MORE THAN a quarter-century's worth of memories swirled through Richard Ross' head yesterday morning, in between the barrage of text messages and calls that were rattling his phone.

He was hours away from being formally introduced as Mayor-elect Jim Kenney's pick for police commissioner. He'd waited a decade for this moment, when all of the hard work and patience - so much patience - finally paid off with him being given the reins to the Philadelphia Police Department.

But his thoughts drifted back to a different day, when he was just a young lieutenant in the Homicide Unit, standing at a murder scene in one corner of the city or another.

Ross had been tasked with giving some brief information to a group of reporters. He stood in front of the cameras and sketched out the bare bones of a terrible crime.

When it was over, he started to walk away. But then he noticed the kids - a group of boys, maybe 9 or 10 years old.

"They'd apparently been watching more than I realized," Ross told the Daily News.

"So one of the kids walked up to me at the end of the presser and said, 'When I grow up, I want to be just like you.'

"And that told me that people are always watching, that you can have a profound impact on people when you don't even realize it."

Come January, the entire city - and a police force of 6,500 men and women - will be watching Ross' every move, analyzing every quote, trying to determine what kind of leader he will be.

Ross knows he is inheriting the top job at a pivotal and difficult moment in the history of law enforcement. Police departments across the country are grappling with an unprecedented identity crisis in the face of growing calls to reform their policies and procedures, and to commit to never-before-seen levels of transparency.

But Ross brings something to the table that might make him uniquely qualified to navigate these choppy waters: a willingness to listen.

But what does that actually mean, as Ross prepares to take over for retiring Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, whose popularity with Philly residents and the law-enforcement community casts an impossibly long shadow?

According to Ross, it means he will be reaching out to rowhouse dwellers and rank-and-file cops alike, at town-hall meetings and in small gatherings, to find out what they need from him.

"In my view, if a police commander thinks he knows what every community wants, it's a tragic error," he said.

"You don't know what people need unless you listen to them. And that holds true for police officers, too. You need to have a dialogue with the men and women you ask to do this job. If you don't include them in the process, you're really headed for trouble."

Ross' journey to the top of the fourth-largest police department in America began in the Fern Rock section of North Philadelphia, where his parents, Richard and Virginia Ross, raised a house full of kids.

They led by example. "My father showed me what it means to be a man: getting up every day, going to work, taking care of your family," said Ross, 51, who is married with two children.

"My parents treated everyone with respect. They never taught us to hate anyone based on color or ethnicity," he said. "They were two people who had a great deal of compassion for others."

He joined the Police Department in 1989. Daytona Beach, Fla., Police Chief Mike Chitwood worked with Ross when both men were rookie cops.

"He was an excellent police officer," Chitwood said.

"He's hardworking, brilliant, one of the smartest people I know. He really epitomizes what's on the side of that police car - honor, integrity and service."

Ross worked patrol in Olney's 35th District before moving up to more prominent assignments in the Homicide Unit and Internal Affairs. In 2005, then-Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson made Ross a deputy commissioner, a move that many within the department took as a sure sign that Ross was being groomed for the top job.

Some of his peers resented his meteoric rise. The Police Department, after all, has long been a place where grudges and gossip fester in the shadows.

But most recognized that Ross was bright, hardworking and even-keeled, attributes that were sorely needed at a time when the city was struggling to gain control of its soaring murder rate.

Still, when Johnson made it clear in late 2007 that he was planning to retire, then-Mayor-elect Michael Nutter lured Ramsey out of retirement to lead Philly's police force.

The circumstances could have made for an awkward working relationship for Ramsey and Ross. Instead, the two men formed an incredibly close bond.

"I just can't say enough about his capabilities," Ramsey said during a recent interview.

"He's one of the brightest people in the business right now. He's very steady, very thoughtful and doesn't fly off the handle.

"If he didn't become the commissioner here, he would be one somewhere else."

Ross yesterday continued to praise Ramsey as both a boss and friend who exposed him to a larger network of police chiefs, and different ways of looking at age-old problems.

"If I walk away from this years from now half as successful as Ramsey was, I'll feel pretty good," he said.

The feel-good vibes are nice, but larger questions loom over Ross now that he officially knows he'll be running things from the third floor of the Police Department's decrepit headquarters come January.

What will his top priorities be? How will he handle the relentless scrutiny that police face today, or the unforeseen controversies, scandals and tragedies that all police chiefs ultimately encounter?

"Rich Ross takes over the department in the middle of a major reform effort. Certainly, we hope he continues and strengthens those reforms," said Kelvyn Anderson, the executive director of the civilian-run Police Advisory Commission.

Both Anderson and civil-rights attorney David Rudovsky singled out unlawful stop-and-frisks as an issue that will require great attention from Ross.

Kenney, too, spoke repeatedly during his successful mayoral campaign of wanting to end the practice altogether.

"The department has said it's instituting accountability measures for officers who don't comply with the regulations on stop-and-frisk," Rudovsky said. "That's going to be a significant challenge for the next commissioner."

Ramsey said one of Ross' primary tasks - aside from keeping crime numbers at their recent lows - will have to be continuing to implement the dozens of reforms that the U.S. Department of Justice recommended after it evaluated the Police Department's use-of-force policies when the city saw the number of police-involved shootings spike two years ago.

"Another issue is going to be pushing against the union. We have a very powerful union here, but we have a lot of issues that need to be addressed," Ramsey said.

"He's going to have to pay constant attention to make sure the department's integrity is not compromised. That's going to be a challenge."

John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5, said he believes he and Ross will have a productive relationship. The two were in the same class as police recruits decades ago.

"We'll see where the road takes us, but I don't believe there will be any issues," he said.

"Richie's a straight-shooter. If you disagree, you move on. He never has a personal ax to grind. It's going to be strictly business."

Ross will face other obstacles, beyond overdue policy changes.

Rebuilding the sometimes-rocky relationship between police and city residents, particularly in minority communities, will have to be a hallmark of his tenure.

Ramsey frequently lamented how the department's longtime corruption woes ate away at people's faith in police. But a larger challenge has been finding the right tone and message in the face of continued protests from the Black Lives Matter movement.

"Police are viewed as an occupying army who are just gunning people down in the streets. Even though that's not true, there's still the perception, so he really has to figure that out," Chitwood said.

Ross said it's too early for him to lay out the nuts and bolts of his agenda. But he also stressed the importance of opening the lines of communication, so that people have a legitimate opportunity to be heard, to influence some of the moves he makes.

"There is merit in everything that people have to say," he said.

"Whether it's Black Lives Matter people or police officers who feel they're being castigated in the media, there's merit on both sides.

"The question is, can you find balance where people really listen to each other, instead of keeping their guard up? I feel like that's necessary."

Whatever happens, everyone will be listening to Richard Ross.

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