ON A SUN-SPLASHED fall afternoon, Charles H. Ramsey and his wife, Sylvia, packed up their car and headed to the airport.

Ramsey had been invited to speak at a law-enforcement conference in London. The trip was going to be a welcome break, they agreed. It seemed as if Ramsey hadn't taken a breather since he was sworn in as Philadelphia's police commissioner in January.

But that ride to the airport Sept. 23 was cut short when two chilling words crackled from Ramsey's police scanner: Officer down.

Ramsey sped to Temple University Hospital and was told that Officer Patrick McDonald had been fatally shot in North Philadelphia by Daniel Giddings, a violent convicted felon.

It was a devastating day for the Police Department, one that typified Ramsey's first year as the city's top cop. Unexpected problems seemed to pop up at every turn, forcing him to bob and weave like an old prizefighter.

Ramsey managed to weather an unthinkable spike in cop deaths - four officers died in the line of duty in 2008 - and a host of other challenges, to put a sizable dent in the dramatic list of goals he set for himself and the department. But he freely admits that some of his goals weren't met this year.

When he took over the department, Ramsey set his sights on big objectives: Reducing murders by 25 percent and violent crime by 20 percent, blanketing the city with surveillance cameras, improving community relations, and overhauling the structure and philosophy of a department notoriously averse to change.

Homicides are down 15 percent, shootings are down 11 percent, violent crime is down 3 percent, and arrests are up 7 percent, police statistics show.

But more attention has been paid to problems beyond Ramsey's control - the police deaths, a media firestorm over a videotaped police beating and a budget crisis that is putting the squeeze on some of his broader plans for the department.

"There's a lot more that needs to be done, but for one year, I think there's been visible progress," Ramsey said, during a wide-ranging interview with the Daily News earlier this month.

"We're down about 60 homicides, which is significant. That's not luck. One or two is luck. So, we've had some success here, but you have to push the envelope. We don't need mediocrity."

'A true leader'

It was with a measure of fanfare in November 2007 that then-Mayor-elect Michael Nutter named Ramsey, the former Washington, D.C., police chief, as his pick to be Philadelphia's next police commissioner.

The city's image had taken a beating in national and local media reports that nicknamed the town "Killadelphia" for a homicide rate that outpaced the country's other big cities.

Morale in the Police Department reportedly was bottoming out as politicians and citizens obsessed over the murder tallies: 380 in 2005, 405 in '06, 392 in '07.

Nutter needed a top cop who could change the perception of local law enforcement.

"No question, that was important," Nutter told the Daily News. "I needed someone who had a proven crime-fighting strategy and who could be well-respected by the men and women of the department."

Ramsey wasted little time establishing himself.

He unveiled a 30-page crime plan in January that called for proactive policing tactics - more boots on the ground and better communication with residents and civic groups who long had felt ignored.

He began by disbanding a handful of specialized units, which put more than 300 cops back on patrol. Manpower was directed to nine of the city's most violent districts in Southwest, West, North and Northeast Philadelphia.

The department started zeroing in on criminals who had outstanding warrants in those districts, an effort that has led to 326 arrests, police statistics show.

In the spring, Ramsey rearranged the upper ranks of the department and called for more weekly meetings with district commanders to make sure they were following through on their own objectives.

The fruit of those efforts, Ramsey said, is in the numbers: a murder tally that sits at 332, a homicide-clearance rate of 74 percent and a 27 percent decrease in murders in the nine most dangerous districts.

Property crimes, meanwhile, are up more than 1 percent, and rapes were up more than 10 percent as of October, the stats show.

"In terms of enforcement,

we've done well, but it's not where it needs to be," Ramsey said.

"Some people think we [top cops] meet too much, but we're police officers. You have to stay focused. It's not that complicated."

He remains surprised at the level of violence that still exists, even during daylight hours. "If it's 9 o'clock on a Monday morning, you're subject to have a shooting come up. Other places I've worked, you'd mainly see that kind of stuff at night [or] on weekends."

Ramsey held two rounds of town-hall meetings across the city earlier in the year. People seemed to approve of the job he was doing. Ramsey believes that a citywide survey should be issued next year to determine if residents think the city and the department have improved.

His boss is among those pleased with Ramsey's efforts.

"I think Commissioner Ramsey has done a great job," Nutter said. "He reinspired the police department. The officers respect him because he's a real cop, and they know they have a true leader."

Nutter's backing will be crucial to any further success Ramsey might enjoy, according to Miami Police Chief John Timoney.

Like Ramsey, Timoney knows what it's like to come to Philadelphia and take over the Police Department. He held the top cop's job from 1998 to 2001.

"You're going to run into bumps, but if you don't have the support of the mayor, you're f----d," said Timoney, a friend of Ramsey's.

"[Then-Mayor] Rendell gave me the ball and let me run with it, with no interference from City Hall," Timoney said. "That was helpful, especially during my first year. You can get an awful lot of things accomplished that way."

Plenty of adversity

Any questions over how Ramsey would respond to scrutiny and pressure were put to the test early and often.

January started with three fatal police-involved shootings in two weeks, prompting heated questions and allegations from residents about the slow and secretive investigations that followed.

Ramsey said that the department still needs to focus on better training and providing cops with more nonlethal weapons, like expandable batons and Tasers.

Ramsey said that he thinks that "we still take way too long" to resolve the investigations, which in some cases linger for years while the District Attorney's Office decides if officers should face criminal charges.

A bigger controversy erupted in May, when a Fox 29 helicopter crew filmed 19 cops stomping and beating three shooting suspects for more than 10 minutes in Hunting Park.

Ramsey stood tall. He fired four of the officers and demoted four others, then hired an agency from Washington, D.C., to evaluate the department's use-of-force policy.

The disciplinary action riled the Fraternal Order of Police, whose leaders nonetheless praise Ramsey's no-nonsense leadership.

"We disagree a lot, but we have a good working relationship," said FOP president John McNesby.

"He speaks from the heart, and I think he's doing a pretty decent job, considering all of the adversity he's been through."

But the other tribulations paled next to the strain of losing four police officers in six months.

Nutter said that Ramsey brought a "great calming influence" as city and department leaders moved from one police funeral to another. But it was clear the tragedies took a toll on him.

"Chuck's a really good guy," Timoney said. "He loves cops, and I know the deaths hurt him. They shake you."

When asked about the run of cop killings, Ramsey first answered stoically about the need to provide counseling to cops and their families.

A pause followed. He glanced at the faces of Sgts. Stephen Liczbinski and Timothy Simpson, and Officers Isabel Nazario and Patrick McDonald, portraits that cover the walls behind his conference table.

"Look, losing this many officers in such a short period of time is not normal," he said, finally. "Hopefully we've seen the end of it.

"It certainly affects me, but it affects the families a whole lot more. All you can do is try to provide some measure of comfort for them."

Up next

Ramsey will have an even fuller plate in the coming year. There are plenty of leftover goals to achieve and a budget crisis that will force him to alter his bigger objectives.

Plans to have 250 surveillance cameras installed across the city and a 24/7 real-time crime center set up in Police Headquarters have failed to materialize.

Funding hasn't come through for the 24/7 crime center. The cameras, purchased by the city from Unisys for about $11 million, were "not high quality. You couldn't see the images and we refused to accept them," Ramsey said. Instead, only about 70 "better ones" have been installed, he said.

Ramsey plans on introducing a stricter policy for pursuits in January to reduce the number of police-car crashes - an effort he said the department should have made 10 or 15 years ago.

He will consider trimming additional specialized units to boost patrol numbers as a way of making up for the 200 extra police officers he won't be getting because of Nutter's budget cuts.

Ramsey said that he would seek to determine whether the number of cops and detectives detailed to joint task forces with the FBI and DEA is "worth the investment."

The city's financial plight means that, for now, Ramsey will have to give up his dream of having more than a dozen aging and decrepit police facilities repaired or replaced.

"The buildings are terrible," he said, shaking his head. "They are an embarrassment. Money has to be found somewhere."

His displeasure was reinforced on Dec. 8, when a car thief managed to escape from Police Headquarters by crawling through a ceiling. "There is no excuse not to have better facilities," Ramsey said.

Other problems will undoubtedly present themselves as 2009 wears on. Already, Ramsey has had to address something he didn't expect: rumors that he soon would leave the department.

"There was a rumor I was going back to Chicago for $400,000 a year. If someone is willing to pay me that kind of money, I'll give you my forwarding address," he said, laughing.

For the record, Ramsey said, he has received one job offer that he turned down, but he declined to say where it was from.

The mayor acknowledged that he, too, had heard the rumors about Ramsey. "It's a compliment to him and his great work, but at the same time, he's reaffirmed he's looking forward to achieving the goals he set out here," Nutter said.

Ramsey said that he's not shocked by the gossip, given his many contacts in law enforcement.

"Never say never," he said. "If the mayor and the community get tired of me, that's a different situation.

"This is a very challenging place, but a very rewarding place. It's a good department. I like what I'm doing here."