We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Chief Charles H. Ramsey was looking for answers. It was early 2001, a time when more than half of the District’s murder cases were going unsolved, and the U.S. Department of Justice was investigating the D.C. police department for its use of excessive force. Ramsey was under fire, so he decided to create two new positions to help fix the mess: a superintendent of detectives to boost the force’s investigative capacity and an inspector to work with the feds on the excessive-force probe.
When it came time to fill the positions, Ramsey prepared to pass up homegrown talent in favor of outsiders. Word within the department was that the pending hires, Steven Kuhn and Jack Barrett, were old friends of Ramsey’s.
This rumor was likely true in Kuhn’s case, because his time serving as a cop in Chicago had overlapped with Ramsey’s for about 15 years. The chief wouldn’t address the rumors regarding either of the hires.
But charges of cronyism at the department are nothing new, and even critics of Chief Ramsey admit that he may have been merely trying to hire seasoned cops, ones he could trust. The grumbling about these two hires would likely have faded quickly.
But as Ramsey has learned, rumors of mismanagement don’t fade away if they reach the desk of Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, who chairs the D.C. Council’s Committee on the Judiciary.
In her two-and-a-half years heading Judiciary, Patterson has forged friendships with various officers, who often call or stop by her office to raise concerns about happenings on the force. When she heard about the decision to hire Kuhn and Barrett, her oversight reflex kicked in.
Patterson was tracking both of the problem areas Ramsey had targeted. She had hammered the chief over shoddy homicide investigations in recent months and had called for a council hearing after Ramsey’s orchestrated street-sweep of anti-globalization demonstrators in April 2000the so-called Ramsey plan.
Patterson knew that simply whining about alleged cronyism would get her nowhere. So she went to one of her greatest allies in municipal oversight: personnel regulations. By the look of things, Ramsey had violated hiring rules by filling senior positions from outside the department. He had also failed to post the positions and open them to competition. So Patterson wrote Ramsey to ask if he’d complied with the code.
She got no response. “The chief bounced it upstairs [to the mayor’s office],” she says. After an initial exchange of letters with Mayor Anthony A. Williams and his deputy for law enforcement, Margret Nedelkoff Kellems, Patterson’s queries fell into a bureaucratic black hole. In one letter, Patterson detailed several violations of the D.C. Code regarding the hires. Over the next two years, Patterson pursued the matter with both Williams and Kellems.
Despite her repeated entreaties, Patterson has not yet received a response from the administrationan omission that Kellems confirms. This past March, Patterson effectively closed the file with a letter that she summarizes as follows: “‘OK, I’m not going to write you anymore about this. You didn’t answer me because you know your people broke the law. Love, Kathy.’”
Ramsey counters, “I just flat-out disagree with her. We were within our rights to hire these people.”
A personnel spat waged with memos certainly doesn’t rank among the sexier clashes in council annalssuch as the time the late Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas slugged a staffer at a holiday party, or the time newly elected At-Large Councilmember David Catania shouted down veteran colleague Harold Brazil on the dais. Still, it carries far greater resonance: The feud over Kuhn and Barrett helped to turn Patterson inexorably against Ramsey and his stewardship of the D.C. police department.
The diss, in other words, helps explain Patterson’s determination this summer to deny Ramsey a $25,000 pay raise. In a surprisingly heated battle that played out over several weeks, Patterson argued that the raise, which was to bump the chief’s pay to $175,000 per year, would constitute a reward for poor performance. Despite her clout on the council, only five of her colleagues agreed with her, and the raise passed on a 7-6 vote.
Yet Patterson still has a card to play against Ramsey. Through a quirk in the council’s legislative protocol, she has managed to bottle up an enhanced benefits package for Ramsey in the Judiciary Committee. She says she won’t let it out until she evaluates Ramsey’s performance over the coming year. And the councilmember will even hazard a prediction on how the evaluation will turn out.
“I don’t see anything in motion to improve the quality of basic police work,” Patterson says. “He is the boss, and he’s responsible.”
Ramsey says that he is not upset or angry with Patterson, and that he plans to “work harder with the council.” He also says that the benefits-package brouhaha isn’t the end of the road for him at the department: “I’m not ready to retire. It’s not as if I’m about to walk out the door.”
The chief’s job is currently open in Ramsey’s old Chicago stomping grounds, and the Chicago media have reported that Ramsey has been asked to apply for the gigdespite the fact that he was reported to have left the Windy City in a huff after not being awarded the position when it was open in 1998. Another rumor has Ramsey coveting a job in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. But most observers take Ramsey at his word that he’ll stay with the Metropolitan Police Department.
“I just don’t personally believe he’ll voluntarily leave,” says Gary Hankins, a retired D.C. cop and former president of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) of the District of Columbia.
Stay tuned to Channel 13: Two strong-willed public servants with serious philosophical differences will be fighting it out for years to come, with nothing less than the public safety of an entire city at stake.
When Ramsey, 53, took over the police force in April 1998, it needed all the oversight it could get. It had been shaken by a string of scandalsone of which had forced the resignation of the previous chief, Larry Soulsby. The department was widely considered underequipped and corrupt. At the time, Washington also had the highest homicide rate among major U.S. citiesan unfortunate title that it has recently reclaimed.
“I have never seen a place with so much wrong,” Ramsey said of the force, in an interview with the Washington Post in November 1998.
Local politicos had high hopes for the straight-talking Chicago transplant. Ramsey promised to bring to the District a citizen-friendly form of “community policing” that he had helped pioneer in his previous job, and to quickly clear out corruption in the department.
In his early days, Ramsey brought down the house with a rousing speech to more than 1,200 District cops at DAR Constitution Hall. Hankins says that the rank-and-file officers were excited and “ready to redouble their efforts” after hearing Ramsey’s bold onstage pronouncements of a return to the fundamentals of policing.
Patterson says that Ramsey’s “common-sense” approach to policing and professed frugality impressed her during her first meeting with the chief. At that meeting, Ramsey told her about a recent conversation he’d had with his new driver. She recalls that Ramsey said that the driver had asked him what kind of new car he wanted. Ramsey asked what was wrong with his current car. He said that the driver persisted: “Don’t you want a new one?” Ramsey said that he again replied, “What’s wrong with this one?”
Ramsey was picked in a search for fresh talent headed by the congressionally chartered D.C. financial control board. He was the first chief to be hired from outside the department in 30 years. But even though the council had no say in the matter, it held a confirmation hearing for Ramsey. Patterson remembers one particular answer that Ramsey gave to a question of hers.
“He said, ‘I won’t come to this council and ask for one more dime until I know where every single dollar goes.’ So I’ve come back and asked him that question several times,” Patterson says with a laugh.
Patterson acknowledges that Ramsey has done a good job in securing funding for the police department, and that the force is far better equipped than it was five years ago. But she says that Ramsey’s accountability in directing that money has not lived up to his early promise.
On this front, Patterson cites the chief’s troubles in putting together a special department unit as Exhibit A.
Back in 2001, when Ramsey was taking fire over the slumping percentage of homicide case closures, he proposed the creation of a civilian unit that would work with the family members of murder victims and with victims of other violent crimes.
Patterson doesn’t need to check her notes to remember when Ramsey made this promise, blurting out the dateJan. 25, 2001with no hesitation.
On that day, as the newly minted chair of the influential Judiciary Committee, Patterson joined her colleagues in grilling Ramsey with a flurry of questions during a public round table on the closure rate, which had slipped from 70 percent in 1997 to 57 percent in 2000. (The rate has gone up and down since then, dropping to 48.5 percent in 2001 and then climbing to 55 percent in 2002.)
Ramsey suggested the victims-liaison unit during the round-table discussion. And as Patterson explains, the proposed civilian positions were to be about more than making for a kinder, gentler police force.
“It’s not just being nice to people who’ve suffered a lossit’s being able to do a sound investigation as well,” Patterson says. “If you don’t have good relations with victims’ families, then you’re probably not going to do a good job of investigating, because you need to know who the friends are; you need to know who the associates are.”
But the victims-liaison unit has yet to open for business. According to Ramsey and Deputy Mayor Kellems, the unit has been delayed by standard administrative hassles. When the department actually approved the positions, the federal dollars that were supposed to fund them fell through. The department responded by nixing the jobs altogether. Then the federal funding suddenly became available, and the department had to go through more procedures to re-create the openings, Kellems says.
Patterson isn’t buying the red-tape alibi. “The chief has cited the lack of federal funds for such positions, yet in the same period of time he has created and filled senior staff positions, sworn and civilian, on local funds and at salaries beyond what victim advocates would earn,” Patterson wrote in a recent letter to constituents.
Creating the victims-liaison unit “has taken too long,” Ramsey acknowledges. “There are a lot of priorities that we have. It would be great if it had already been done, but it hasn’t.”
“In retrospect, I probably would have redirected local funds [to fill the positions],” Kellems says.
The councilmember has cited the delays with the liaison unit as a major reason for holding up Ramsey’s benefits package. To her, the nonexistent unit is part of a litany of Ramsey’s failures, which include problems with the 911 system, lack of improvements in criminal investigations, overkill in response to possible hazards in the city’s federal core, and the controversial mop-up arrests during protests.
In the meantime, Ramsey says, he has been personally meeting once a month with citizens’ groups that represent homicide victims. “It’s not as if we’ve done nothing,” Ramsey says. And both Ramsey and Kellems say that everything is finally in place to create the unit. “They’re moments away from hiring those folks,” Kellems says.
“When I meet the people in those jobs, I’ll believe it,” Patterson says.
Patterson, 55, was elected as Ward 3’s councilmember in 1994, after coming to Washington in 1977 as a reporter for the Kansas City Star and the since-folded Kansas City Times. Her immersion in police oversight began in 1998, when she and Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans co-chaired the Special Committee on Police Misconduct and Personnel Management. Ramsey came onboard during those hearings, so the serious problems with the police force’s upper management that the committee’s investigation uncovered could hardly be blamed on him. But Patterson says that the report on the police department that her committee produced in 1998 has helped her in her current bouts with the chief.
“When I became Judiciary chair, I went back and reviewed all that work, and it really became a good primer for myself,” Patterson says. “Most of the issues are the same issues.”
Patterson’s charge that Ramsey has failed to make key improvements in the police force echoes a common complaint among his detractors: that the chief does not always back up his tough talk with action.
“There is a widespread perception that he talks a great game,” says the FOP’s Hankins. “Promises of a quick response are not followed up as such.”
The FOP is not usually a fan of the police chiefin any town. But Hankins says that Patterson is hardly alone in charging that Ramsey has failed to deliver on high expectations. John Aravosis, the public-safety advocate who runs www.safestreetsdc.com, says that many of the cops he talks to say that “Ramsey can do anything and nobody can touch him. He finally paid for it.”
A culture of complaint is a grand tradition among D.C. cops. As one veteran officer says, “Everybody complains about every chief we’ve had.” But a gripe vanishes into the ether unless it is aired to somebody who can do something about it. Cops know this, so in the past their favorite ears for complaints have included the Washington Times, the FOP, and various freelancing community activists. But in recent years, Patterson has become a privileged recipient of the scuttlebutt.
“The complaints, I would say, have increased in the two-and-a-half years that I’ve been Judiciary chair, in terms of the volume and the level of concern, the level of anger,” says the councilmember.
And cops are not the only sources that Patterson taps for her oversight of the force. She gets her information from District residents, as well.
On the night of June 17, Deborah Golden was hit by a car as she crossed the intersection at 13th and U Streets NW. The car struck Golden hard enough to toss her onto the hood, but the driver fled the scene. Golden, who was not seriously injured in the accident, said the police were nice to her at the scene. But she adds that the department has not followed up with her about the hit-and-run.
“I just wanted them to do something, or to contact me,” Golden says.
Though Golden was not hit in Patterson’s ward, Patterson’s office has championed her case. Members of Patterson’s staff knew Golden from her job as a prisoners’ advocate, heard about the accident, and took it up with the police without Golden’s having requested any help.
Whether it’s a hit-and-run or another street-level issue, Patterson argues that the chief isn’t connected with average officers and the work they’re doingor not doing.
“It is my impression that bad news never filters to the chief,” Patterson says. “And there are occasions when it may be that I shared something with him that he either doesn’t know about or disagrees with me on.”
Though Ramsey says he respects Patterson and her abilities as a legislator, he argues that “at times she might not understand things enough before we’re talking to reporters about issues that are best discussed at breakfast briefings.”
At those meetings, the two adversaries generally put their rhetoric aside and plow through their joint agenda.
“It’s just routine and pro forma, and I keep a list of things to mention to him, and he does the same,” Patterson says. “It’s not, you know, yelling at someone for not doing what I told him to do.”
As for the out-of-touch rap, Ramsey says that it’s impossible for him to keep on top of complaints from all of the 3,600-plus police serving under him, as well as the civilian employees. But he vigorously disputes the assertion that he has lost contact with his rank and file. He claims that he has regular meetings with front-line officers and detectives. “You’re always going to hear beefs from people who are disgruntled,” he says. He adds that Patterson and other naysayers couldn’t possibly compile convincing evidence that he is out of the loop in his own department.
Patterson alleges that the amount of time Ramsey spends working with federal agencies such as the FBI keeps him from tracking the needs of his officers and doing more to improve basic policing. She says that he deploys too many police resources to national-security details; her thinking is that more cops on expensive security shifts during Code Orange alerts means fewer on homicide investigations or working their beats.
When asked whether his troops spend too much time on the Mall and not enough in the city’s high-crime hinterlands, Ramsey responds, “My first responsibility is fighting crime in the District of Columbia.”
The pile of police-related documents in Patterson’s office in the Wilson Building occupies eight file drawers. Pawing through it all yields evidence of many pointed exchanges between legislator and law enforcer.
In one chain of correspondence, Patterson hounded Ramsey about an instance of personnel abuses. Armed with a whistle-blower’s tip, she asked if Ramsey planned to reinstate two cops who had been fired over charges of spousal abuse. After a seven-month lapse, Ramsey replied that the firings were final. But the stack of paper also contains an earlier department memo, requisitioned by Patterson, that recommended rehiring the two officers.
Another 12-page stack of lettersbetween Williams, Patterson, and Kellemsdeals with the mass arrests of protesters and bystanders made last September in Pershing Park. Patterson’s queries about the “de facto militarization of the District” succeeded in freeing up charts of projected costs for policing the demonstrations, which were about $5.5 million.
Patterson’s files also contain a detailed back-and-forth over the beleaguered 911 call center, complete with the timeline from the night of a fatal fire that occurred in Dupont Circle in January in which the dispatch of emergency responders became controversial.
In all, it’s an impressive record of 24-7 oversight, the likes of which few agency heads in D.C. government ever see. Sure, other councilmembers grill administration appointees. But the heat tends to come primarily during hearings, when the cameras are rolling and an audience is assembled in the chambers. Patterson likes that stuff, too, but her hardballs are as likely to come in a manila envelope as over the council dais.
Indeed, Kellems says that delays in responding to Patterson’s queries, by either the mayor’s office or the police department, are due to the sometimes voluminous nature of the questions and responsesnot because of any attempt to willfully ignore the councilmember.
“I don’t begrudge them for asking, but these are requests for significant amounts of information, and it does take time,” Kellems says.
For his part, Ramsey says he understands that responding to questions from city councilmembers is part of his job.
“I’m not trying to come out of this and say I’m squeaky-clean and haven’t dropped the ball on occasion in getting back to a councilmember,” Ramsey says. “We do the best we can to get back to them. We drop everything if it’s an emergency.”
But the bottom line with policing the police in D.C. is that without the backing of the mayor, the council can be almost as impotent as it was during Ramsey’s faux confirmation hearing back in 1998, which lacked the power of law. Patterson realizes as much, but by hijacking the chief’s benefits, she has found a way to make her dissatisfaction carry extra weight.
The councilmember has managed to create a probationary year for the chief, and she plans to keep the pressure on. She says that priority issues on which she intends to judge Ramsey over the next 12 months include curtailing abuse of overtime, reaching a department-wide staffing level of 3,800 officers, achieving better 911 service, and developing set policies for protest-arrest tactics.
The way Patterson tells it, her decision to stiff Ramsey on retirement benefits and to defy Williams wasn’t motivated by any personal snubs. She says that she took action because of deep community concern over what she calls “mediocre policing.”
Besides, Patterson says, this local political snafu was ultimately Williams’ fault: “[Ramsey] wanted a contract, so he negotiated this fairly lucrative retirement package. That was the mayor’s decision to sign that. The mayor didn’t consult the council on signing off on things that require legislation,” Patterson says, tapping the table for emphasis. “Yes, the mayor absolutely brought this situation forward.”
But what if Williams sweetened the deal because he thought it was the only way to keep Ramsey at his post?
“That’s his problem, not mine,” she says.
Despite the angst at the Wilson Building and police headquarters, all of the major players in this recent dust-up say they plan to play nice. Ramsey and Patterson will continue to chat over breakfast. And Kellems says that even Williams will put it all behind him.
“The mayor and Mrs. Patterson went head to head on this one. But the battles they have in the newspaper or in this forum or that forum are way down on their list of priorities,” Kellems says.
And although Ramsey acknowledges the need for tough oversight, he suggests that Patterson hasn’t exactly kicked up any scandals: “Do any of those issues seem serious enough to be fired over?” CP