Of the many issues that kept former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross awake at night, nothing troubled him more than the inability to reduce city’s homicide rate, particularly among young African-American men.
“It’s the one thing more than anything else that probably takes the wind out of your sails, because you hate to see these young men dying senselessly in the street,” Ross told The Tribune. “Some days you are frustrated. You feel, ‘Are you kidding me? The cop was right down the street and they are still firing off these guns.’
“Whether it is driven by emotion, anger, whatever the emotion is, that is far and away the main thing that has been the albatross around the necks of law enforcement officers,” he continued.
Ross, 55, abruptly resigned Tuesday — just days after two Black female officers filed a lawsuit alleging that there is ongoing sexual harassment and racial discrimination in the police department, and that Ross had a love affair with one of them.
Mayor Jim Kenney appointed Christine Coulter as acting commissioner of the police department.
Ross spoke extensively with The Tribune after his resignation. He maintained his innocence, and cautioned against “jumping to conclusions” over the allegations in the lawsuit.
Ross, who joined the Philadelphia Police Department in 1989, has spent the last 14 years of his career in an executive leadership role.
“That’s a long time at this level — to be dealing with the level of stress that you deal with in a big city that is fraught with a bunch of issues like Philadelphia,” he said. “Gun violence, of course, has always been at the top of that list.”
He said he considered resigning several times over the last few years, particularly after the incident last year when police were called to remove two Black men from the Starbucks in Rittenhouse Square.
“I personally screwed up,” he said, of his handling of the incident.
“I was myopic in my view on that ... It took a lot out of me, to be honest with you.”
But various things kept happening that made Ross think he should stay, such as The Plain View Project‘s revelation of racist, violent and offensive Facebook posts made by hundreds of police officers.
“That was a black eye [for the department],” he said. “I didn’t want to walk out in the middle of that.”
Ross said he is happy that the number of violent crimes in the city has dropped during his tenure.
In his first two years as commissioner, the number of robberies decreased by 12.9%, the number of robberies with a firearm decreased by 10.9%, and the number of robberies with a firearm decreased by 22.1%. Those numbers line up with a national trend.
Homicides, however, have been climbing.
In Ross’ first year on the job, the number of homicides in the city dropped dropped 2.5% from 280 in 2015 to 273 in 2016. But in 2017, the number of homicides increased by 16% to 316. And in 2018, the number of homicides jumped to 11.1% again to 353, the highest rate in 11 years.
The uptick has continued this year, with 216 murders having been committed as of Thursday. At the same time last year, 206 people had been murdered. Of this year’s 216 murders, 186 of the victims are African Americans, and 76% of them are Black men.
“People who claim they have the answer, God bless them. But there is no magic panacea for it,” Ross said. “And so I just sincerely hope that for the city I was born and raised in that they give the next police commissioner, who is now acting, Christine Coulter, an opportunity. God knows that I gave it my all.”
Rodney Muhammad, president of the Philadelphia Chapter of the NAACP, agreed.
“I know that seeing so many young men dying on our city streets, specifically Black men, bothered the commissioner,” Muhammad said. “That was very evident. We’ve talked about it. It was always a concern of his.”
Ross said he leaves office “comforted” that “in my three and a half years not one police officer was killed in the line of duty.” Also, officer-involved shootings fell from 29 in 2014, two years before he took office, to 13 in 2017 and 2018.