Michael Smerconish: Former top cop says heated rhetoric not helping
Charles Ramsey has law enforcement credentials that few can match. Only now, for the first time in more than 40 years, the former top cop for the District of Columbia and Philadelphia, and co-chairman of President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, finds himself advising from the sidelines.
"I've been pretty busy," he told me, "but when things like this occur of course I wish I was in the middle of it. But then there's another part of me that's probably glad I'm not in the middle of it."
Retirement hasn't diminished his willingness to address hot-button issues. For example, Ramsey doesn't share the view of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who recently said: "When you say black lives matter, that's inherently racist. Black lives matter, white lives matter, Asian lives matter, Hispanic lives matter. That's anti-American, and it's racist."
"I've heard people say that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist group and so forth. I mean, that kind of rhetoric just doesn't help anything. What happened in Dallas really had nothing directly to do with that particular group.
"My only concern with them is that I wish they would show the same level of outrage whenever an individual is killed in the community."
I told Ramsey that I hear radio callers from both sides in the debate over modern policing use the word "disproportionate" with regard to police killings like that of Philando Castile in Minnesota. Critics of police say those who look like Castile get pulled over disproportionately for items like broken taillights, while supporters of law enforcement argue that, where crime is being disproportionately committed by people of color, those type of interactions are justified.
"I say everybody's right," Ramsey told me.
"There are approximately 13,000 homicides that take place in the United States every year," he said. "Those aren't police shootings, these are people killing other people, and, unfortunately, a large percentage of that occurs in many of our inner cities. We have got to face the fact that we've got issues there. Now there are drivers, there are societal issues that create an environment where that occurs. We've got extreme poverty, we've got dysfunctional educational systems, dysfunctional families; these things are long term, but they've got to be addressed and they've got to be fixed or we're not going to ever get out of this."
Ramsey has a suggestion on handling shootings like that of Castile and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, expanding on a recommendation from his task force:
"Mandate external and independent criminal investigations in cases of police use of force resulting in death, officer-involved shootings resulting in injury or death, or in-custody deaths."
In retrospect, Ramsey thinks the task force could have gone further. While making clear that he was speaking individually, he said he now thinks that each U.S. Attorney's Office should have a "federal force investigation team" that could consist of retired FBI and other federal law enforcement officials, a member from the local community, and assistant U.S. attorneys who would conduct an independent investigation of every shooting by police.
"Now, that is not a civil rights investigation," he said. "If we find during the course of the investigation that there were civil-rights violations that occurred it can always be referred."
Citing the lack of trust in some communities for standard police investigations, he does not believe the initial task force recommendation went far enough. U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan (R.-Pa.), himself a former U.S. attorney, had a positive reaction to Ramsey's idea.
"I think the commissioner's suggestion has real merit," Meehan said. "I would include a respected, former local officer on the investigative team who understands the community. What is needed is confidence by the community, and indeed the cops themselves, that a review is objective and professional. This could do that."
George Parry, who led Philadelphia's police brutality unit from 1978 through 1983, isn't so sure. Parry knows how hard it is to go after police for misconduct.
"It was exceedingly difficult," he said. "We faced opposition from the Police Department and even from members of the Court of Common Pleas. Judges wanted no parts of our cases. Some invented constitutional rights for officers that no one had ever heard of."
Still, he said, "I just don't see that the number of shootings rises to the level where the formation of a special unit is warranted. … If you look at the stats, fatal shootings by police are negligible. The focus of the media makes it seem like a huge problem, but it is not. There are already adequate resources at the local, state, and federal level to properly investigate on an individual basis. The FBI, in connection with the U.S. Attorneys Offices, conducts a great number of investigations already as possible civil-rights violations."
Ramsey says not all departments are incapable of conducting impartial investigations. "But it's about trust, and it's about perception," he said, "and I think we have to face that reality and that is one recommendation."
In the meantime, Ramsey worries about the Democratic and Republican conventions.
"I have a lot of concerns," he said. "I mean, they are not going to be incident-free. Now that's not to say there's going to be another Dallas. Hopefully that doesn't happen again anywhere in the United States. But I do think we will have some very large demonstrations, some of which could get very unruly depending on the people that are in control of local demonstrations and how they can handle those individuals who come with a separate agenda and who just want to cause problems."
Michael Smerconish writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer and is host of "Smerconish" on CNN.