During the anti-globalization protests a few years back, D.C. police department Chief Charles Ramsey carried a long baton when he commanded his troops. When a reporter asked why he needed such a big stick, he replied, “I’m old!” and quickly deployed the baton like a cane.
Ramsey was joking at the time, but his years as D.C.’s top crime fighter are starting to pile up. Next month, he’ll become the longest-serving District police chief since the city was granted home rule. It has been a tumultuous eight-year tenure that has included significant reductions in crime, addressing the terrorism threat, and a bunch of street protests.
These days, Ramsey is thinking about life after his long run as protector of both the city streets and the federal enclave. His boss and biggest supporter, Mayor Anthony A. Williams, won’t be around next year, and Ramsey wants the city to deliver on a promise it made when he agreed to take over a long-troubled police force.
Ramsey left Chicago in 1998, just six months short of passing a service milestone that would have guaranteed him a $60,000 per year retirement benefit. Under his current D.C. contract, the chief will receive roughly $44,000 per year after he retires. This shortfall was a concern to Ramsey when he signed on with the D.C. force. However, the D.C. financial control board, which was essentially running the city at the time, made it clear in his original contract that the pension issue would be addressed at a later date by the District.
Now the clock is running out on the Williams era, and Ramsey is getting antsy. Last week, his lawyer, D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission Chair Mark Tuohey, paid a visit to At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who chairs the council’s Committee on the Judiciary, which would consider any Ramsey pension plan.
According to Tuohey, Ramsey should be given the $60,000 per year pension not only because he was promised the money but also because the chief deserves credit for cleaning up a department in turmoil.
Tuohey is well-acquainted with the agency’s troubles. He was appointed by the council in 1997 to investigate widespread reports of police misconduct. Tuohey’s 1998 report, which documented abuses of power, diversion of funds, and falsifying of employment applications, was delivered shortly after Ramsey was hired. “He’s done a great job,” says Tuohey. “The council is going to do the right thing here.”
It’s not so easy for Mendelson to answer questions about Ramsey’s pension bill, primarily because the mayor’s office hasn’t sent him one. “I would have to see it,” says Mendelson. “But I’m also not giving [Ramsey] a no.”
That sounds like good news for the chief, who saw a previous bill to boost his pension killed by the Judiciary Committee in 2003. At the time, police-oversight zealot Kathy Patterson was running the committee, and she had misgivings about Ramsey’s performance. She allowed Ramsey to get a raise but sat on his pension package.
Says Mendelson: “[The pension] was DOA a few years ago. As far as I’m concerned, it is not DOA today.” But he really has little comfort for the chief when it comes to following through on the control board’s promise. “[The bill] has got to come from [the administration]. The mayor has to be behind it,” he says.
“Yesterday was my 56th birthday,” said Ramsey on March 24. “I realize that I have to deal with this issue. I’ve given the city lots of years of service. I just want to be able to make sure for my family that I have some security.” He insisted that he isn’t laying plans to step down.
So Ramsey is on a retirement-plan offensive. “I’ve raised the issue, and I’ve been told they are looking to move the thing forward,” he said. “It should be resolved on this mayor’s watch. It should not be left to another watch.”
Williams’ spokesperson, Vincent Morris, says Williams won’t let the matter linger until the next administration. “It’s a question of timing,” Morris says. “We’re not sure if it makes sense to drop it in the middle of the budget [deliberations],” says Morris, adding that Ramsey deserves to be rewarded for his years of excellent service to the city.
By the numbers, the chief should have no trouble convincing the council that he has improved the police force. A few highlights:
•Use of force has declined 80 percent.
•Officers are now certified on firearms twice a year. In 1998, more than three-quarters of D.C. officers had not had firearms training in three years.
•A decade ago, officers routinely worked out of 10-year-old squad cars. They worked in offices that experienced sewage backups, not to mention toilet paper shortages. Now, the average age of a squad car is 3 years; the backups and shortages are no more.
•Minimum requirements for new officers now include two years of college.
•Homicides declined from 260 in 1998 to 195 in 2005.
•Each year, except for 2003, the city has seen double-digit percentage reductions in the number of major crimes.
But Ramsey also has another legacy that complicates his pursuit of a cushier pension plan.
In September 2002, hundreds of protesters who’d gathered in Pershing Park for anti-globalization demonstrations were rounded up by D.C. police officers. They were put in plastic handcuffs and carted away, even though they had not been given an order to disperse. Bystanders who had nothing to do with the protests got caught in the roundup. Some were held for 36 hours. Seven people caught in the squeeze who sued were paid a total of $425,000 by the city. Ramsey had to write a letter of apology to each plaintiff, and new police procedures crafted by the council were put in place.
When a bill to give Ramsey a raise and address the retirement issue was delivered in 2003, Patterson was still steaming over the Pershing Park incident. She wasn’t exactly thrilled about the way officers were being deployed in neighborhoods, either. The pension plan never made it out of committee.
And the 2006 political season won’t be kind to Ramsey’s nest-egg hunt. After all, police chiefs make for great piñatas on the campaign trail. For starters, don’t expect high-flying mayoral candidate and Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty to budge from his long-held position that Ramsey hasn’t earned his promised retirement bonus. “I think the chief’s salary and pension are high enough where they are,” says Fenty. “I would vote against it.”
Fenty has named a few Williams administration officials he’d keep on if elected mayor. Ramsey makes the list, but Fenty would give the chief a deadline to get community policing to a level acceptable to his new boss. Given Fenty’s never-enough-cops-in-the-neighborhood mantra, a Fenty victory looks like the end of the line for Ramsey.
The other mayoral frontrunner, Council Chairman Linda Cropp, won’t be sprinting down the hall to co-sponsor the Ramsey pension plan. Cropp says the chief has made progress in many areas, but “the rank and file seems to be more demoralized. I think they feel as if they aren’t being heard or listened to.”
Cropp is no dummy. The Fraternal Order of Police isn’t likely to back a candidate who gives kudos to their main punching bag.
Patterson, who is running for council chair against Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray, hasn’t changed her view on Ramsey. “I think what I saw before was pretty generous,” says Patterson. She isn’t swayed by arguments that the city has a responsibility to follow through on a promise made to Ramsey by the control board. “The council has no obligation—that’s for sure,” she says.
Mendelson is more sympathetic to Ramsey, but he’s in a hard-fought re-election race of his own. “Crime is down. The fact of the matter is the department has had more stability in the last seven years than in a couple of decades,” he says. “If you do a report card on the crime fighting, it’s a better report card than it has been in 20 years.”
But like his council colleagues, Mendelson isn’t about to drive off of a bridge for the chief. “Public safety is better,” he says, “but as a public official, I’m not going to go out in the community and say I’m satisfied.”
RENT CONTROL WARS
If tenants in D.C. need a sign that apartment-building owners pulled off a coup in the rent-control debate, they need look no further than their mailboxes and elevators.
In an act of unparalleled optimism, several building-management companies dropped fliers asking their tenants to call councilmembers to “tell them you support…the balanced rent control bill” that passed the Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs on March 16. It hasn’t yet been scheduled for a vote by the full council.
The flier carries the logos of different management companies, but the dispatch was produced by the Apartment Owners and Building Association (AOBA).
Don’t expect too many tenants to dial up in support of a bill backed by the fat cats they send a big check to each month. If they did, they’d be supporting a piece of legislation that would do the following:
•Cut the time limit on a tenant’s right to challenge unlawful rent increases from three years to one
•Prevent tenants from challenging unlawful rent in cases where a valid, signed lease sets the rent payment
•Eliminate penalties for landlords that do not file rent increase notices
According to Peggy Jeffers, executive vice president of AOBA, her group produced the flier to counter “disinformation” being circulated by Ward 1 Councilmember and Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Chairman Jim Graham.
Graham is having some trouble on the rent-control front. Coming in to a March 16 meeting of the committee that he chairs, Graham was brandishing a four-page proposal to limit how much landlords can raise rent on a vacant unit and to increase opportunities for low-income residents to have a shot at a vacant apartment. Yet his colleagues overruled him, passing instead a more complicated 18-page bill with “all manners of advantages for the regulated industry,” according to Graham. The bill was supported by Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, Fenty, and At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown.
Ambrose introduced it on behalf of the mayor, but Graham has his own take on things: “It’s AOBA’s bill, of course.”
Graham is circulating his own fact sheet, hammering the bill as a giveaway to wealthy gentry. He’s scheduled a March 31 hearing certain to be packed with his allies from tenant-advocacy groups. “That’s just like Graham,” says Jeffers. “He wants to create some high drama to make it look like he’s going to save everyone….Jim Graham only cares about getting re-elected in his ward.”
Initially, Graham says he was angry about AOBA’s effort to “mislead” tenants. But he says the fliers have generated calls from residents concerned about the bill. “I’m really pleased [AOBA] did it,” he says. “When you’re trying to have a hearing, you appreciate all of the publicity you can get.”
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