In the wake of the outcry against the refusal to prosecute the police officer who killed an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, President Obama announced on Nov. 2 his plan to create a special police task force to implement major changes in police departments nationwide. Obama’s pick for co-chair of that new task force: Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey. As a result, a top cop who has until recently been a problem for a sprawling northeast city just became a concern for the entire country.
Three weeks ago, I won a federal lawsuit against the captain of Ramsey’s much-heralded civil affairs unit for excessive force. In 2010, after I asked repeatedly about why people were being locked outside of a public hearing in icy temperatures while police officers warmed themselves in the large building lobby, the squad Captain Glenn and his officers moved in to attack and arrest me, breaking my bicycle and my finger in the process. Remember, the civil affairs squad for Philadelphia has been held up as a model for the nation, most recently consulted by Ferguson police in dealing with the Mike Brown protests. Police video later showed that officers had lied in reports alleging that I had assaulted police officers, eventually leading to my court victory.
Of course, my case pales in comparison to an unarmed pizza deliveryman shot by Philadelphia police officers in plainclothes last year. It is a scenario not too unlike the recent police killing of Eric Garner, choked to death while being stopped for allegedly selling cigarettes. Two unarmed men, assaulted by police with deadly force. And in Philadelphia, as in New York City, the police officers remain free and unprosecuted. While noting that the circumstances were “unfortunate,” Ramsey was unwilling to say whether shooting at an unarmed person who had committed no crime was a violation of police procedure. This is our nation’s new police advisor.
On the surface, President Obama’s choice in Ramsey seems like a good move. In dealing with local protests and demonstrations, such as Occupy Philadelphia, Ramsey’s use of the Civil Affairs unit seems to have led to decreased violence against activists on the streets, especially when compared to other cities across the nation. Ramsey’s “good guy” persona has also been projected through other efforts, such as piloting a new program for police body cameras and seeking to terminate the employment of various dirty cops. In another grand gesture, Ramsey’s even requested that the Department of Justice investigate police officers under his command. This, of course, followed a news report showing that despite a drop in crime and assaults on police officers, police shootings of civilians had spiked under Ramsey’s reign. It also followed a Pulitzer-wining Daily News story on a crew of Philadelphia police officers that robbed stores, fabricated evidence, kidnapped people, and sexually assaulted at least one resident. Residents’ complaints against the officers had been routinely ignored by the Philadelphia Police Department for almost six years until a 2012 federal investigation and indictment. At least four of these officers still work on the force.
While the public firing of police officers and use of police video has done much for Ramsey’s brand, he knows better than anyone that Philly cops almost never stay fired and police video doesn’t always keep the police from breaking the law. For example, in 2011, police footage showed that Charles Ramsey preemptively (and illegally) ordered the arrest of over 50 protestors who were simply standing on sidewalks. While charges were ultimately thrown out in court, the arrest parameters were so broad and arbitrary that it even included the police detention of an young man simply walking home from work. And though police video helped me win my lawsuit, it didn’t keep me from being jailed or save me the anxious months and lawyer’s fees spent preparing my defense against charges that were ultimately dropped. In the case of the medically-ruled homicide of Eric Garner at the hands of New York Police officers, we see that video evidence doesn’t matter when it comes to holding police officers accountable for their killing of unarmed citizens. Moreover, “technical” glitches on police cameras in New Orleans and Ferguson have also shown that this evidence has a way of disappearing in the most egregious circumstances.
And while Ramsey’s recent relationship with the DOJ has helped lower the number police killings of civilians, the track record leading up to that shift (and President Obama’s announcement) doesn’t reflect well on the Philadelphia police department. Under Ramsey’s supervision, the Philadelphia Police Department has participated in some of the most notorious assaults on local residents. Most people recall the video of a dozen police officers brutally beating three men in a car in 2008. The brutal beating and arrest of 29-year-old Askia Sabur also went viral. Ramsey had very little to say when it came to condemning these incidents of violence from his officers. Moreover, the ACLU has an ongoing lawsuit that specifically cites Ramsey’s failure to discipline and train police officers engaged in the city’s racially biased stop-and-frisk program (which led to an unarmed teenager’s ruptured testicle last year). Looking at the gross civil rights violations under Ramsey during his previous stint as top cop in Washington, DC, none of this is surprising.
What have we seen Ramsey do? He’s overseen an exploding police budget in overtime pay at a time when the city is closing schools and borrowing money. He backed a citywide program that rents out cops to local corporate stores, presumably opening up the city to the any subsequent liability for protecting the operations of billion dollar corporations. Ramsey’s used Homeland Security tools and resources to track local teenagers hanging out together in the city and he’s manufactured exaggerated stories about youth-based crime in order to gain support for his excessive measures. He’s fought against marijuana decriminalization, which is responsible for a significant proportion of non-violent arrests in Philadelphia. And he’s been busy with a personal vendetta to take the pension of a police officer who broke the law—no, not the cops arrested for rape and robbery while on the job. Rather, Ramsey’s targeted the one Philadelphia officer who has become somewhat famous for his civil disobedience and social justice advocacy.
Don’t just take my word for it—on Tuesday, the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund issued a harsh renouncement of Ramsey’s selection to head this new task force:
“For civil liberties advocates, Chief Ramsey became synonymous with militarized and repressive policing… including against peaceful protesters, engaging in mass false arrests, brutality and evisceration of fundamental rights. …By the time Mr. Ramsey left Washington, DC, it was in disgrace and with a complete repudiation of his policing style, policies and tactics.”
If Ferguson and the killing of Mike brown (and Aiyana Jones, Eric Garner, Tanisha Anderson, Oscar Grant, etc.) have shown us anything, it’s that we need a dramatically new and innovative way of approaching policing in the 21st century. We need a leader committed to restorative justice models, rehabilitation, and revamping the shady arbitration processes that keep dangerous officers in uniform and on the street. We need someone willing to eradicate the influence of corporate donations on police forces in order to ensure that they equally safeguard the interests all of the members of the public. We need someone who advocates for the public and not for the police. We need someone who wants to implement policies that would produce less police, not more police funding.
As a former White House intern and Occupy Philly activist, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of meeting both President Obama and Charles Ramsey and encountering them in very different spaces. And, on paper, I can understand why Obama could be persuaded to pick Ramsey for this job. But the truth is that beneath Ramsey’s genteel and calm façade is a career officer with little regard for the public he’s supposed to protect. If President Obama has any desire to transform the way we do policing in this country and improve the way we do policing, he needs to make a better choice.