Quick on the trigger? Ramsey's firings strain city coffers

Posted: June 07, 2010

IN A CASH-STRAPPED city like this one, every dollar counts.

And every $2.4 million really counts.

That's how much the city has shelled out in back pay and lost overtime to 24 fired police officers who have won their jobs back through arbitration since January 2008.

That price tag soon could jump in a big way for one simple reason: Since then, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey has fired 51 cops, many of whom could be reinstated by an arbitrator.

Police union officials claim that many of the firings were premature or unnecessary - the result, they say, of Ramsey having a "ready, fire, aim" approach to discipline that will just end up costing the city bundles of cash down the line.

It's not the first time he has heard such criticism.

Kristopher Baumann, chairman of the Washington, D.C., Fraternal Order of Police, said Ramsey presided over more than 200 firings when he was police chief there from 1998 to 2006.

More than 50 of those firings have been overturned, and dozens of others might end up the same way, Baumann said.

"The costs have been extraordinary," he said. "This is Ramsey's hallmark. They don't do the proper investigations or follow the proper procedures, and everybody loses."

Ramsey views his approach to disciplining cops in simple terms.

In Washington, he said, the police force was populated with countless cops "who had no business carrying a badge or having a gun." He's encountered some bad apples in Philadelphia, too, as anyone who has paid attention to the headlines in recent months could attest.

"I think there has to be a higher standard for officers, and I don't have a problem holding them to it," Ramsey said.

"Sometimes you have to make a decision that's in the best interest of the city and the department, and let the cards fall where they may."

So which is the more accurate read?

Does Ramsey have a penchant for prematurely firing cops, thus creating future financial burdens for a city?

Is he a top cop whose desire for a better police force ultimately is thwarted by a strong, experienced labor union?

Or is the truth somewhere in between?

A long process

Even under the best circumstances, it can take a long time for police officials to determine how best to discipline one of their own.

If a cop is accused of wrongdoing, the allegation is investigated first by the Internal Affairs Bureau.

When that investigation is finished, Internal Affairs detectives consult with the District Attorney's Office to see whether the accusations merit criminal charges.

Even if the matter isn't criminal, a cop could be cited for violating departmental policies, possibly earning a hearing before the Police Board of Inquiry (PBI), which recommends to the commissioner how to discipline the officer.

Of course, that's not the end of the story.

The FOP can file a grievance with the city if it believes that the officer's punishment is too harsh, and the matter can end up in arbitration.

Months can pass before an arbitrator hears the case. Time equals money; the longer a fired cop is out of work, waiting for a case to be heard, the bigger the paycheck will be if he or she is reinstated.

A similarly lengthy process is followed when cops are disciplined in Washington.

And that, Ramsey said, is a problem.

"The process here is just way too slow," he said in an interview last week.

"You can't sit around for two years, waiting for the D.A.'s Office or somebody else to decide whether or not they're going to file criminal charges, because we've got cases now that are still sitting there that are three years old," he said, shaking his head. "You just don't have that luxury all the time."

When he has had evidence that an officer has committed a crime or seriously violated departmental policy, Ramsey hasn't hesitated to cut off the internal investigation process and issue a direct-action dismissal - as he has done 51 times since taking over the department in 2008.

During a similar length of time, then-Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson issued 34 direct-action dismissals from 2005 to 2007.

John McNesby, president of FOP Lodge 5, said that direct-action dismissals are supposed to be issued only if an officer is accused of something as serious as rape or murder.

"He has a 'ready, fire, aim' approach," McNesby said of Ramsey. "My whole concern is, why can't we just complete a full investigation and afford the officer due process?"

As examples of premature terminations, McNesby cited the four officers fired in May 2008, two weeks after Fox 29 videotaped them beating three suspects in North Philadelphia.

He also mentioned the firings of Officers Donald Swan and Anthony Ferriola, whom Ramsey canned in April 2009, a month after they allegedly used racial epithets while breaking up a fight at Audenried High School; and Officer William Thrasher, also terminated in April 2009, after a Temple University journalism student said Thrasher had used racial slurs when the student followed him for a story.

Another officer, Chris Smith, was fired in December because he had been disciplined by the military while serving in Iraq, McNesby said.

All of those alleged offenses merited only minor disciplinary actions, McNesby noted.

Already, many of those fired cops are back on duty.

Thrasher got his job back May 7; an arbitrator reinstated the cops in the Fox 29 case March 12. And Smith, McNesby said, was back on the job by February; Ferriola and Swan are expected to get their jobs back, too.

"Look, there's bad apples in every profession," he added, "but the police around here are doomed. They're presumed guilty until proven innocent."

Ramsey offered explanations for some of the firings mentioned by McNesby, noting that he's "certainly not trying to deny anyone due process."

The Fox 29 case, he said, was a national story that had huge implications for the department and the city. His decision to fire some of the officers involved was strengthened by the videotape, "which allowed for some decisions to be made that might not have otherwise been made."

Thrasher, Ramsey said, had to be fired because he had been quoted referring to the people in the district he patrolled as animals. "You just can't have that," Ramsey said. "You can't have an officer referring to the people in his district as animals. People deserve better than that."

The commissioner was quick to note that he doesn't take terminating a cop lightly, but also doesn't get too upset when his firings are overturned.

"I don't stay up at night worrying about it," he said. "I don't like it, but I still do what I do."

'A f-----g game'

There's no way of knowing how all of Ramsey's direct-action-dismissal cases will work out, according to City Solicitor Shelley Smith.

Smith, who heads the city's Law Department, had her office research the amount paid out to reinstated cops since 2008. The $2.4 million total included a $550,150 payout to William White, who was out of work from June 1988 to June 2005.

Thirteen firing cases that ended up in arbitration in 2008 and 2009 are still open, according to city data.

Smith, who headed the Labor and Employment Unit under former Mayor John Street, said arbitrators "hold the city to a very high standard" when a cop is faced with losing his career.

"They're looking for almost clear proof that the officer has done what the city has alleged," she said.

John Timoney, who served as Philly's top cop from 1998 to 2002, had a different take on what it's like to try to punish cops in this city.

"It's a f-----g joke," he said.

"I came from the NYPD, which is a tough organization. It's very unforgiving, like it's run by priests and nuns.

"In New York, if the commissioner fires you, you're done. You never get [your job] back. In Philly, it's like a f-----g game. Everyone understands it," Timoney said during a recent interview.

He recalled his first year in Philadelphia when he fired a cop who had been using large amounts of cocaine. The officer eventually was reinstated.

"I was shocked. I couldn't believe it," Timoney said. "... I was in my late 40s when I came to Philly, but maybe I was naive.' "

Even if a commissioner waits for the Police Department to conduct full internal investigations - up to and including the PBI hearings - before firing an officer, that doesn't guarantee that an arbitrator won't overturn a cop's dismissal, Smith said.

"It's not like you necessarily get a different result," she said.

Ramsey acknowledged that his use of direct-action dismissals sometimes "weakens [the city's] case."

He also claimed that the arbitration playing field is uneven for the city because of an unspoken quid-pro-quo relationship between arbitrators and union attorneys.

"I don't think arbitrators are neutral. I think the system is flawed," he said. "If they go against the union too often, they're not going to be chosen very often as arbitrators, so you're talking about a lot of money there."

Baumann, the head of the D.C. police union, scoffed at the idea.

Arbitrators routinely move to reinstate fired cops who were not given the benefit of full investigations because "due process was violated," he said. "It's not that hard to fire a police officer. What Ramsey cannot do is fire them appropriately."

As a result, a number of "bad cops" have been given their old jobs back in D.C., he noted.

"It's like he has no learning curve," Baumann continued. "I don't think he understands why a lot of rules exist, and he doesn't care."

Ramsey didn't take long to respond when this reporter told him of Baumann's critiques.

"He's a big ---hole, and I don't care if you quote me on that," he barked. "His opinion of me is probably no higher, but that's OK. I consider that even."

Ramsey said he had vastly improved the integrity of the D.C. police force by weeding out corrupt cops.

"I don't always know where the unions are coming from," he added. "You would think they would want to help create a department where the integrity is unquestioned, but they protect some serious dead weight."

A new code

To that end, on May 1 Ramsey instituted a disciplinary code that appears to be aimed at making Philly cops acutely aware of the kind of behavior he won't tolerate. The new code ruffled the FOP's feathers.

The 18-page document spells out the types of punishments cops can expect for nearly every kind of misconduct, from having sex in a patrol car while on duty to getting into a fistfight with another officer. The prior disciplinary code, Ramsey said, hadn't been updated in decades.

McNesby said the new disciplinary code "is going to be at the bottom of a litter box pretty soon." The union is asking an arbitrator to toss out the code because it was not included in the latest union contract.

"That thing basically said, 'If you sneeze, I can fire you,' " he sighed. "You know, he's not the pope. He can't just do whatever he wants."

Not all of Ramsey's disciplinary moves have drawn controversy.

Frank Tepper and Rudolph Gary Jr., ex-cops who were fired this year and charged with separate off-duty murders, are not likely to have arbitration cases.

And little was said publicly by the union when Ramsey fired Sgt. Chauncey Ellison and his girlfriend, Officer Robin Fortune, for involvement in a 2008 off-duty shooting that later resulted in the death of an unarmed man.

"Sometimes people forget just how important their job is," Ramsey said.

"I owe it to the men and women of this department who are out there doing the job the right way to weed out those people that take advantage of their position and use their badge inappropriately."

McNesby acknowledged that he agrees with Ramsey on the need to improve the department. "I don't really think there's much difference between Ramsey, Timoney or Johnson," he said. "I'm an advocate for the cop on the street, and he has to answer to the city. It's natural that you're going to disagree."

But the seemingly high number of firings can exact a toll, according to Mark Donahue, president of the FOP in Chicago, where Ramsey started his career decades ago.

"When you have a [commissioner] who's doing firings on such a frequent basis, you have to wonder if he's doing it properly," Donahue said.

"In the end, if they all get reinstated, what good have you really done?"

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