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Chief Ramsey’s first year

Fear lingers as city becomes safer, he laments

(Published April 19, 1999)


Staff Writer

Taking charge of the deeply troubled Metropolitan Police Department a year ago, Chief Charles H. Ramsey vowed to turn around a police force that was on the decline for two decades. The past year for him has been a series of challenges that have displayed the breadth of problems facing the department and the determination of the man who wants to fix them.

Ramsey’s appointment on April 21, 1998, came after a national search to replace Chief Larry Soulsby, who was ousted amid charges of corruption. In an exclusive interview with The Common Denominator, Ramsey said he was not quite prepared for the spotlight that came with taking the job here.

"I figured it would be pretty high profile — I didn’t know it would be as high profile as it is, quite frankly," he said. "The amount of attention that is paid to the department here is, I think, higher than it was in Chicago. A lot of it had to do with the difficulties we’ve had over the years That’s not to say the amount of scrutiny by the press or others is not warranted, but it’s something that I did not honestly anticipate."

After attending meetings with advisory neighborhood commissions, civic and citizens associations, community activists and showing up at town hall meetings, Ramsey promised a plan of action within 100 days. And al-though he was 41 days late delivering, the plan he presented was an expansive effort to fix problems across the board.

Rather than stopgap and temporary solutions to staffing and equipment shortfalls, Ramsey unveiled a plan to reorganize the department from top to bottom. His plan called for eliminating the structure of the police department and replacing it with one that is centered around three regional command centers in order to improve work efficiency, communication and follow-up as well as promote greater accountability in the department. Ramsey de-scribed his organizational plan as unlike any other police department’s.

"I think we’ve done a lot in a year’s time," Ramsey said, "but I get frustrated that we haven’t done more, because there’s still so much more to do."

One of the more controversial elements of Ramsey’s plan is the decentralization of the force’s detective units. For the fourth time in seven years, detectives are being moved from police headquarters at Judiciary Square to the seven police districts. Despite criticism from both inside and outside the department, Ramsey has not changed his plan and has already stationed detectives in the first, second and seventh police districts. Detectives will be assigned to the rest of the districts within three weeks, the chief said.

"I feel bad that the detectives have been switched around all these times," Ramsey said. "I wasn’t the one who switched them (before). I’m switching them this time and this is permanent. But what happened in the past happened in the past. I think the best place for them to be is out in the districts, closer to the crimes they’re investigating."

Assigning detectives to police districts comes nearly six months behind Ramsey’s original timetable, a delay the chief said is mostly due to the physical conditions of the police stations.

"I committed to not putting (the detectives) out there until the facility was ready to accommodate them," Ramsey said. "That’s what they did last time. It was wrong to do that; we were committed not to do it this time. Now it took a little bit longer to get (the districts) fixed up, because I didn’t realize just how poor some of our facilities really are."

Facility maintenance has become such an issue that Ramsey recently went to Congress and persuaded them to give the department $100 million over the next five years for facility improvements.

"You’ve seen our facilities — they’re in terrible shape," he said. "Our building ought to be an anchor for positive things going on in the community. It shouldn’t be an eyesore. And in many cases it’s an eyesore. It’s a pain in the butt to have a police facility in the…block."

Ramsey’s reorganization has now taken twice as long as he originally hoped. And despite a command staff shake-up, numerous promotions and organizational changes, the pieces of the restructuring plan still have not fallen into place.

"I hope it starts to come together pretty soon," he said. "We’ve made the promotions. I think now it’s time for us to just buckle down and start getting some things accomplished because people are very frustrated and they want to see visible differences. And whereas crime rates are continuing to decline, there is still a sense that there’s still not safety in the District of Columbia.

"Some of the fear is warranted, some of it’s not. Some of it is just a general sense of apprehension people have in all cities across the country. It’s not unique to D.C. And I think that we have to constantly work toward helping people see that things are changing, it is safe."

Ramsey’s tenure and the changes he’s made within the department have drawn criticism from within the department as well as from police and government watchdogs.

"I think that anytime you’re in a situation where a lot of change is going on, not everyone agrees with that change. But I think they need to be patient. I think they just need to focus on their jobs and doing the best they can in providing quality public safety services to the citizens of the city and not get so caught up in this other stuff."

In one of the more publicized incidents of dissention within the department, members of the police union delivered a vote of no confidence to Ramsey’s right-hand man, Executive Assistant Chief Terrence Gainer. Union officials said that vote was prompted, in part, because of Gainer’s public criticism of an officer who failed to show up for a court hearing, causing a convicted murderer to be released from custody and charges which could have sent him back to jail were dropped. Six months later that man killed a woman in Northeast Washington. Gainer criticized the officer for several instances where he did not show up in court.

"I thought it was an overreaction, I didn’t agree with it at all," Ramsey said. "Unions in policing are starting to do that more and more, and use that as leverage against a police chief, but I will not be intimidated by anything like that.

"Chief Gainer is here and he’s here to stay and the only vote of confidence he needs to have is my vote of confidence, and I’ve got all the confidence in the world in him.

"I think the larger point that the union missed is that this city as a whole took a vote of no confidence against this entire department at one time. They need to be very concerned about that, and they need to do everything they possibly can to turn that around."

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator