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  •   Charles Ramsey has a plan to make Washington's police department functional again. To work, the rest of the city government will have to follow suit.

    Community Cop

    Charles Ramsey/Post Charles H. Ramsey is the first outsider to head the D.C. police department in 30 years.
    (By Brian Smale – The Washington Post)

  • Deadly Force: An investigation of shootings by D.C. police
  • By Peter Perl and Cheryl W. Thompson
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, November 22, 1998

    The message flashed on their pagers shortly before 4 p.m., Friday, July 24: Shooting at Capitol. Two police officers down.

    Washington's new police chief, Charles Ramsey, and his top assistant chief, Terrance Gainer, were in a McDonald's on Pennsylvania Avenue, grabbing a late lunch after returning from the funeral of a Metropolitan Police Department officer. They bolted for the command car and dashed up the avenue, siren screaming.

    Still wearing their full-dress uniforms, the two arrived at a scene of magnified chaos. Sirens wailed as dozens of police cars and ambulances jammed the east front of the Capitol. A helicopter took off with a mortally wounded Capitol Police officer. Ambulances roared off with three other gunshot victims. Bloody rags and bandages littered the ground. Hundreds of tourists, some of them eyewitnesses, stood in stunned silence across the parking lot, as police hastily threw up barricade lines. Reporters and photographers descended by the hundreds.

    With only three months on the job, Ramsey was not sure who was in charge. All crimes in the District of Columbia fall under Metropolitan Police jurisdiction, but the shooting of federal officers on federal property could also be taken over by the FBI. Already, the Capitol plaza was swarming with hundreds of uniformed and plainclothes officers of the FBI, Secret Service, U.S. Capitol Police, Park Police, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms – and the MPD.

    To Ramsey, it was important that the MPD – with its reputation badly tarnished by corruption, misconduct and mishandling homicide cases – take the lead.

    He quickly huddled with top officers from all the other agencies and began assembling teams to handle the first crucial investigative tasks: securing the crime scene; conducting the search for evidence; interviewing witnesses; and handling the clamor for public information. Ramsey grilled his own commanders to make sure that the MPD had its top crime-scene technicians and best homicide detectives on the case, and he made early plans for them to stay nearby overnight.

    Minutes later, an FBI car pulled up to the Capitol. Jimmy Carter, director of the FBI's Washington field office, got out and surveyed the scene. It was clear to him that the MPD team had the bases covered. "We'll support you any way we can," Carter told Gainer. "You guys do it, and we'll support you." Carter called U.S. Attorney Wilma Lewis to clear his jurisdictional decision and she agreed.

    For Charles Ramsey, the first outsider to head the Metropolitan Police in 30 years, it marked an early step toward a critical goal: convincing people both inside and outside the MPD that Washington's police force could handle a high-profile case. Just like a real police department.

    Only an outsider could possibly fix two decades of decay. The Metropolitan Police Department had become dysfunctional in the era of Mayor Marion Barry. Crime and the fear of crime in the District were driving more citizens and businesses to leave the city. And the police department, reeling under the latest scandal of Chief Larry Soulsby's forced resignation last year, appeared ill-equipped to stop it. These were the brutal conclusions of the D.C. financial control board last April in bypassing internal candidates among nearly 50 applicants and hiring Ramsey.

    A veteran of nearly three decades on Chicago's police force, Ramsey, 48, grew up in Englewood, a tough neighborhood on the city's South Side. Middle son of a bus driver and a practical nurse, he signed on as a police cadet at 19 and rose quickly, becoming the city's youngest black sergeant, lieutenant and, at age 27, captain. He supervised an impressive variety of police units – narcotics, patrol, education and training, labor-management affairs, and neighborhood relations. He then commanded the city's violent and impoverished West Side district before moving up to deputy superintendent.

    It was Ramsey's experience with "community policing" that clinched the job here. He helped introduce and expand the concept in Chicago, where teams of police officers and staff from other city agencies are assigned to work closely with residents and businesses in specific neighborhoods. The current rage in law enforcement in many big cities, most notably New York, community policing aims at fighting crime by first attacking "quality of life" problems, from littering, panhandling, graffiti and vandalism to the abandoned cars and vacant houses that become havens for drug trafficking and mayhem.

    But in Washington, community policing initiatives always seem to have fallen victim to the overall decline in both policing and other city services. The task for Ramsey is not only reforming his own department, but making it work in tandem with a notoriously inept city government. For, despite a recent downturn in crime, Washington has retained the sorry distinction of the highest homicide rate among major American cities. Overall, while crime declined nationwide, it increased 33 percent in the city between 1985 and 1996; at the same time, the District's population dropped 13 percent, so crime per capita actually increased more than 50 percent, according to a report prepared for the control board by the consulting firm Booz-Allen & Hamilton.

    All this despite Washington's having a police force of 3,555 members – more per capita than any other major city in America. Only about one-third of those officers actually patrol the streets and ever make arrests. Roughly 10 percent are out sick or on leave at any given time. Hundreds more are assigned to specialized units and administrative desk jobs. As quickly as the police department hires scores of new recruits each year, it loses about 25 officers a month who retire or quit to join other police departments.

    Meanwhile, police managers have allowed the steady deterioration of the 911 emergency system, the aging fleet of some 1,200 vehicles and other equipment. For two decades, critical reports have cited poor security and mismanagement at the property warehouse in Southeast, which is overflowing with more than 2 million items of stolen, lost and confiscated goods, including drugs and more than 17,000 guns. In some police precincts, resources have been so scarce that officers have been forced routinely to buy their own patrol bicycles, office and auto supplies, typewriters, film, and even toilet paper.

    "Perhaps the only thing more disturbing than the lower caliber of cops on Washington's streets is the low caliber of senior officers responsible for managing them," Carl Rowan Jr., a former FBI agent and police critic, wrote earlier this year in the New Republic magazine. He and many others fault Barry for years of neglect and political manipulation. The mayor previously had the power to approve all police appointments at the level of captain and above, and he also quietly lowered police hiring standards in the 1980s to assure jobs for constituents.

    "This department didn't get this way overnight," says Stephen Harlan, who oversaw the police for the control board until this fall. "We had hires without driver's licenses! We had some who can't read or write!"

    This bad recruiting has left its mark. Use of lethal force by D.C. cops is considerably higher, on a per capita basis, than in other large America cities. Seventy-eight MPD officers have been prosecuted for drug trafficking and other serious crimes in the past five years. The U.S. attorney's office maintains a list of current and former officers who have arrests, convictions or pending investigations that must be disclosed to criminal defendants at trials; it now tops 400.

    In the last two decades, favored members of an old-boy network, including political allies of Barry, rose through the ranks, often despite spotty experience. "Over the years, you got managers, supervisors, commanders who had not been out on the street, and didn't have the ability to motivate," says Claude Beheler, a deputy chief forced to retire at age 44 last year during a personnel shuffle by Soulsby. "We attracted people that just wanted a job, a paycheck. We didn't attract people that loved the job, that put their whole soul and heart in the job. People that really were policemen."

    Barry's conflicts with police during the 1960s civil rights movement left him suspicious of cops and little inclined to help the department, says Gary Hankins, former head of the police union. "Barry told me repeatedly, 'You are no different from street cleaners or any other public employees.' " This attitude, Hankins says, eventually caused the quality of daily policing to plummet. "We have not trained officers well in so long that very few of them have self-confidence."

    Barry, in an interview, dismissed the notion that he was hard on the cops and that he interfered in the department's day-to-day management. It is just "nonsense," he said, to suggest that he is to blame for the department's problems.

    When Ramsey took over the $150,000-a-year chief's job, he promised swift and decisive action to repair the damage. But the more he learned about the department's dysfunction, the more he realized he needed to do. Ramsey was appalled, for instance, to find out that more than half of all officers were delinquent in updating their six-month firearms tests. He immediately ordered the exams, and expanded the twice-yearly requirement to cover all officers, including top brass, who had been tested only once a year.

    "I have never seen a place with so much wrong," Ramsey said in an interview, explaining that he'd hoped to draft a plan for fixing the department in his first 100 days, but took close to 150 because he realized he needed a wholesale reorganization. He said he found so many managerial failures and so many crises within the department that he likened his role to a doctor treating a cancer patient: "But then the patient gets shot in the chest. So now you have to treat the bleeding; stop it first, before you can even address the cancer."

    To stanch the MPD's bleeding, Ramsey has already proposed substantial changes. Starting next year, police recruits will have to have at least two years of college, and by 2001, new officers will need college degrees – if the D.C. Council approves. To put more cops on the streets, he unveiled a reorganization plan that will move 400 detectives and officers in special units out of headquarters and into district stations, increasing the available force by about 25 percent. He has asked the control board and Congress for $55 million, including $19 million for salary increases to recruit and retain talented employees and $18 million for long-overdue investment in technology.

    Some changes inevitably have irritated veteran cops – and last month sparked an official letter of complaint from the association representing higher-ranking cops who feel cut out of the new changes. Ramsey has brought in five top aides so far, mostly civilians he knew from Chicago, at salaries ranging from $90,000 up to Gainer's $125,000. (Pay for police officers ranges from $33,891 to $59,236.) Four of these top aides, meanwhile, are white, which further raised eyebrows in the predominantly black force. And none of the officers on Ramsey's new command staff are women.

    Ramsey, in response to neighborhood outcries, has ordered district commanders to beef up street patrols during peak periods of crime, such as nights and weekends. This is an unpopular move in a department where many officers share the goal of getting off the streets and working day shifts, Monday through Friday. For many cops, this was just another intrusion upon their comfortable culture of mediocrity.

    Changing that culture will take years. It will be particularly challenging because Ramsey has set out not just to reform an entire department, but to reinvent it – and many of the people in it.

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    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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