initiative 59. The use of marijuana or any drug for medicinal purposes should not be decided based on popular vote. It should be decided based on science. There are drugs available through prescription that treat conditions such as those you describe. The current Initiative does not require a doctor's prescription, simply a recommendation. There are also no controls over the production or distribution of marijuana, including setting limits as to the age of individuals that can use it or how the drug may negatively interact with other drugs being taken. Finally, anyone growing marijuana in the District of Columbia is in violation of current law and is subject to arrest.
Bob Levey: Tom Bradley was a top police official before he became mayor of Los Angeles. Same with Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia. Would Charles Ramsey ever like to be mayor of Washington, or anyplace else?
Charles H. Ramsey: No. I enjoy policing. I have spent 30 years in the profession. I have no plans to change.
That's it for today. Thanks to our guest, police chief Charles Ramsey. Be sure to join us next Tuesday when our guest will be Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post's media reporter. He'll discuss coverage of the elections and of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.