Seeking to placate growing public outrage over corruption, abuse, and a lack of accountability in the Chicago Police Department — including an apparently endless string of unjustified police killings, the maintenance of a Gitmo-style “black site,” and a still-festering decades-long scandal involving interrogation through torture — Mayor Rahm Emanuel has sought help from a veteran obstructionist who has performed a similar service as head of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing: Former Washington, D.C. police chief Charles Ramsey, who recently retired after a scandal-plagued term as Police Commissioner in Philadelphia.
“Ramsey is uniquely experienced to help guide the Chicago Police Department as it faces a Justice Department civil rights investigation that was launched last month,” reports USA Today, paraphrasing Mayor Emanuel’s announcement that Ramsey will serve as a “civil rights” adviser to the CPD. “Before Ramsey left the Philadelphia police last month, the Justice Department praised [Ramsey] for making quick progress in implementing changes recommended by the federal probe on deadly force by police in the City of Brotherly Love.”
That praise essentially was an act of the Justice Department applauding itself, given Ramsey’s double-dipping as Philadelphia Police Commissioner and head of the federal police “reform” task force. Praise has come easily to Ramsey during a career that resembles that of a Soviet bureaucrat: He has consistently received promotions and commendations while presiding over a series of spectacular failures as a police administrator.
Ramsey could consider it a species of miracle that he was allowed to retire from his position in Philadelphia. During last year’s Democratic mayoral primary, Councilman Jim Kenney – who has since been elected mayor — pointedly refrained from promising to retain Ramsey. This happened after the Guardian Civil League, a black police officers association, called for his termination. The League was aggrieved over Ramsey’s support for practices such as “stop-and-frisk” that produce routine civil rights violations.
Last March 18, several Philadelphia residents were arrested after they confronted Ramsey at a town hall meeting about the fatal police shooting of unarmed motorist Brandon Tate-Brown.
Brown was stopped in the early morning hours of December 15, 2014 when police noticed that he was driving without his headlights on. The police version of what happened next claims that the officers noticed a handgun lodged between the console and driver’s seat and ordered Williams out of the vehicle. When he resisted being handcuffed, a fight broke out. Brown was supposedly shot in the back of the head while making what police are taught to describe as a “furtive motion” in the direction of the gun.
District Attorney Seth Williams, performing his expected function as the vindicator of police violence, quickly cleared the officers.
“The law allows an officer to use deadly force if he believes deadly force will be used against himself or others,” declared Williams, reciting from a familiar script and buttressing that claim by saying that the officers’ actions were validated by three surveillance videos, ballistics results and four eyewitness accounts.
Predictably, Williams refused to make the supposedly exculpatory videos public, sneering that his office is “not like the public library.” He did show excerpts to Tanya Brown-Dickerson, the victim’s mother, and twenty religious and community leaders. Their perception of the event differed dramatically from that of the DA.
“How is it our six eyes can see my son fall down, face-down, not on the right side of the car, and not reaching into the car, and they can’t see that is beyond me,” the victim’s mother said after watching the video in the company of her husband and the family’s attorney. The family is demanding public release of the video, and disclosure of the names of the officers involved in the shooting.
“I want transparency,” Mrs. Dickerson explained at a press conference outside City Hall. “We don’t see transparency.”
One video made available by the Mindenberg Law Firm, rather than the DA’s office, appears to contradict a key element of the police account. Taken by a security camera at a 7-11 convenience store, the video shows the late Tate-Brown making a purchase and then driving away with his car’s headlights illuminated. This took place just 10 blocks away from the scene of the fatal traffic stop.
Eventually, as a result of a civil rights lawsuit filed by Brandon-Tate’s family, the DA’s office was compelled by a court order to release several videos, the most critical of which documented that the victim was not reaching for a gun at the time he was shot in the back of the head.
Other materials pried loose from Ramsey’s department indicate that the officers who killed Brandon-Tate – rookies Nicholas Carrelli and Heng Dang – engaged in the well-established police practice of “testi-lying” regarding critical aspects of the story. An eyewitness on the scene was told by the officers that Tate-Brown had been driving a car that was being sought in connection with a robbery; that claim was discarded after the officers insisted that they stopped the young man out of concern for his safety because his headlights supposedly weren’t on. Carrelli’s original explanation for the shooting said nothing about Tate-Brown reaching for a gun. Although Carrelli insisted that there was no space to deploy his Taser, the video showed that the officer had ample time and room to use the “less-lethal” option – assuming, of course, that an arrest was justified.
The lawsuit filed Tate-Brown’s family demanded that the Philadelphia PD implement 91 reform recommendations made in a Justice Department report seven months prior to the young man’s death. If someone can take credit for “reforming” the Philadelphia PD, it would be the department’s critics, not then-Commissioner Ramsey.
The mandate of the White House Task Force over which Ramsey has presided is to provide institutional transparency. Its advertised objective is “to strengthen community policing and fortify the trust that must exist between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.”
The fatal shooting of Brandon Tate-Brown offered a splendid opportunity to put those ideals into practice: After the DA declined to file charges, Ramsey could have identified the officers involved in the fatal shooting, and released the video evidence to the public, explaining that he was doing so in the interest of transparency and building public trust.
Rather than doing so, Ramsey did exactly the opposite. Following the disturbance at the March 18 town hall meeting, Ramsey mocked the demonstrators and insisted that the protest validated his decision to withhold the names of the officers who had killed Tate-Brown.
“They got their little moment on TV,” President Obama’s champion of “community policing” said of the demonstrators. Yes, a measure of transparency was eventually achieved – over Ramsey’s determined obstructionism.
Five days after the town hall meeting, the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) released a detailed report into the use of lethal force by the Philadelphia PD. That document offered a portrait of a deeply dysfunctional department in which police killings are routine – nearly 400 documented fatal shootings over a seven-year period, in which 55 of the victims were unarmed.
“We need to lower all the numbers,” Ramsey said at a press conference following release of the report, before laying all the blame at the feet of the public: “Folks need to stop killing each other.”
Actually, the report made it clear that “folks” – meaning the public at large – weren’t responsible for the increase in lethal violence. It is the police who need to stop killing people with heedless abandon.
“In 2013, amidst a drop in violent crimes and assaults against the police, the number of Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) officer-involved shootings (OIS) was on the rise, as was the number of fatal OISs,” points out the report’s executive summary. This development was not flagged by the Philadelphia PD or by the municipal government, but “uncovered and reported on” by the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper.
Dealing with a public affairs disaster, Ramsey “requested technical assistance” from the Justice Department. The COPS office conducted a commendably thorough examination of the department—and then released a candid indictment.
The study concluded that Philadelphia police officers “do not receive regular, consistent training on the department’s deadly force policy” and that de-escalation training for new recruits “has been little more than lecture and observations.”
Like nearly every major municipal police department, the Philadelphia PD has a detailed use-of-force policy, and an elaborate protocol for reviewing lethal force episodes. And like nearly every other police agency, those reviews almost always deliver a finding of “justified,” even for actions that unambiguously violate the department’s written policies. This is because of an institutional culture in which police are taught that invoking “officer safety” is sufficient to validate the use of lethal force.
The most telling criticism of the department is found on page 40 of the COPS report:
“Officers we interviewed throughout the department believed that being in fear for their life was sufficient justification to use deadly force while mostly neglecting the objectively reasonable standard set forth in PPD policy and [the 1989 US Supreme Court ruling] Graham v. Connor. The dictum `in fear for my life’ was the most common theme throughout all of our conversations with PPD officers and sergeants regarding deadly force policy. Yet, notably, the word `fear’ does not appear in PPD directive 10 nor is it supported by current case law. As noted in Deorle v Rutherford, a simple statement that an officer is in fear for his life is not an objective factor.”
Under PPD directive 10, the standard for justifying lethal force “is far more restrictive than `fear for my life,’” notes the COPS review, but this is not addressed in annual legal and policy briefings for officers.
Philadelphia has the fourth-largest municipal police department in the country. It patrols a city one-fifth the size of New York, and has a proportionately smaller police force. Yet in many recent years, Philadelphia has witnessed more police shootings than New York City.
When he requested the Justice Department review, Ramsey insisted that his department follows “best practices” regarding the use of lethal force. This is certainly the case — assuming that the objective is to preserve police impunity, rather than to protect the public.
This was not the first time Ramsey – in a grudging concession to public outrage – has asked for “technical assistance” from the Justice Department. Last time he did so, he was dealing with a mess left by his predecessor – and the feds weren’t terribly concerned about cleaning it up.
When he became Chief of Police in Washington, D.C. in 1998, Ramsey inherited a force that had led the country in officer-involved shootings during most of that decade. A series of Washington Post exposes in 1998 found that it was an established practice by the D.C. Police to shoot unarmed drivers whose conduct was not life-threatening.
Between 1993 and 1998, D.C. Officers “fired their weapons at cars 54 times in response to alleged vehicular attacks, killing nine people and wounding 19,” reported the Post. “In the overwhelming majority of those cases – and in all of the fatal shootings – the driver was unarmed.” None of those cases involved a driver who was trying to run down a police officer. Several were the outgrowth of routine traffic stops involving unarmed motorists. One of the victims was a 16-year-old suspected of running a traffic light.
The lengthy, award-winning investigation by the Post documented “a pattern of reckless and indiscriminate gunplay by officers sent into the streets with inadequate training and little oversight.” Furthermore, the department had kept the facts about officer-involved shootings “obscured from public view” through secret investigations and official reports “that become public only when a judge intercedes.”
“In a small hearing room closed to the public, nine of every 10 shootings are ruled justified by department officials who read the reports filed by investigating officers but generally hear no witnesses,” the Post recalled.
In this fashion, the department blithely ratified lethal acts that would have been prosecuted as criminal homicides if carried out by people other than the government’s privileged enforcement caste: “An off-duty police officer out walking his dog in August 1995 fired 11 times while trying to stop an unarmed motorist who had hit a utility pole and left the scene of the accident. An off-duty police officer fishing in May 1995 shot an unarmed man three times after arguing with him on the banks of Rock Creek. In August, an officer ended a police chase of an irrational truck driver who had rammed several cars by firing 38 times into the truck’s cab, killing the unarmed driver.”
According to investigative journalist James Bovard, federal oversight of the D.C. police was intended to contain the PR damage, rather than reduce the bloodshed. Between 1994 and 1997, Bovard observes, “Washington police failed to count almost a third of the people killed by their own officers…. Even when police review boards ruled that shootings were unjustified or found contradictions in officers’ testimony, police were not prosecuted. In one case, a police officer shot a suspect four times in the back when he was unarmed and lying on the ground.” The Justice Department’s investigators “never bothered interviewing the shooter.”
When asked by the Washington Post about the ongoing rampage, the US Attorney for the District of Columbia insisted that he found no “pattern of problematic police shootings and could not recall the specifics of cases he personally reviewed.”
“I can’t honestly say I saw anything that was excessive,” insisted US Attorney Eric Holder, the future US Attorney General and who became Ramsey’s comrade in the quest for “police accountability.”
Chicago Mayor Emanuel is also a former comrade of Holder, having served as Obama’s White House Chief of Staff. Emanuel is notorious for uttering the cynical maxim, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that [is] it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
In the case of Chicago’s expanding crisis of police criminality and corruption, Emanuel has chosen containment, rather than exploitation – and Charles Ramsey is eminently well-suited for that role.