D.C.'s police chief wins praise from both sides

Ramsey is credited with appropriate response to protests

April 19, 2000|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- He asked for God's blessing on the young protesters -- right after wrestling one of them to the asphalt.

He charmed reporters while refusing to share any details of police strategy with them.

He spoke expansively about American democracy and openness, then ordered armored vehicles and helmeted platoons to close down half of central Washington.

For many people in the district, the most impressive demonstration last weekend wasn't the one against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

It was the bravura, tough-love balancing act by Washington's police chief of two years, Charles H. Ramsey.

Through more than a week of protests in the district that targeted international financiers, the burly Chicago native was a highly visible, calming influence on the streets and on television.

Charged with keeping the peace while thousands of activists tried to block the streets, Ramsey won praise from law enforcement experts and some protesters as a savvy, level-headed cop who skillfully kept the situation from getting out of hand.

"Overall, the performance of the police was nothing short of spectacular," said Sheldon Greenberg, director of the police executive leadership program at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

"Given the potential for this situation to explode, I don't think anybody could have asked for more from this department."

Washington had braced for the worst after the demonstrators who disrupted Seattle last year promised to descend on the International Monetary Fund and World Bank during those institutions' spring meetings in the district on Sunday and Monday.

The activists argue that the poor are being hurt by the policies of the IMF and World Bank, as well as those of the World Trade Organization, which was their target in Seattle.

District officials feared that the Washington protest would be equally violent, subjecting the district to the vandalism, street fights and chaos that engulfed the WTO meetings and caused $20 million in damage.

Few people had more at stake than Ramsey.

Hired two years ago out of Chicago to rescue a District of Columbia department that had been tarred by scandal and demoralized by urban problems, Ramsey, 50, gained credit for reforming department budgets, reducing crime and showing sensitivity to community concerns.

If Washington had erupted during the IMF and World Bank meetings, those achievements might have been forgotten. Seattle's police chief, Norm Stamper, resigned after his force was caught flat-footed during the anti-WTO protests.

After months of preparation, Ramsey and his force prevailed. The IMF and World Bank meetings went on as scheduled. No one was seriously injured. Ten thousand chanting protesters got their point across. Downtown Washington survived unscathed but for some graffiti and battered newspaper racks.

Scuffles between police and demonstrators, though intense and acrimonious, didn't turn into the street battles that broke out in Seattle.

Nevertheless, scores of environmentalists, human rights advocates and anarchists were doused with pepper spray and shoved around by officers. Some were tear-gassed. Many activists accused police of overreacting.

"We have seen the police use violence against peaceful demonstrators and militarize downtown Washington," Patrick Reinsborough, an organizer with Mobilization for Global Justice, said yesterday.

Other demonstrators said Washington police were more restrained, more professional and more organized than their counterparts in Seattle.

"I know there were some concerns about police brutality, but all in all, I though the police here were more tolerant and respectful of the protesters," said Andrea Durbin of Friends of the Earth.

"In Seattle, it was really intolerable. Even WTO delegates were appalled by the behavior of Seattle police."

Ramsey, who was deputy police superintendent in Chicago before coming to Washington in 1998, seemed to be everywhere at once over the past week, tackling an unruly demonstrator at one point and losing several of his chief's stars in the process.

Operating on two hours' nightly sleep, snatched on a couch in his office, Ramsey gave two news conferences a day and made a point of joining officers on the barricades.

He fielded reporters' questions with authority, spoke directly with activists and expressed respect, even admiration, for the majority of young peaceful protesters.

"Some of these were just kids -- some of them were scared to death," he said at a news conference Monday. "They're just youngsters. And I think that's important to remember. They're just kids with a cause, and God bless them. That's what America's all about."

A key to police success, experts said, was shutting down broad sections of downtown Washington --15 to 70 blocks at a time -- to allow delegates to enter the IMF and World Bank buildings unmolested.

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