Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey spent a candid hour this week talking with Tribune editors and reporters about crime and violence, methods of prevention and concerns that law enforcement officials have across the country.
As always, the commissioner pulled no punches in his comments about the level of senseless deadly violence in Philadelphia — violence that has been spiking recently in some of the city’s rougher police districts.
“Much of the violence is sparked by arguments over nonsense,” Ramsey said. “The slightest thing can end up leading to someone’s death. If two guys get into a fistfight, the loser goes and gets a gun and shoots and kills the winner — so when you win, you lose. That’s the way it is.”
A perfect illustration of the commissioner’s remark is the case of Lonnie Vincent Workman. On February 6, Workman got into a verbal confrontation with neighborhood bad guy Adrian McCall. According to witnesses, Workman challenged McCall to settle their differences with a fistfight. McCall allegedly pulled out a gun and shot five times, striking Workman twice. Workman was pronounced dead, and McCall is awaiting his day in court. There were 324 murders in Philadelphia in 2011. Of that number, in 127 cases — a little more than a third – the motive was determined to have been an argument. Drug related disputes, a beef over a woman or just giving someone the wrong look often leads to deadly violence — and as of Tribune press time there have been 208 homicides in Philadelphia.
Most of the victims, statistics show and Ramsey confirmed, are young Black males predominantly between the ages of 17 and 25.
In addition to leading one of the largest police department’s in the country Commissioner Ramsey presides over two national law enforcement associations: the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) and the Major City Chief’s Association. He has been president of the former for two years and president of the Association for a year and a half. The Major City Chief’s Association comprises 63 of the largest cities in the United States, Canada and Great Britain and provides a forum for law enforcement executives to share ideas on policing, experiences and strategies to address the specific challenges involved in policing large urban areas.
“PERF is a think tank for policing issues,” Ramsey said. “It’s an international organization based in Washington, D.C., and you have to have at least a bachelor’s degree and be associated with law enforcement in some way. We explore best practices in policing and investigative issues like the use of DNA, the use of deadly force and tasers. One of the things we’re pushing for is a national crime commission — there hasn’t been one since Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. Crime in the United States has changed tremendously since then. If a new commission is formed, that’s where experts in the field of law enforcement, researchers, academics, political leaders all come together to look at various aspects of crime. A commission would be looking at all types of crime, cyber crime, gun violence, community policing, corrections would be a part of it in terms of rehabilitation to help inmates are able to go back into mainstream society. That previous commission’s research and findings established trends and patterns in policing for succeeding decades. For example, forensic science — most people, even in law enforcement weren’t aware of the use of DNA evidence until the O.J. Simpson trial. We’re really trying to get the attention of Congress on this.”
The two organizations have also been advocating reasonable forms of gun control — which has again become a major issue in the public’s mind in the wake of the Aurora, Colorado, mass murder. But Ramsey said gun control and the proliferation of illegal firearms on the streets is an issue police officers face everyday.
“The Aurora shooting just highlights the issue,” Ramsey said. “But here’s the thing - people get upset when there’s an incident like Aurora or Columbine — and I’m not saying they shouldn’t. These are terrible tragedies, but there are terrible tragedies occurring on our streets every single day. Take Colorado, one nut with an assault weapon and you see what can happen. But you want to talk about mass murder? The mass murder is the 9,000 people that die every year from gun violence in the United States — that’s not natural causes. If you don’t call that mass murder then what the hell do you call it? But we don’t want to talk about it — unless it’s a Columbine or Aurora.”
In Philadelphia, most of the victims of gun violence, but by no means all, are young Black males. Nationally, Blacks are six times more likely than whites to die by homicide, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Blacks are also over represented in crimes involving illegal drugs, and in Philadelphia, there are nine Police Districts that are consistently on the radar in terms of high crime activity. In 2007 these nine districts accounted for 65 percent of the homicides and 64 percent of the shooting victims in the city.
Those most violent districts are: 12th, 18th, 19th, 14th, 35th, 39th, 15th, 22nd and 25th — and Ramsey said that even within those districts there are pockets of concentrated criminal activity.
“The most violent district is the 22nd,” Ramsey said. “The 25th would be the second and the 24th is the third. The 12th District is also pretty rough, but the 22nd is where we have most of our problems. Our shootings city-wide are up 2 percent from last year. There’s no particular pattern but a lot of what happens is related to drug activity is some form. But that doesn’t mean it’s a drug related crime; you might have two people arguing and they’re both involved in ‘the game’ but the argument could be over a woman. A lot of our homicides are over absolute nonsense, I mean people shooting each other over nothing. Some of these guys are getting out of jail and they return to their neighborhood and try to re-establish themselves. The neighborhood has changed; there are different players and they’re not letting anyone re-establish anything; so you get a shooting.”