Civil rights advocates debate Ramsey

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

Has he changed because of the backlash from his police tactics in Washington?

President Obama’s selection of Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey to co-chair a Task Force on 21st Century Policing has been criticized by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, which condemned him for having “a record marked by excessive force, false arrests and complete disregard for constitutional rights.”

“If the president’s idea of reforming policing practices includes mass false arrests, brutality and the eviscerating of civil rights, then Ramsey’s his man. That’s Charles Ramsey’s legacy in D.C.,” Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the public-interest law firm told the left-wing news site Alternet. She called on the president to rescind Ramsey’s appointment.

Her criticism was picked up in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Democracy Now! and the Philadelphia Daily News.

The Partnership’s problems with Ramsey stem from his tenure as chief of Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department. From 1998 to 2006, he presided over the policing of numerous mass demonstrations and, by any fair account, wantonly violated protesters’ civil rights. 

The most glaring instances occurred in 2000 and 2002, when police under Ramsey’s watch wrongly arrested hundreds of protesters in demonstrations surrounding World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings. Class-action lawsuits filed by the D.C.-based Partnership stemming from the mass arrests led to settlements of about $22 million, according to the Washington Post. The judge presiding over one of the settlements credited the lawsuit for having sparked a 2004 D.C. law that “set out policies for police to follow at demonstrations, including a prohibition against encircling protesters without probable cause to arrest them.” 

But civil rights advocates in Philadelphia, who make a career of criticizing and suing the Philadelphia Police Department, paint a far rosier picture of Ramsey.

No doubt, he has presided over broken-windows policing in some districts, which targets residents for the lowest-level crimes. And the number of people stopped and frisked under his watch has remained incredibly high. He also joined Mayor Michael Nutter and District Attorney Seth Williams in unsuccessfully opposing marijuana decriminalization.

But he has instituted important changes to interrogation and witness-identification practices developed alongside the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and the American Civil Liberties Union. As a result, he won the Pennsylvania Innocence Project’s Hero of Justice Award.

“My experience with Ramsey has been as police commissioner here,” says leading Philadelphia civil rights lawyer David Rudovsky, “and he has been an advocate of some significant reforms in criminal justice, including the videotaping of interrogations and the adoption of best practices for witness-identification procedures.”  

Rudovsky also pointed out that police shootings declined after Ramsey instituted new training and brought in the Department of Justice to conduct a review. He emphasizes, though, it is still far too early to know if the downturn is meaningful or a temporary fluctuation. 

And the Police Advisory Commission (PAC) says that the Police Department has refused requests to turn over completed investigations of all police-firearm discharges, making it impossible for the commission to review the incidents.

PAC Executive Director Kelvyn Anderson says, “We still don’t know why the officers take those actions, we don’t know who those officers are and a lot of other important metrics we should have available to us.”

Last week, Ramsey launched a pilot program to outfit a small number of police with body cameras, which could reduce both use-of-force and civilian complaints. Ultimately, he hopes to expand the program to the entire department.

City police, however, have recently come under heavy criticism for arresting people recording them in action, despite a September 2011 memo from Ramsey instructing officers that individuals have a First Amendment right to do so. The arrests have prompted four separate lawsuits.

“I don’t think he’s a bad choice” for the new task force, says Larry Krasner, one of the city’s top civil rights lawyers. “I think he has been pretty vigorous in pursuing integrity issues and misconduct issues and to some extent also issues of excessive force and violence within the Police Department. There is still plenty of the Rizzo-era mentality, that the police are the biggest gang within the city, within the department. And he does not stand with that.”

Krasner, who has represented Occupy protesters, also credited Ramsey for dealing calmly with local demonstrators.

“Honestly, when he came here a lot of us were really kind of worried,” Krasner says. “And I think the truth is that experience [of facing a backlash against heavy-handed protest policing in D.C.] may have changed him.”

More from the criminal justice issue:

Why Philly can't breathe, either

Essay: 'I've dealt with more experiences of police negligence and abuse than I can count'

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