Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Ramsey, Nutter: Out-front outreach

Assurances to black leaders kept lid on tensions over police.

The cascade of events had all the elements needed to wash away the goodwill Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey had accumulated in his brief Philadelphia career.

While investigators feverishly searched for a suspect in the killing of Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski, a posse of Philadelphia police officers was caught on a TV video beating and kicking three suspects in an unrelated shooting. It was racially incendiary: All but one of the 19 officers present were white. The three suspects were black.

Within hours the video was national news, and the networks were calling Ramsey and Mayor Nutter for comment about race relations in the City of Brotherly Love. The Rev. Al Sharpton, the activist and political provocateur, made plans to visit Philadelphia for what promised to be the next big civil-rights controversy.

"Obviously when I first saw the tape I knew the potential that it could bring with it," Ramsey said in an interview last week. "It didn't look good."

The commissioner's thoughts turned to the 1992 Los Angeles riots surrounding the Rodney King case, and the uproar in Philadelphia eight years ago after the videotaped police beating of Thomas Jones.

"History's kind of shown us . . . what can happen after these kinds of things surface," Ramsey said, "and you have to take that into consideration to try to keep calm."

Amid the department's mourning over the loss of the sergeant, Ramsey and Nutter quietly reached out to influential black leaders and urged them to remain calm, assuring them the administration took the allegations of police misconduct seriously.

Nutter introduced himself to Sharpton. "He should at least see me, look me in the eye, and make his own judgment as to how serious I am about this," the mayor said in an interview.

Three days before Ramsey announced he was disciplining eight officers for their involvement in the beating - four were fired - the commissioner met privately with community leaders and signaled that a decision was imminent.

"I can't remember in the history of Philadelphia when a commissioner has come out this strongly so quickly," said the Rev. Terrence Griffith, pastor of the First African Baptist Church in South Philadelphia and vice president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity.

"Our relations with the police have reached a high point with this outsider who has come in," NAACP president J. Whyatt Mondesire said about Ramsey, a Chicago native who was chief in Washington for nine years before Nutter recruited him.

While some praised the administration's crisis-management skills, not everyone was pleased with Ramsey's performance.

The Fraternal Order of Police condemned his action as too hasty. The police union said the disciplined officers had not gotten a thorough review.

And some African Americans said Ramsey's decision did not go far enough.

"I'm concerned that only four people were fired," said A. Bruce Crawley, a businessman and founder of the African American Chamber of Commerce. "I watched the video, and I didn't see any one of those officers trying to stop that beating."

Cynics say Ramsey moved quickly because the worldwide attention left him few options.

"It's easy to act decisively when the video is on the Internet," defense lawyer Kevin Mincey said at a public forum Thursday held by an organization called Concerned Black Lawyers, one of several meetings held last week to air grievances about the police.

Some complained that Ramsey and Nutter too easily had dismissed race as a factor, considering the department's checkered history.

"You have to ask yourself: If it wasn't racial, how many times are white, middle-class men brutalized by police officers?" lawyer Michael Coard said. "How many times are poor, white men brutalized by police officers? . . . Clearly there's a pattern of race."

Ramsey acknowledged that all eight disciplined officers were white, but he maintained that the beating had not been racial. None of the police-radio chatter during the chaos contained any epithets, and officers who were on the scene heard no slurs.

"It was an incident that involved use of force, some of which was justified, some of which was not justified," Ramsey said. "People want to turn it into something more than that."

For national reporters attracted by the dramatic Fox29 video, the story raised obvious questions about the department's race relations. In January, Ramsey disciplined two narcotics officers after racist stickers were found in a locker.

Ramsey said allegations about police treatment of minorities was nothing new. He dealt with them in Washington, where most officers in the department are black, as well as in Philadelphia, where 64 percent of the officers are white.

"I don't find the Philadelphia department to be a racist department," he said.

But Ramsey and Nutter are also aware of the impression the video created, and how it would be exploited.

"Unfortunately, there are some out there in the public who will always look at things in a race context regardless of what the underlying issues or facts might be," Nutter said in an interview. "It's just the reality of what you have to deal with."

The mayor and Ramsey quickly reached out to black community leaders to ask them to remain calm, promising a thorough review of the arrest.

"People could rest assured that this wasn't something that was going to be swept under the rug," Ramsey said.

Immediately after Liczbinski's burial May 9, Ramsey and his deputies returned from the cemetery to Police Headquarters to study the unedited video of the beating. Ramsey took a copy of the video home over the weekend.

"I looked at this very carefully over and over and over again, at home and at the office," he said. "It was not easy, but it was something that needed to be done."

A week later, Ramsey and his staff had singled out eight officers whose behavior he believed violated department policy. On May 16, Ramsey gathered the NAACP's Mondesire and two representatives of the black clergy organization, Griffith and the Rev. Damone B. Jones Sr. He told them to keep the news to themselves, but that action was imminent.

"I left the meeting feeling we had a good police commissioner who is honest and has integrity," Griffith said.

Three days later, Ramsey announced the disciplinary actions.

Nutter, who had promised to contact Sharpton if any decision was made, called the activist in New York immediately after the news conference in Philadelphia. Sharpton put Nutter on his radio show, and gushed about the Philadelphians' "unprecedented" response.

Mondesire, who had told his constituents that "you don't have to get riled up about this one," was impressed with Ramsey's decisiveness.

Mondesire also praised the commissioner for producing a video in which he explained the disciplinary actions to the rank and file.

It was shown at roll calls last week.

"That shows a different level of communication skills than we've had in the past," Mondesire said.