Two days after abruptly resigning as police commissioner, Richard Ross answered a text message from a reporter, but said he wouldn’t continue to do so for long.
“Tossing this out the window,” he said Thursday of his cell phone — an attempt to make a clean break from the only career he’s known.
Few could have seen this end coming for Ross. A career cop known for his honesty and decency, he was felled by accusations seemingly ripped from a pulp television show: A corporal claimed in a lawsuit that Ross said he would block action on a complaint she made against another officer, alleging that Ross was motivated in part by her breaking off their two-year affair in 2011.
Ross this week denied ever seeking retribution against anyone, saying he was walking away from a force he had served for three decades to avoid becoming a distraction. He also said he had been worn down by 14 years in high-stress administrative posts — the last 3½ as commissioner — and had been thinking about his next chapter.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Ross, 55, who for years has lived in Fox Chase with his wife and two children, described ending his Philadelphia police career amid allegations of wrongdoing as “surreal, it’s disappointing, and it’s somber.”
None of his predecessors in recent decades had left under similar circumstances. The last to leave under duress was Gregore J. Sambor after he oversaw the fatal MOVE bombing in 1985.
“I think irrespective of how it happened, I would’ve felt somber anyway, because [30 years] is a lot of time,” Ross said.
An Inquirer review of his time as top cop reveals a catalog of progress Ross helped bring to one of the nation’s largest police departments, as well as some areas in which critics believe the department continues to struggle.
Crime down, but homicides rise
Among the many responsibilities a commissioner is tasked with handling, perhaps none is more important than seeking to reduce crime. And according to statistics published on the department’s website, overall violent crime — the annual tally of homicides, robberies, rapes, and aggravated assaults — decreased 10.9% during the first three years of Ross’ stewardship.
As a result, crime reached levels lower than the city had experienced in decades. The downward trend began before Ross took over, and lines up with a crime decrease across the country in recent years.
Gun crimes in Philadelphia, however, have not followed the same trajectory.
Between 2016 and 2018, statistics show, nearly 4,000 people were shot in the city, including nearly 1,500 last year, the highest year-end total since 2007.
The number of homicides a year also climbed steadily, from 277 in 2016 to 315 the next year and 353 in 2018 — the highest annual total in a decade. This year, the city is on pace to again exceed 300 killings.
Officials have struggled to explain why homicides would rise while overall violent crime has been on the decline. Last year, Ross and District Attorney Larry Krasner pointed to a surge in homicides considered drug-related. Both men also frequently cite structural issues such as poverty, lack of opportunity, and the city’s inability to enact its own gun laws.
Ross was never one to make radical tactical shifts for the sake of appearances. In 2016, he said: “For me, it’s about continuing what worked and what is working — and tweaking what you feel you can do better.”
Some cops grumbled about that approach, believing that it left the department looking complacent in a city that averages more than three shootings a day.
In the interview Wednesday, Ross said: “The number-one thing that frustrates me, probably, is the gun violence in the city. I’ve been dealing with this on and off for a lot of years. I’m frustrated about the loss of life.”
One small subset of gun crimes continued to decline on Ross’ watch: the number of times on-duty officers shot people.
According to department statistics, city police shot 12 people last year and 14 in 2017, the lowest totals in at least a decade. So far this year, statistics say, Philadelphia cops have shot six people.
The totals represent a significant decrease from 2012, when officers shot 59 people. In the wake of a report by Philly.com that year, then-Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey asked the Department of Justice to help change the cops’ use-of-force policies.
Ross helped Ramsey with that process, and oversaw its conclusion in 2017. The director of the federal Office of Community Oriented Policing Services said at the time: “The Philadelphia Police Department will now be a model for the rest of the country.”
As commissioner, Ross never had to oversee a funeral for an officer killed while on duty, a fact he called “comforting” Wednesday.
Still, the changes did not eliminate problematic shootings. Ross in 2017 fired Officer Ryan Pownall for fatally shooting a man who had dropped a gun while fleeing a traffic stop. Last year, District Attorney Larry Krasner charged Pownall with murder, the first time in two decades a city cop had been arrested for the on-duty use of a gun.
Until this month’s violent standoff in Tioga, the incident for which Ross received the most attention was one he likely wishes to forget: The arrests of two black men sitting peacefully in a Center City Starbucks.
After a video of the men being taken away in handcuffs provoked nationwide outrage, Ross posted a video on Facebook saying the officers “did not do anything wrong.”
Protests continued, and the introspective Ross held a news conference to apologize. He appeared somber and regretful for possibly exacerbating racial tensions, and said he wanted to address the situation because “I played a significant role in making it worse.”
One area in which the Police Department excelled under Ross was the handling of major gatherings in the city.
Before the 2016 Democratic National Convention, the city agreed to decriminalize some nuisance offenses. As a result, during an event with widespread protests, city officers issued 106 citations but made no arrests.
At the NFL Draft on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway a year later, cops didn’t even hand out a citation.
And in 2018, police arrested eight people after revelers flooded Center City when the Eagles won the Super Bowl. Ross was on patrol at the time and later said he was hit in the head by a flying bottle.
Defense lawyers and civil rights activists generally commended police for restraint during such situations.
Mayor Jim Kenney cited those events when discussing Ross’ resignation Wednesday.
“I don’t want to forget all of the positive things that have happened during his 3½ years," Kenney said.
Still, the end of Ross’ tenure may be marked by perceptions of an ugly culture within his department.
In June, advocates published a database cataloging what they said were racist or offensive Facebook posts made by about 330 current city cops.
The Facebook scandal came two years after Kenney and others criticized an officer for having a tattoo that resembled a Nazi eagle.
And last August, Ross held a news conference to announce that a homicide detective had left a letter near a wastebasket calling a colleague a “filthy savage” and a “grotesque, primal animal,” language that Ross said “historically has references to African Americans in particular.”
The complaint that prompted Ross to resign includes claims that the department is also overrun by a culture of sexual harassment. The plaintiffs, Cpl. Audra McCowan — the woman who claimed an affair with Ross — and Officer Jennifer Allen, contend that they were groped at work and belittled by colleagues, among other alleged wrongdoing.
Ross’ interim successor, Christine M. Coulter — the first woman to lead the department — said after her appointment that she had not personally experienced the types of behavior described in that lawsuit.
John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, said Ross would be remembered as an open, approachable, and straightforward commissioner.
“He made decisions based on what he thought was right, and he always followed his gut,” McNesby said.
Hans Menos, executive director of the city’s Police Advisory Commission, a citizen watchdog group, said Ross “connected with the community better than anyone else,” regularly speaking with citizens and clergy and police — even on controversial issues.
“He wasn’t afraid to have a conversation with you,” Menos said. “He would be more than comfortable agreeing to disagree, [but would] at least hear people out.”
Ross said that he’s not sure what he might do next, but that after a summer filled with controversy, he is ready to move on.
“I’ll be honest with you, if incidents like this and others had happened two years ago, I wouldn’t have been ready,” he said. “But I think the combination of the two, in terms of timing and gravity of the situations, kind of puts me in position to say, ‘OK.’”