D.C. government agency directors these days must be envious of D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey. And it’s not that bushy mustache that they’re after. Nor do they necessarily crave Ramsey’s secure relations with Mayor Anthony A. Williams, or even the results of a recent Washington Post poll reporting that residents believe city streets are far safer than a few years ago.
They just want his critics.
No big-city top cop can spend two years on the job without making some enemies. And that goes double for the head of the Metropolitan Police Department, arguably the worst urban police force in the country when Ramsey took over in June 1998. Ramsey, however, has managed to select just the right kind of detractors—the G. Gordon Liddy kind. Loudmouths, that is, who draw attention to their own shortcomings nearly every time they attack public officials.
Sample, if you will, the following tidbits ginned up in recent weeks by the chief’s dream team of civic critics:
* Longtime police watchdog Carl T. Rowan Jr. savages Ramsey in a Washington Times opinion piece featuring an unattributed allegation that Executive Assistant Chief Terrance Gainer has said that “promoting black officials is a necessary evil because ‘we have to give them their little piece of the world.’”
When pressed on the veracity of his “scoop” on Gainer, Rowan declines to name his source. In the midst of the controversy, Rowan is arrested for impersonating a police officer and possession of red and blue flashing lights after an incident at Dulles International Airport, where he used the paramilitary equipment to escort a diplomatic delegation to the terminal.
After a contentious exchange on a WTOP talk show, Ramsey beseeches Rowan to “get a job.” In a town where officials too often pay lip service to activist wackos, Ramsey’s advice marks a high-water point for public discourse.
* Mark Thompson, chair of the local NAACP Police Task Force, attacks Ramsey’s personnel policy for favoring white officers over their black colleagues. Thompson serves as a “sensitivity trainer” for police department recruits and now insists that the higher ranks need some schooling as well. “There are allegations of discrimination and racism that are coming in more frequently now,” says Thompson.
There ought to be a law, though, barring police department critics from spouting off until they’ve finished their probation. Under such a statute, Thompson would be muzzled until December 2002—a term of punishment that he received last year for failing to pay city or federal income taxes for six years beginning in 1992. The judge told Thompson to build a “track record of someone who really is responsible.” The police critic was also convicted of assault in July 1998 for an incident involving his wife.
And where Ramsey’s critics aren’t undercut by their own arrest records, the plain old knucklehead factor comes in. Last week, Lt. Deborah Howard, president of the Metropolitan Police Officials Association, held a press conference denouncing Ramsey and Gainer for sowing discord among the ranks. But upon finishing her prepared remarks, Howard pulled a Rowan, declining to discuss sources or specifics—a move that didn’t exactly kill LL’s hunch that Howard’s real beef is that Ramsey might mess up the old-boy network.
Capitol Hill cop skeptic Bryce Suderow, meanwhile, stayed out of the Rowan-Thompson-Howard charade. But the vehemence and myopia of his campaign against Ramsey remain unmatched—and unpopular among neighbors who share Suderow’s interest in improving police service. The irrepressible activist tipped off reporters last fall that a neighborhood group’s Friday night get-together would actually be a fiery anti-Ramsey protest. A Washington City Paper writer arrived to find neighbors who denied any plans to protest—and painted Suderow as a one-note extremist (“Fight Club,” 11/12). In response, Suderow said of one neighbor, “Tell him I hope he dies.”
If Ramsey is serious about serving out his five-year contract, he should pursue the following strategy: Throw a celebration honoring the department’s “civilian champions” and put the likes of Rowan, Thompson, and Suderow at the top of the program. Here’s a line that the chief could use in his commendatory remarks: “Our department can’t do its job properly unless we have committed citizens who are watching our work and telling us when it isn’t meeting their standards. That’s why we’re here today—to thank you for your dedication. And for the good of the city, I beg you to keep up the good work.”
Ramsey’s critics have recently focused on discrediting Gainer, the hands-on operations guy tasked with carrying out the chief’s reform dictates. In addition to overseeing a controversial rejuggling of work shifts, Gainer has presided over a bureaucratic reshuffling that has stirred up grist for the complaint mill. Last month, for instance, two assistant chiefs and three commanders were reassigned. And last December, a lieutenant was demoted to street patrol after allegedly botching the investigation of a Ward 7 double slaying. But critics like Rowan and Suderow, for their part, say the chief hasn’t done enough reshuffling.
On the other hand, Ramsey’s other prominent critics seem to think he’s done too much. Luckily for the chief, he has discredited critics who bash him no matter what he does. The spike in racially based complaints, says Thompson, translates into a grand total of four open files under investigation by the NAACP task force. Thompson, however, claims the dockets contain a certain multiplier: “At least several of them are filed on behalf of more than one officer.”
And the merits of the complaints are almost beside the matter, suggests Thompson. “Even if these concerns are proven not to be true, the feeling exists that there is discrimination and racism, and in an agency that is so dependent upon morale from its employees, the department should do all it can to allay those fears,” he says. Because D.C.’s wretched racial history means the perception of racism will be with us longer than even the most tenure-protected city cop, standards like Thompson’s mean any chief is always already guilty—with or without any hard evidence.
And given the inevitability of such perceptions, there is only one option for Ramsey and Gainer: stay the course. Whether wittingly or by happenstance, Ramsey is trying to follow the approach to bureaucratic overhaul crafted by his boss, Williams, in his days at the city’s tax and revenue operation. The model calls for a hardass personnel offensive—including firings and retraining—updating workplace technology, and a policy of glasnost toward the media and the public.
Now the chief is finding out what Williams could have told him when Ramsey took office 20 months ago: When you reshuffle your ranks, you create a class of malcontents. In Williams’ case, the class took him to court. In Ramsey’s, it’s complaining to union officials and otherwise obstructing reform. Oh, and one other thing: It’s whining about low morale—a classic cop canard and an understandable gripe from folks who are on their way out.
Thus far, Ramsey hasn’t purged his organization the way Williams did. But he has managed to rebuff the old guard’s onslaught and stuck up for Gainer after Rowan published his anonymously sourced attack. “He’s holding pretty strong,” says police watchdog Sally Byington of the chief.
And if the chief really wants Rowan to find a job, he might suggest the department’s own civilian employment program. To judge from his recent escapades, Rowan might enjoy the proximity to cop protocol and locker room chatter. The activist did spend five years in the FBI but then bolted for a law firm. “I just decided it was time to stop chasing bank robbers,” says Rowan. It’s just the flashing lights that he couldn’t quite leave behind.
* As chair of the House D.C. appropriations subcommittee, Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) can force the District to spend taxpayer dollars on just about any project he fancies. Where influence resides, money flocks.
In a report documenting 1999 political contributions, Istook provides a list of behind-the-scenes D.C. heavy hitters who may just need to circumvent the local home rule government for a few considerations from Congress. All in all, the favors sought from the city’s premier overseer are pretty transparent. Attorney Bill Hall, who gave $250 for the cause, wants to build a baseball stadium downtown; Wilkes, Artis’ Norman “Chip” Glasgow—$250—seems to be asking the District for a zoning variance every day; developer H.R. Crawford—$400—is an unapologetic seeker of federal grants for low-income housing; and three officials from the Corrections Corporation of America—$2,500—obviously haven’t abandoned their dreams of building a prison in the District.
Arthur Carlson is a bit tougher to figure. He is neither a real estate developer nor a lobbyist nor a parking magnate. Instead, Carlson slings soft drinks and sandwiches from behind the counter at C.F. Folks, a 19th Street NW lunch spot where he has attained legendary status. Carlson’s trademark parlor trick is sliding coins back and forth from underneath the cash register as he rings up his customers.
So just how can Istook help sell more tuna fish? Carlson explains that he pitched in $1,000 in support of D.C. cash man Kerry Pearson, a C.F. Folks patron who orchestrated an Istook fundraiser last September. “I thought it would benefit Kerry, so I gave on that basis,” says Carlson, adding that Istook has taken a greater interest in the city than his predecessors. Istook’s contribution report lists Carlson’s profession as “public relations.”
* Mocking “shadow” statehood Sen. Paul Strauss is a pretty simple multiple-choice exercise. You can focus on how seriously the quasi-senator takes his title (he has U.S. Senate license plates, and his stationary is a gas); then again, you can joke about how many interns he needs to perform a powerless job (they’re stacked up by the cube at Strauss’ One Judiciary Square offices); or you can snicker about how often the city’s other elected leaders ignore him in consultations with real senators (often).
Never let it be said, however, that Strauss isn’t scouting out ways to pump meaning into his ceremonial post. Last week, Strauss met at the Argentine Embassy with Enrique Olivera, governor of Buenos Aires. The purpose of the meeting—believe it or not—was not to situate Strauss over a spread of fresh beef skewers from las pampas, but rather to discuss an issue that Olivera shares with Strauss: home rule. As it turns out, Buenos Aires residents for nearly two centuries lived in the sort of federal zone of disenfranchisement that surrounds D.C.ers. But through an omnibus constitutional reform in 1994, the bonaerenses gained the ballot and a governor of their own.
And like any manager with a lot of interns around, Strauss is exploring every wrinkle in the city’s political chronology. “We’re devoting a lot of scholarly research to it,” says the senator.
* This week furnished yet more confusion on who sits where on plans to reinvent the D.C. school board. While Mayor Williams was flipflopping back toward support for a hybrid appointed-elected board, councilmembers themselves were wondering whom Williams had pulled over to his side. At a closed-door council meeting Monday morning, At-Large Councilmember David Catania put his own spin on the ever-shifting political ground. “This is the problem you’re dealing with: You’ve got a council with 13 different personalities and a mayor that has five personalities of his own,” said Catania, according to a source present at the meeting. CP
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