Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey, one of two co-chairs apppointed by President Obama to head a commission on ways to demilitarize local police, is known for leading repeated bloody and abusive crackdowns on protesters when he was Washington, D.C.’s chief a decade ago, according to a civil rights attorney who won millions in damages for 100s of citizens attacked by D.C. police.
“If the president’s idea of reforming policing practices includes mass false arrests, brutality, and the eviscerating of civil rights, then Ramsey’s his man. That’s Charles Ramsey’s legacy in D.C.,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, Executive Director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF), speaking of the ex-D.C. chief and current Philadelphia Police Commissioner. “Obama should immediately rescind his appointment of Commissioner Ramsey, who is a mass violator of civil rights and civil liberties.”
On Monday, Obama appointed Ramsey and Laurie Robinson, a George Mason University professor of criminology, law and society, to head a commission that the president said will suggest steps that the executive branch can take to unwind the most visible aspects of America’s militarized police—its domestic use of military gear.
“They are going to co-chair a task force that is not only going to reach out and listen to law enforcement, and community activists and other stakeholders, but is going to report to me specifically in 90 days with concrete recommendations, including best practices for communities where law enforcement and neighborhoods are working well together,” Obama said Monday, continuing, “How do they create accountability; how do they create transparency; how do they create trust; and how can we at the federal level work with the state and local communities to make sure that some of those best practices get institutionalized?”
Obama’s focus on militarized policing is sparked by the overly aggressive response by St. Louis area departments to the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, this past summer and fall after a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown. Those protests were broken up by police SWAT teams in battle dress, the use of tear gas, and other outsized and disproportionate surplus military weaponry that is distributed across America through a mix of Pentagon and Department of Justice programs.
More than a decade ago, when Ramsey was the D.C. police chief, he led numerous crackdowns and mass arrests of protesters—starting in 2000. His most high-profile assault was in September 2002 at Pershing Park, where demonstrators protested World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings. The police locked down the park and arrested everyone there—400 people—including journalists, legal observers and bystanders.
The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund sued and won millions for protesters. The April 2000 protest settlements totalled $13.7 million and Pershing Park/2002 settlement was $8.25 million. Verheyden-Hilliard said the settlements highlight a larger and especially bloody pattern of police crackdowns on protesters ordered by Ramsey. She listed the following six events in an e-mail that “are demonstrative of his leadership and the force under his command.” The first example is an earlier three-day World Bank/IMF protest from spring 2000 in downtown Washington.
• April 2000 protests IMF/World Bank. “(It is noteworthy that Ramsey deployed the National Guard against the protesters during these protests). A group of peaceful protestors sat in a circle in an intersection [20th and K Street], notably one that was already closed to traffic by the police cordon blocking vehicular traffic in areas of downtown for the IMF/WB meetings. They sat there peacefully with their arms immobilized in that PVC piping. A bus pulls up. A platoon of MPD officers get off. They have their badges obscured either by removal, taping over or punching out numbers (all common practices under Ramsey). The leader of the platoon shouts something to the effect of “let's do this” and they charge the protesters who are immobilized and cannot flee, with their batons out and begin beating them. The officers smash in their faces with their batons, breaking noses and teeth. Blood is pouring out. For years the MPD, under Ramsey denied this happened, and it was pre-cell phone videos. We eventually obtained a video, which it turned out, had been turned over to the MPD’s General Counsel’s office directly after the incident. They had lied and withheld evidence for years. There was no investigation or discipline of any one involved. In addition, we established that Chief Ramsey was on notice to the practice of officers hiding their identity as they engaged in misconduct and allowed it.”
• Going after videographers taping the police: “A young man taking photographs of police misconduct was attacked by an undercover plainclothed officer on detail to the FBI while MPD officers stood by and did nothing to stop him. He pulled out an asp baton clubbed him in his head and attempted to smash the camera. The victim was dragged, bleeding, to a corner. CNN caught this incident. Ramsey was on the scene. There was no investigation or discipline of the MPD officers who stood by and did nothing. It took us years to identify the perpetrator.”
• Pepper-spraying demonstrators and other abusive tactics. “Ramsey deployed mass indiscriminate use of pepper spray against protesters, using those fire extinguisher-like canisters to soak through groups of peaceful people with burning OC spray.”
• First major mass arrest. “Chief Ramsey, personally on the scene, oversaw the mass false arrest of over 700 persons on April 15, 2000 who were protesting peacefully and lawfully (and also journalists, tourists, passersby), using illegal trap and detain tactics. He then had them hog tied wrist to opposing ankle in stress and duress positions where they were left on the floor of police gym and in cells for 24 hours or more. He did the same thing again in September 2002 illegally trapping and arresting nearly 400 people [at the Pershing Park protest] (protesters, legal observers, tourists, passersby) in a public park, again with no order to disperse and no opportunity to disperse, and then subjecting them to stress and duress hogtying for 24 hours or more.”
• Police seeking and inciting confrontation. “January 2001 (protests at the Inauguration of GW Bush) Two DC MPD officers acting as agents provocateur attacked a group of demonstrators standing peacefully and lawfully along the parade route. They were both undercover, in plain clothes, and they pushed through the crowd punching and pepper spraying. The MPD, again under Ramsey's command, denied that these were their officers until the PCJF was able to prove it in litigation – even with there being video and photographic evidence of their identities. They even tried to suggest that these were demonstrators attacking other demonstrators. This incident was featured in the movie “Unconstitutional” and on Bill Moyers. Chief Ramsey and the MPD never disciplined these officers.”
• Going after Iraq War Protesters. “April 2003, Iraq war protest. Peaceful, lawful protest, with a permit for a planned street march, attacked by the police under Ramsey's command – and he was on the scene – repeatedly throughout the march using clubs, fists and even their motorcycles. In one of these attacks, officers held down our client, who was taking photographs, and repeatedly clubbed him in the head. No discipline, years of litigation. Also caught on camera.”
Protesters sue and win
The Partnership for Civil Justice obtained the largest protest settlements in U.S. history for those victimized in these two mass arrests, and has since gone on to represent people who were falsey arrested in New York City during the Occupy Movement’s heyday in 2011. Washington spent more than $1 million defending Ramsey to date, PCJF said, apart from the multimillion settlement awards.
Verheyden-Hilliard said the legal settlement included new police procedures that were intended to de-escalate the culture of policing that treats the public as enemies.
“For us, the most significant result of the litigation – and a key focus of our litigation as a public interest legal organization – was major rule reform in the District,” she explained. She went on:
Each of our settlement agreements had major reforms in police practices and training requirements. The D.C. City Council conducted a major investigation in the MPD under Ramsey’s command and ultimately passed the First Amendment Rights and Police Standards Act which tracked much of the injunctive relief that the Partnership for Civil Justice was demanding in litigation. We worked with them in this process, and the law – which explicitly bans Ramsey's illegal tactics – has had a major impact on protest in D.C. and the police response to it. Two federal judges referred to our litigation as "historic" for its benefit on future generations, and one can already see the difference in the way the MPD has handled the D.C. Ferguson protests of the last several months. Peaceful, but militant, demonstrators have gone out to demonstrate shutting down intersections in key business and entertainment areas at night, in particular on Saturday nights.
They have been able to conduct their demonstrations and have peacefully disbursed at the conclusions,” she said. “The MPD has not deployed police to line, or confront the demonstrations or to interfere. The MPD has not been deployed in riot gear. They have at points simply blocked traffic themselves to allow for the orderly re-routing of cars as necessary. This would not have happened under Ramsey, and indeed is not happening in other cities. This is happening here, not because of the largesse of the police, but because of the laws and binding agreements put into place that have substantially restricted illegal police conduct against demonstrators and have required retraining of the police. Most significantly, the Nation's Capitol is none the worse for it, and is so far proving itself hospitable to free speech rights as it should be.
Verheyden-Hilliard said that the stakes in Obama’s commision on militarized policing are very high and extend far beyond the Ferguson Missouri Police Department.
“The police throughout the United States have implemented a form of paramilitary policing viewing the civilian population as a military enemy,” she said. “Once that shift happens, once they are trained to perceive the people of the United States, the residents of their cities and towns, as “enemy” targets in their sites, abuse, false arrest, brutality, and suppression of rights necessarily follows. You can see the origin of this in the modern era with the “war on drugs” in which police were sent into communities as an occupying force. The fact is that police routinely kill with impunity, sending a clear message that police command and prosecutors will do nothing to stand in the way of the most egregious act there can be.”
Verheyden-Hilliard said that only ongoing protest actions, where police tactics can be seen by the public as abusive and disproportionate, has lead to reforms.
“The only successes in affecting and restraining illegal and repressive police conduct have come as a result of popular uprising and opposition and uncompromising litigation which push back and restrict police conduct,” she said. “No police force has ever ‘reformed’ itself. And Chief Ramsey is among the least capable people of changing the reality of, or even meaningfully altering, militarized policing in America. He was among those who implemented it.”