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Talking problem police with Philly's top cop

With all the hoops that we ask police recruits to jump through, it's amazing that we get so many bad apples.

Commissioner Charles Ramsey addressing the International Police Chiefs Association at the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Saturday, October 19, 2013. (RON CORTES / Staff Photographer)
Commissioner Charles Ramsey addressing the International Police Chiefs Association at the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Saturday, October 19, 2013. (RON CORTES / Staff Photographer)Read more

"WHY SO MANY bad cops?" I asked in October. That column brought a lot of reaction, from citizens and current and past officers, some with questions, some with suggestions.

In the light of continuing personnel problems - it seems to fall short of a crisis (or does it?) - and in an effort to clear up misconceptions about the Philadelphia Police Department, I requested some time with Commissioner Charles Ramsey. I wanted to know about the quality and training of recruits, and more.

I hate to explode widespread myths, but the Police Department does not hire high-school dropouts, nor does race play a role in hiring, Ramsey told me.

Let's start with race, that evergreen and explosive topic.

"We have a list of a pool of applicants and we go right down the list, irrespective" of race when making hiring decisions, Ramsey said.

To be precise, I asked if people on the top of the list are hired first, irrespective of race, gender or sexual orientation.

Ramsey's reply: "Yeah."

In the 1970s and '80s, before he was here, there were affirmative-action considerations, "where you actually had percentages of individuals so some people were skipped on the list," but that's no longer the case.

Some candidates, he said, can qualify for "points" for being bilingual, for military service, for having advanced education.

To foster diversity, he routinely looks for quality candidates in minority - Asian, gay, Latino - communities, as well as at black colleges. The police force is 55 percent white, 34 percent African-American, 8 percent Hispanic, 1 percent Asian, 1.5 percent Native American and other.

As to education, Ramsey has raised standards and requires 60 semester hours at an accredited school with exceptions for two years of active military service and two years with the Philadelphia Police Explorer Cadet program.

Prospective police need to read at an 11th-grade comprehension level, which is a state standard.

Cops responding to my column said that recruits can qualify even if they have a pot bust on their record. Without being specific, Ramsey said: "For minor offenses, we don't hold that against them. It just depends."

In 2009, Ramsey reinstituted polygraph exams that had been ended by Commissioner Sylvester Johnson.

Recruits get a 90-minute psychological exam. I asked to see one, but the city declined to provide it.

Obviously, there's also a physical-fitness exam, and each officer submits to a very intrusive background check that is supposed to include interviews with friends, neighbors, relatives and employers.

"If you're going to hire somebody who's going to be with you 25 or 30 years, I think it's worth the investment," Ramsey said.

There's a 90 percent washout rate with only one of 10 applicants making it through the whole process, according to Ramsey. The 10 percent then get 36 weeks of training.

With all that, there are many bad apples. Why?

Ramsey doesn't know and couldn't say if the problem is worse today than in the past, but he's been quick to crack down on rogue cops.

Since 2000, the most cops fired in a single year (including officers later reinstated) was 2011 when 31 cops lost their jobs. Since taking over the department at the start of 2008, Ramsey has fired 134 officers (through October of this year) from his 6,600-member force.

Although random drug tests are permitted, random lie-detector or psychological tests to root out villains are barred by the union contract, Ramsey said. Tests for cause are permitted.

Finally, even though he fires them, many bad apples find a road back to their jobs, through arbitration. Too many cops with black marks return to wearing the blue uniform.

Ramsey is annoyed - and pugnacious former Police Commissioner John Timoney was pissed off - about a flawed arbitration process, but I need more info before I start throwing stones.

I'll report again after I get some answers.

Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky