- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 26, 2006

Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey next month will mark his eighth year on the job, making him the District’s longest-serving top cop since World War II.

But the chief’s future in the city has become cloudy, with his and the department’s performance becoming a major theme in the race for the Democratic nomination for mayor.

Nonetheless, Chief Ramsey says he would like to continue on the job in the next administration and has no plans to retire.

“I feel like I’m in my prime, honestly,” Chief Ramsey, 56, says. “I like what I’m doing. I think there’s more work to be done.”

He says that although he never completely shed his reputation as an outsider, the District is his home, and that he and his family plan to stay even after his retirement.

The D.C. financial control board, installed by Congress to pull the city out of insolvency, hired the 30-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department as the District’s first police chief to come from out of town. He arrived in Washington in April 1998.

Chief Ramsey now is among the city’s longest-serving agency heads, joining Gregory Irish at the Department of Employment Services, Suzanne Peck at the Office of the Chief Technology Officer and Veronica Pace at the Office of Aging. All came on within a few months of each other.

Crime across the board has plummeted in the District in the eight years Chief Ramsey has been on the job. Yet he says he understands he may need to audition to keep it now that Mayor Anthony A. Williams is not seeking a third term.

“I think every day is, in a sense, an audition. Crime rates fluctuate. People want safe neighborhoods. If people don’t feel the department is going in the right direction for safe neighborhoods, they look to the police chief.

“And I understand that,” he says. “If you’re a victim of crime today, you don’t care how bad it was in 1997, 1998.”

The main complaint from residents and candidates alike is that it just doesn’t seem like enough officers are visible on the streets.

D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat and mayoral candidate, says he wants to see more officers in neighborhoods.

“I think the police department has shown improvement, but we can still do a lot better,” Mr. Fenty says. “It has been a struggle to get the department to focus on community policing. Too often, it has taken a meeting to get MPD [Metropolitan Police Department] to focus on community issues. We need to be proactive.”

Mr. Fenty says if he is elected mayor, he will give Chief Ramsey a specified time to improve community policing. “If this is not done, we will get a new chief,” he says.

Lobbyist Michael Brown, another Democratic candidate for mayor, gives Chief Ramsey a “solid B-plus” grade and says he has done a “fine job.”

Asked if he would keep Chief Ramsey on if elected, however, Mr. Brown talks about the importance of having people from the District run the District.

“I want folks from MPD to know they can become chief someday,” he says. “I think we need to look inward at our talent pool.”

A third Democratic contender for mayor, former Verizon executive Marie C. Johns, says she would meet with the chief to discuss her goals before deciding whether to retain him.

“I respect the job he has done. It’s a tough job. It’s a very tough job,” she says. “Once I am elected, I will treat the chief as every other senior manager in government.”

More cops

Several council members have proposed legislation that would require the city to add hundreds more officers and deploy them in neighborhoods.

In September 2004, the police department reached its full sworn strength of 3,800 officers after years of topping out at 3,600 officers. Chief Ramsey says he is sympathetic to proposals that would add officers.

“I think with all the responsibility of this city, a modest increase would be helpful,” he says, adding that he never had a serious discussion with Mr. Williams about raising the sworn strength.

The chief says he believes the department has been effective, but police work is about not only the reality of crime, but also the perception of crime.

“People want personal contact,” Chief Ramsey says. “They want to know who you are. And that’s where we kind of fall short, getting out and meeting and talking to folks. That’s what’s important.”

In 1997, the last full year before Chief Ramsey’s tenure began, there were 301 homicides, compared with 195 last year.

The only category of crime to increase last year over 2004 was robberies, which jumped almost 6 percent from 3,816 in 2004 to 4,037 in 2005, but were still well below the 4,499 recorded in 1997.

Last year, the District ranked as the seventh-most-improved city on the Morgan Quitno Safest City and Safest Metropolitan Area rankings.

As of March 17, there had been 33 homicides in the District, and detectives had closed 18 cases for a closure rate of about 55 percent.

Last year, there were 195 killings, and detectives closed 117 cases for a closure rate of about 60 percent.

Chief Ramsey says his biggest mistake as chief was decentralizing the homicide unit in November 1999 and sending detectives into neighborhoods with the goal of establishing closer relationships with residents.

The move scattered resources and intelligence, he says. Closure rates for homicides plummeted from 70 percent in 1997 to 43 percent in 2001.

“That model can work, but it can’t work here,” he says.

Since the chief recentralized the homicide unit in October 2001, the closure rate has hovered around 60 percent.

The Levy case

Perhaps the highest-profile unsolved killing during Chief Ramsey’s tenure is the slaying of former federal intern Chandra Levy, who disappeared May 1, 2001.

The case drew international attention when rumors surfaced that Miss Levy had had an affair with Rep. Gary A. Condit, California Democrat.

Chief Ramsey became a fixture on TV talks shows updating the status of the case. He was criticized for giving Mr. Condit preferential treatment during the investigation.

After Miss Levy’s remains were found in Rock Creek Park in May 2002 near the scenes of two previous attacks on female joggers, Chief Ramsey was criticized for focusing too narrowly on Mr. Condit.

He says the Levy case “haunts” him.

“I wish we had solved the case … I wish we had found her remains earlier. It’s very tragic. I just wish we could have found her earlier,” Chief Ramsey says.

Forensic evidence, if collected earlier, might have revealed the killer, he explains, calling the case one of his biggest disappointments.

What he found

When asked if he thinks he has done a good job, Chief Ramsey cites crime statistics off the top of his head.

Upon his arrival in 1998, the Metropolitan Police Department was mired in mismanagement and scandal. Top officials were under criminal investigation, the department lacked basic crime-fighting tools, and poor recruiting and standards gave rise to second-rate officers.

The chief recalls a sewage leak in the locker room at 4th District headquarters, 10-year-old patrol cars and stories about officers buying their own gas.

He says the forerunner of the department’s state-of-the-art Joint Operations Command Center was a personal computer and two large-screen TVs donated by the federal government after the 1996 World Cup matches in Washington.

At that time, crime mapping didn’t exist, Chief Ramsey says.

He recalls trips to Capitol Hill, where he and Stephen Harlan, vice president of the D.C. control board, secured $100 million in federal funding to rebuild the department’s infrastructure.

During his tenure, the department has replaced police cruisers, reducing the average age of vehicles from 10 years to 3 years.

Police officials upgraded radios, repaired dilapidated facilities, started a mounted unit, equipped a bicycle unit, instituted uniform training standards, and restarted an aviation unit that had been shut down in 1996 and had its helicopters sold because of a budget shortfall.

Technological leap

In September 2001, the department opened its $7 million Joint Operations Command Center, which is shared by the police, the FBI and the Secret Service for coordinated operations.

The room has 20 rear-projection TV screens arranged in three sections to monitor feeds from 19 surveillance cameras downtown. The cameras are activated during major events, such as holiday celebrations, demonstrations and heightened security alerts.

“Policing is an occupation that usually doesn’t change that quickly,” Chief Ramsey says.

To adjust to the new technology, he says, he needed to raise standards for incoming officers who would have to operate it. He advocated legislation that eventually became law requiring officers to have at least two years of college education.

The department’s budget has grown from $272 million in fiscal 1998 to a $370 million this year.

Despite such improvements, the chief says the department is “not as good as it needs to be.” He wants patrol officers to have faster access to information using wireless technology to receive crime maps and lookouts in real time while in their patrol cars.

But several technological advances have ended up costing the chief public confidence and officer morale.

He oversaw installation of 49 red-light cameras and 22 speeding cameras. The automated traffic-enforcement cameras have generated more than $135 million in fines routed to the city’s general fund since they were installed in August 1999. But the cameras also resulted in hundreds of erroneous tickets because of programming errors.

The cameras have been criticized as an invasion of privacy, a violation of due process and merely a way to generate revenue.

Chief Ramsey maintains that the cameras are about safety and says he would like to see a camera installed on every intersection with a stoplight.

“I don’t think we can pretend it’s the 19th century when it’s the 21st century,” he says. “We live in a very high-tech world. Granted, there needs to be controls, especially for the police department, but we can’t not use the technology.”

Chief Ramsey says he also approves of a proposal to allow police to monitor the city’s network of 19 surveillance cameras on a daily basis and not just for special events.

In April 2000, Metropolitan Police earned an international reputation for handling “direct-action” protests after officers thwarted 10,000 protesters determined to disrupt meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Similar protests in Seattle had turned violent in 1999, resulting in more than 580 arrests and about $10 million worth of property damage.

That strong reputation was all but eclipsed in March 2002 after Chief Ramsey ordered the arrest of several hundred protesters in Pershing Park in Northwest. The protesters, who said they were given no verbal warning to disperse, were demonstrating without a permit and several journalists and passers-by were swept up in the arrests.

Two lawsuits resulting from the incident were settled, but two others are ongoing, including a class-action lawsuit that represents more than 400 protesters.

In January, a federal judge ruled that the protesters have the right to sue Chief Ramsey personally as well as the city and the Metropolitan Police Department.

“We haven’t handled every situation, in retrospect, the way it should have been handled,” the chief says. “I think we do a very good job in handling protests. I don’t think there is a department that does better.”

Asked how long he believes he could stay on the job, Chief Ramsey refuses to give a date.

“This job is too important just to be marking time,” he says. “If I don’t care what’s going on, then it’s time to go.”

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