As a veteran big-city police chief, Charles H. Ramsey has sometimes been at the center of controversy.
The man selected to lead President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing — a group of police and civic leaders charged with telling local and state governments how to appropriately enforce their laws in a period of growing civil unrest — has been sued more than once over questionable police practices. Perhaps most notably, Ramsey, now Philadelphia’s police commissioner, led D.C. police in the early 2000s when officers inappropriately swept up protesters and bystanders en masse — actions that cost the city more than $20 million in legal settlements.
That past, some civil liberties advocates say, makes Ramsey’s selection to lead the presidential task force on a controversial issue a curious one. A figure with such baggage, they say, might struggle to rebuild the public’s trust in police — trust that seemed to shatter when grand jurors in Ferguson, Mo. and New York City failed to indict police officers who used deadly force on unarmed black males in separate incidents over the summer.
“I find it completely laughable,” Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, the executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, said of Ramsey’s selection. “There is simply no way that he is capable of creating any real reform.”
But Ramsey said in an interview that he has learned from past mistakes, and he stands ready to apply those lessons to make sure his task force brings about “substantive change.”
“I’m not the same person today that I was 12 years ago,” Ramsey said. “You do grow, and you do develop a deeper understanding of making sure things are done properly.”
The White House said in a statement that Ramsey was chosen because he “has a proven record of success” and “he understands the importance of enhancing the trust between police and the communities they serve.”
To be sure, Ramsey, 64, is respected in law enforcement circles and brings with him decades of experience. He served on Chicago’s police force for nearly three decades before coming to work as Washington’s chief from 1998 to 2006. Police experts said his selection to co-chair the task force with George Mason University professor Laurie Robinson, a former high-ranking Justice Department official, will give credibility to the group.
“He would be my pick,” said David Mitchell, the University of Maryland police chief who has also led the Prince George’s County police, the Maryland State Police and the Delaware Department of Safety and Homeland Security.
No matter who leads it, the president’s task force has a daunting objective. Conceived in response to the events in Ferguson, the group is supposed to prepare a report within 90 days that addresses, among other things, “how to promote effective crime reduction while building public trust,” according to a White House fact sheet.
Ramsey and Robinson acknowledged that the group is limited in what it can do. The federal government, they said, cannot simply order ground-level changes at the roughly 18,000 police departments across the country.
The broad objective, Ramsey said, is to improve trust between officers and the residents they police. The law enforcement experts and community leaders on the task force, he said, will study everything from police policies to the use of force to law enforcement technology.
Officials said they hope the committee’s work will produce tangible changes — such as more diversity in hiring, or training that teaches officers as much about talking to people on the streets as it does about accurate shooting at a target. Robinson said it is possible the committee will advocate tying federal grant money to progress as an incentive for local police departments to cooperate.
Mitchell noted that the president’s initiative has already delivered more momentum and funding for police body cameras.
There is some precedent: Robinson pointed to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s crime commission in the 1960s and President Ronald Reagan’s Task Force on Victims of Crime in the 1980s as examples of groups that shaped law enforcement practices for years to come. The Reagan-era task force, in particular, improved victim compensation and made those affected by crime more a part of the plea-bargaining process, Robinson said.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said he hoped local police departments would take to heart whatever recommendations the task force makes.
“A task force like this can’t tell Ferguson, Missouri, what to do, but what they can do is develop a vision for what professional standards should be in departments across the country,” Wexler said. “It could really help.”
And Wexler said Ramsey is the right man to lead the group. He said that when Ramsey took over D.C. police, the force was reeling from a Washington Post investigation that found its officers shot and killed more people per capita than any other large U.S. police department. Ramsey, Wexler said, quickly invited the Justice Department to monitor his officers, and the number of shootings dropped.
Ramsey’s D.C. tenure was marred in the early 2000s when his officers swept up World Bank and International Monetary Fund protesters en masse, leaving some people hogtied. Ramsey was called into court to explain how possible evidence of police misconduct seemed to disappear on his watch.
Verheyden-Hilliard, whose Partnership for Civil Justice sued over the arrests, said D.C. police under Ramsey were known for “having implemented militarized policing in Washington.” And although D.C. police treat protesters far differently now, Verheyden-Hilliard said that is not a result of anything Ramsey did.
As he has in the past, Ramsey acknowledged that he “screwed up” when it came to his department’s handling of the protesters. He said he has changed his practices. When Occupy protesters came to Philadelphia, he said, officers were read the First Amendment at the beginning of each roll call — and he has come to appreciate demonstrations generally.
Ramsey, who is black, said were it not for rights protests in the 1960s, he might never have been able to serve as a police chief.
“My whole thought process now revolves around protecting people’s constitutional rights,” Ramsey said.
In more recent years, Ramsey was sued in Philadelphia by residents who alleged that officers were stopping non-whites disproportionately without cause.
Paul Messing, a civil rights lawyer who was involved in the case, said that since reaching an agreement with Ramsey “there have been some improvements.” Messing said he is hopeful that while on the president’s task force, Ramsey will demonstrate “a grasp on the critical issues that need to be confronted in connection with police accountability.”
Cheryl Thompson contributed to this report.
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