Top cop talks murder — and stopping it

Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey knows the city’s homicide rate is on a pace to top last year’s total of 324 murders. He knows crimes like burglaries are also on the rise. He knows there are pockets of the city where residents live in fear.

But he doesn’t get frustrated, he said. Instead, he takes action.

“I deal with the problem,” Ramsey said. “You just have to figure out what you can do.”

Ramsey talked about the city’s homicide rate, the gun culture and his department’s biggest challenges during an exclusive interview with Metro. On the day of the interview, the city had tallied 129 murders. (As of yesterday, that total had reached 324.)

“That should be a year-end total, not a May 18 figure,” Ramsey said. “And even then, that would be too high if your family member was one of the 129.”

Ramsey was appointed by Mayor Nutter in 2008. The year before, the city saw a five-year-high of 391 homicides. Reducing violent crime has been Ramsey’s top priority.

“We’ve been keeping it to down to the low 300s, but that’s way too many people in our city dying,” Ramsey said. “This is a city of 1.5 million people. No way we should have that many murders.”

Indeed, among the nation’s large cities, Philadelphia has the highest rate of murder per capita.

(Smaller cities like New Orleans, which has a higher murder rate, are not included in that tally.)

If 129 homicides had been a year-end total, Ramsey knows some would see cause for celebration. He says he still wouldn’t be happy.

“I would argue that you would still have many neighborhoods in this city where people do not feel safe,” he said.”

Sound bites

On the biggest challenges facing his department: He’s concerned because his officers are confiscating more assault weapons like AK-47s. A gun’s average time from purchase to crime — or when it’s connected to a crime — is 13 years, he said. “That means that gun’s been out there for a while. It gives you an indication that there is a glut in the market,” he said. Twice in one week in May, he said, police had engaged in shootouts with suspects.

On “broken windows” theory of policing, which says a city should address petty crimes like vandalism because they lead to bigger crimes: “I think it’s very valuable and serves as the foundation for what we now call community policing,” he said. “I think that the decay in a lot of neighborhoods does help support drug crime, there’s no doubt in my mind.” To that end, the department and the city is working with PhillyRising to improve neighborhoods (see accompanying story).

On his department’s homicide clearance rate: It currently tops 70 percent. In 2007, it was 58.6 percent, slightly below the national average. “We have some good detectives that work very hard to clear these cases,” Ramsey said. He said his detectives generally carry five to six cases, whereas “best practices” for police departments puts the number of cases per detective between seven and nine. He also noted that the department has recently partnered with the FBI cold case squad.

On how to get guns off the street: Punish the people who are illegally carrying more severely. “If I ruled the world, I’d give you 10 years just for having [an illegal gun] — then we’ll talk about whether you did the robbery,” he said. “Every time you rob somebody, point a gun, that’s a potential homicide.”

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