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Last week, Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey proclaimed a citywide crime crisis, putting officers on call 24-7. He toughened the department’s sick-leave policy and cleared the way for officials to change officers’ shifts and hours at a moment’s notice.
The move angered the District’s police union, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). At a Capitol Hill press conference this past Monday, Sgt. Gregory I. Greene, acting FOP chair, sat before a bank of microphones and television cameras and revealed the real crisis facing the city: the low morale of the rank-and-file cop.
“This crime emergency is the result of five years of Chief Ramsey’s treatment of my fellow officers,” Greene said, his tone somber and sad. He later added: “Six months ago, our members were crying out for help and expressing that they were unable to perform effectively.”
Greene attributed the recent drop in morale to a laundry list of management and manpower problems at the department, citing a lack of resources and new pressures from the counterterrorism beat. Another mood-buster for officers, insisted Greene, was Ramsey’s failure to back up his troops. Instead of aggressively enforcing the law, said Green, cops are holding back out of fear that “proactive” policing will draw citizens’ complaintstriggering disciplinary measures from the chief’s suite.
“We have lost the momentum to the criminals because we are not challenging them as aggressively as we could. Because we are full of doubt,” says former FOP labor chair Gary Hankins, who opines that the morale problem is worse than the crime problem.
This is news. Look at what’s happening here: Police-union officials are stepping before the pressindeed, the entire cityand complaining about the chief of police. They are hammering the chief not only for general management lapses but also for losing his bond with the average officer. Astounding.
In fact, sniping from the union over morale is such an extraordinary occurrence that over the past 20-plus years, it has surfaced only on the watches of Chiefs Larry Soulsby, who served from 1995 to 1997, Fred Thomas (1992-1995), Isaac Fulwood Jr. (1989-1992), Maurice Turner Jr. (1981-1989), and Burtell M. Jefferson (1978-1981).
Here is a log exposing how sparingly the FOP and its supporters invoke the morale defense:
•In January 2001, Sgt. G.G. Neill, head of the FOP, had this to say to the Washington Post about then-Executive Assistant Chief Terrance W. Gainer, Ramsey’s No. 2: “All he did after he got here was hammer the department in the media. I don’t think he gave the public a correct picture of how things are handled in the department. And that crushes morale.”
•In September 1999, Ramsey created a new shift, dubbed the “power shift,” which called for officers to work from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., to help handle emergency calls and boost patrols in crime hot spots. Carl T. Rowan Jr., a police watchdog, told the Post: “It’s a solution in search of a problem, and it will do nothing more than drive already-low morale through the floor.”
•In May 1996, then-Police Chief Soulsby announced that the department would be buying 225 new cruisers and was working to replace a 4.2 percent pay cut imposed the previous fall. Ron Robertson, the FOP chair, told the Post: “New equipment is great, but if the morale of officers who operate it is down, it won’t make any difference.”
•In March 1994, then-Police Chief Thomas shifted officers out of one specialized unit and put them on school detail because of a spike in crime among youngsters. One official stated to the Post: “Morale is at an all-time low…”
•In November 1992, members of the police union picketed a hotel where retired Police Chief Fulwood was being honored. A top FOP official told the Post that Fulwood’s legacy would be “low morale and no pay raise.”
•In May 1991, then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon ordered the commander of the department’s 7th District to be reassigned as homicides in the city continued to skyrocket. Hankins claimed in a subsequent Post article that the mayor’s decision could hurt moralethat officers would be “second-guessed by a politico who has no credentials in law enforcement.”
•In March 1989, rumors of then-Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr.’s affiliation with drug dealers were enough to send the troops’ self-esteem downward. According to a Post profile of Hankins: “The ongoing public discussion of the mayor’s lifestyle, says Hankins, has hurt the morale of the officers.” The article went on to quote Hankins’ comments that it was difficult for an officer to be a “beacon of righteousness” when the mayor himself was such a poor role model.
•In October 1985, the D.C. Council passed legislation outlawing police chokeholds and toughening up penalties for officers who use them on suspects. The bill came nearly two years after a 24-year-old man died from a chokehold after a struggle with a cop. Still, after Councilmember Betty Ann Kane voted against the bill, she read from the FOP’s script herself. She told the Post: “I think in terms of police morale that [the bill] was unnecessary. I think it sends a wrong message to police officers to hold back.”
•In October 1980, the Post chronicled an increasing crime rate and questioned whether the rank and file had stopped caring. Officers cited low morale and a lack of support from the chief. Tommy Tague, then head of the FOP, stated: “The police department is becoming more concerned and leery of repercussions. There are four different bodies to judge police actions. Officers fear that they might be doing the wrong thing by jumping into a certain situation. So they are more likely to doubt themselves or ignore certain situations in order to avoid a civil suit.”
Perhaps the reason why the FOP and others question morale so infrequently is that it’s a very painful topic. When morale is low, officers are depressed. They tend to sit in their cruisers and gripe about working conditions. They are not as eager to fight crime as they are in times of high morale.
As longtime crime fighters on the D.C. beat, FOP officials have a unique understanding of morale flow. They keep tabs on how well the department is divvying up resources, how commanders at the seven police districts are treating their charges, and how the chief carries himself on the job. Those factors, along with the intangibles, drive the FOP’s periodic morale assessments.
It is clear that no single factor can sway the calculus. For example, even FOP officials concede that Ramsey has upgraded the department’s fleet of vehicles and the technology that officers use on the job. “We got more resources than we’ve seen in decades,” agrees Hankins.
But eclipsing the abundance of resources, according to FOP officials, is the department’s culture of reprisal against aggressive officers. FOP Interim Chair Greene brought up the termination of Probationary Officer Mark Dickerson as an example of the chief’s abuse of due process. Ramsey fired Dickerson after the patrolman picked up 17 complaints, including eight for use of force and five for harassment, in a period of 18 months.
Hankins admits that the chief did indeed have the authority to fire Dickerson under such circumstances. But even if the chief got it right in the Dickerson case, he could easily screw up the next time. And that’s killing morale!
The epic morale problem in the police department is bubbling up through the ranks and into the city’s legislature. “I think there are serious morale issues in the department,” says Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, who runs the D.C. Council committee that oversees the police department.
Ramsey himself brushes off the morale complaint as if it were some department cliché that refuses to go away. “Every time you do anything, [the FOP] cites morale,” Ramsey says. CP