Promotion rules handcuff Ramsey's effort to address police scandals

Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey wants to promote "based on talent, not just their ability to pass a competitive exam."
Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey wants to promote "based on talent, not just their ability to pass a competitive exam." (AP)
Posted: October 01, 2012

Charles H. Ramsey is frustrated.

Since he started as Philadelphia's police commissioner in January 2008, he has moved aggressively to clean up the department - establishing stricter hiring standards, expanding Internal Affairs, and assigning a team to work with the FBI to root out police corruption.

Time after time, Ramsey has announced the arrest or firing of an officer and pledged to restore integrity to the force.

But the deluge of bad news, embarrassing press, and ugly allegations against the department has not let up, and is now reaching up into the highest levels of his command.

Last week, the Philadelphia Daily News detailed a slew of complaints and lawsuits lodged against the commander of the 17th District, Capt. Anthony Washington. Because his record includes no official findings against him, Washington is on the verge of being promoted to inspector.

In an interview last week, Ramsey spoke out against the civil service regulations that require managers to promote employees simply by who scores the highest on exams.

Ramsey said that those guidelines tie his hands when it comes to hiring, firing and other disciplinary actions, and that the people who are promoted are not always those best suited to higher leadership roles.

"What's going on in the department points to a larger issue that cannot be ignored any longer," Ramsey said. "We've got to do something different here. . . . Then we could begin to take a serious look at the people who are leading this department and select people based on talent, not just their ability to pass a competitive exam."

Ramsey said most commanders are outstanding leaders, and that recent cases are not representative of the majority of the department's officers.

Close to 50 Philadelphia officers have been arrested since 2009 for offenses ranging from petty theft and drunk driving to extortion, rape, and murder. Ramsey says those numbers reflect his commitment to investigating his own.

In recent months, accusations of sexual harassment have emerged against one of Ramsey's deputies, as well as a staff inspector who worked in Internal Affairs.

Two commanders are under investigation as allegedly covering up the arrest of an officer's relative.

Washington has been accused of physical assault, retaliating against others in the department, and sexual harassment. None of the 14 complaints filed against him over his 24-year career has been substantiated, according to Internal Affairs reports.

Washington did not return calls seeking comment.

Ramsey would not comment specifically on the accusations against Washington but said the pattern of behavior outlined in the complaints was troubling. Still, he said, he could not deny anyone a promotion without strong evidence of wrongdoing.

Staff Inspector Jerrold Bates, who is assigned to Internal Affairs, was accused of sexual harassment in a lawsuit filed by a former police officer who said he pressured her into a sexual relationship. The allegations are under investigation by an outside law firm hired by the city because of Bates' position with Internal Affairs.

Five members of the department's Narcotics Field Unit have been on desk duty since 2009, when a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning articles in the Daily News documented accusations of evidence-planting, theft, and sexual assault.

The men have denied the allegations through attorneys, and the Fraternal Order of Police has backed them.

Since then, the men have been the subjects of a federal investigation that Ramsey indicated is going nowhere.

"The latest understanding I have is, it's not likely to move forward federally," he said.

It is not clear what that would mean for an internal investigation of the allegations, or whether the officers would return to their old positions in the narcotics unit and be eligible for promotion.

The scandals in recent years have harmed public confidence in the department, Ramsey acknowledged.

If Ramsey had his way, the promotion exam would be scrapped for any officer seeking promotion to a rank higher than captain - inspector, staff inspector, chief inspector, and deputy commissioner.

Police commissioners have wrestled with the city's promotion system for decades. John F. Timoney lobbied for more managerial power when he began as commissioner in 1998, but failed.

Sylvester M. Johnson, Timoney's successor, said in 2007: "Until that changes, any police commissioner who comes here is going to have a hard time."

When Ramsey was hired, Mayor Nutter said he supported amending Philadelphia's Home Rule Charter to allow the commissioner more hiring latitude. That support resulted in Ramsey's being given the go-ahead to appoint 10 deputies instead of the previously allowed two.

Still, one union represents everyone except those deputies. Ramsey thinks there should be different unions for officers and supervisors.

The Fraternal Order of Police has long been a major roadblock to changing the regulations. But when Ramsey came to Philadelphia, FOP president John McNesby supported giving him more control to choose his deputies.

Still, the union remains opposed to changes in the promotion of high-ranking officers, he said.

"There are flaws in any system," he said. "If we changed it, then we'd go back to people being able to pick their pals, and no one wants that."

Ramsey recently suspended for 30 days two commanders who are accused of covering up a fight between two police officers and the relative of a former officer.

Ramsey has said that an internal investigation found support for allegations of wrongdoing and that Inspector Aaron Horne, who had been a possible candidate for promotion, would not be promoted due to the findings.

The Committee of Seventy, the good-governance advocacy group, recommended in 2008 that the police commissioner be granted the authority to promote, transfer, or demote officers in key management positions.

The restrictions placed on commissioners went into effect in 1951 as part of the Home Rule Charter.

Those rules are unusually rigid when compared with those in other large cities, said Jerry Ratcliffe, a criminal-justice professor at Temple University who has studied police departments around the world.

In Chicago, where Ramsey began his career, positions higher than inspector are appointed. The commissioner of the New York City Police Department can promote and demote anyone above captain.

"Philadelphia is quite anachronistic," Ratcliffe said. "And as a result, the current system is simply not producing the degree of leadership necessary for a modern department."

Richard Costello, a former FOP president, said removing the exam system would usher back in an era of even more corruption, when police officers were hired due to their political affiliations and allowed to buy promotions.

The exam, he said, provided a measure of impartiality to a broken process.

"The ingrained culture in Philadelphia is corrupt on a systemic level," he said. "To go back to the way things were would destroy the department."

Ramsey acknowledged that appointments would draw complaints of favoritism, but said the department could develop checks and balances to address those concerns.

Costello said Ramsey should consider fine-tuning the exam, or finding ways to further restrict those who can qualify to take it when promotions come up.

As it stands, performance reviews are considered during promotions, but internal complaints are not considered unless Internal Affairs has found them to be valid.

Ramsey said he was open to a middle ground, such as allowing for some merit-based appointments.

"People deserve the very best in their police department," he said. "We have enormous power given to us by the citizens of our city, and that's the power to take away someone's freedom. . . . They deserve to have confidence that they have the right people in charge."


Contact Allison Steele at 215-854-2641 or asteele@phillynews.com.

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