Ex-chief in D.C. wants city post

Ramsey says he helped cut crime as head of police

Sun exclusive

August 29, 2007|By Annie Linskey and Gus G. Sentementes | Annie Linskey and Gus G. Sentementes,Sun reporters

WASHINGTON -- Former Washington Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, who presided over a sharp drop in homicides and crime in the nation's capital before he stepped down late last year, says he would like to be Baltimore's next police commissioner.

"I've been interviewed. I want the job," Ramsey, 57, said in a phone interview yesterday.

"We had a very good deal of success in terms of bringing the murder rate down," he said of his nearly nine-year tenure in Washington. "D.C. is a much safer city."

Ramsey, with a reputation for having professionalized the city's police force and appearing frequently on the evening news, served as Washington's chief from April 1998 to late last year, after the newly elected mayor, Adrian Fenty, said he would replace him.

As a city council member, Fenty had often criticized Ramsey for not focusing enough on Washington's most troubled and crime-ridden neighborhoods, a sentiment echoed by some community leaders yesterday. Critics in the city's police union accused Ramsey of playing to the news media while undercutting rank-and-file officers, who they said are demoralized and leaving in droves.

Ramsey said he has been interviewing for the Baltimore job for "about a month," but declined to say whether he approached Mayor Sheila Dixon or she approached him. "I didn't know I'd miss being a police chief so much," he said.

Ramsey and Baltimore's acting commissioner, Frederick H. Bealefeld III, a 26-year veteran, have emerged as the two main contenders for Baltimore's top police post, according to sources familiar with the selection process. Yesterday, Dixon said she would not comment on Ramsey or the search for a police commissioner.

Ever since ousting Leonard D. Hamm as Baltimore police commissioner in mid-July, Dixon, running for a full four-year term, has said that she would embark on a nationwide search for a permanent replacement. A decision is not expected until after the Sept. 11 Democratic primary.

The search comes as Baltimore has fallen back into numbers of shootings and homicides that haven't been seen in the city since the 1990s, when more than 300 people a year were killed.

"Baltimore seems like a good city with some pockets of crime - it reminds me a lot of D.C.," Ramsey said yesterday.

As for Baltimore's stubborn murder rate, he said: "When you compare it to last year, and it is higher, you are going in the wrong direction and you don't want to continue that trend." There have been 206 homicides in Baltimore this year, compared with 178 this time last year.

Ramsey said yesterday that an effective crime strategy hinges on positive relations between the police and the community, a theme that Dixon has stressed and one that Bealefeld also embraces.

"The most effective [crime-fighting] strategy is one that gets the community involved," Ramsey said.

Community leaders in Washington offered mixed reviews of his performance. Raymond Bell, who said he has been a community activist in the city since a close friend was shot and killed in 1986, said: "I looked at the chief more as a politician.

"I want somebody who can bring people together, not just when the television cameras are around," Bell said.

Scott Pomeroy, an activist with the downtown business improvement association said: "He came in with some good programs, then it dropped off. ... It was not just him [Ramsey], it was the whole administration."

Ramsey brushed off the criticism and pointed to the crime reduction on his watch. There were 301 murders in 1997, the year before he took the helm of Washington's Police Department. That figure dropped to 169 in 2006, his last year in office.

Total crime in Washington dropped in every year during his tenure except 2001. The steepest drop was in 2004, when there was an 18 percent decline, according to the D.C. police Web site.

Kenneth E. Barnes Sr., who leads an advocacy organization for the families of homicide victims called ROOT Inc., found Ramsey to be accessible and supportive of community initiatives.

"Ramsey truly understands that the issues of crime are not just police issues," Barnes said. "Our fight is with the epidemic of gun violence. Ramsey understands that."

Ramsey frequently clashed with the police union. One union leader, Kristopher Baumann, called him more of a "public relations machine" than an effective chief. Last summer, Ramsey declared a "crime emergency," forcing officers to work long weeks and driving down morale, Baumann said.

He said Ramsey took credit for crime reductions that were a consequence of shifting demographics and economic development in Washington over the past decade. And he criticized Ramsey for implementing harsh disciplinary practices that bruised morale and drove officers away, hindering the department's recruiting and retention efforts.

"Wow," Baumann said, when told that Ramsey was under consideration in Baltimore. "If Baltimore already has a recruitment and retention problem, and has communities underserved, I couldn't imagine what would happen under Ramsey."

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