Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey says he is trying to detect a pattern in the killings of five Philadelphia officers since he took over last year - the highest line-of-duty casualty rate of any force in the nation.
"Is there some kind of radicalization going on?" Ramsey asked in an interview yesterday as his department prepared for Friday's burial of the latest victim, Officer John Pawlow-ski. "That could be a part of it. Is it just a violent subculture that we have here that's deeply ingrained?"
The question gnaws at Ramsey, who said the department also was looking at the circumstances surrounding several recent fatal shootings of civilians who police said had drawn weapons on officers.
"You have to question whether or not things in the system work the way they're supposed to work," he said. "And I would argue very strongly that they don't."
Three of the five officers killed since last year were singled out and shot. The alleged killers had extensive criminal records. The two other officers were killed in car crashes, struck by fleeing felons.
Philadelphia's casualties run counter to national trends. Nationwide, 140 officers were killed in the line of duty last year, including 41 by gunfire - the lowest number in five decades, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Police killings have been declining steadily since the 1970s because of improvements in equipment, training, and trauma care.
Ramsey was infuriated by Friday night's slaying of Pawlowski, who police said was killed by Rasheed Scruggs. They said Scruggs had warned a cabdriver he had robbed not to call 911 or he would kill the police who responded.
On Saturday, Ramsey described Scruggs as an unsalvageable career criminal who had survived a barrage of retaliatory police gunfire after he fired at Pawlowski. Ramsey said Scruggs "wasn't hit enough" by police.
Ramsey said he believed that Scruggs and others who fire on police without hesitation have little fear of a criminal justice system that he said too often lets violent criminals go free despite repeat offenses.
"I don't know if it is a contempt for law enforcement, but they do not fear the system," Ramsey said. "People have to understand there are serious consequences should you choose to commit crime, especially violent crime. And, right now, that's not a message I see being sent."
Ramsey said he saw little fault with the department's procedures. He said Pawlowski, 25, a five-year veteran, had followed department rules when he approached Scruggs, who fired a gun hidden in his pocket. The fatal bullet struck Pawlowski in the chest, above his Kevlar vest. "The officer did everything that he should have done," Ramsey said. "He had his vest on. He responded to a call. He's ordering the guy to take his hands out of his pockets. He doesn't see a weapon, so the weapon's fired before has a chance to really react.
"Had he fired not seeing a weapon, if the guy had a cell phone in his pocket, we'd be having a different conversation right now about why did he shoot when he didn't see a weapon."
Two of the officers killed last year also were gunned down methodically.
Officer Patrick McDonald was fatally shot Sept. 23 in North Philadelphia after being wounded by a parole violator, who then stood over McDonald and shot him repeatedly. Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski died May 3 while pursuing bank robbers in Port Richmond, killed by a single shot from a military carbine. The two other officers killed last year were Officer Isabel Nazario, 40, who died Sept. 5 after her patrol car was struck by a stolen SUV in the Mantua neighborhood, and Sgt. Timothy Simpson, who died Nov. 17 of injuries sustained in an automobile accident.
A month ago, Ramsey met with some of the families of slain officers to seek their advice about organizing a "family-support unit" within the department to provide long-term assistance, particularly to the officers' children.
Ramsey said the unit might help arrange benefits, psychological care, and education for survivors. The assistance would supplement the fund-raising drives that supporters frequently organize to raise money to help the families.
Now, with the death of Officer Pawlowski, whose widow is five months pregnant with their first child, the need for long-term help is even greater, Ramsey said.
"They're part of our family now," he said, "and I think we have an obligation to help with any issues they may have."