A Time to Boldly Lead

Police Commissioner Charles Ramsay, Philadelphia
Police Commissioner Charles Ramsay, Philadelphia

During last month’s annual meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), Charles Ramsey gave the opening address on the future of policing. Ramsay is Commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department and President of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).

Ramsay began his police career in his native city of Chicago in 1968 working his way up the ranks to Deputy Chief of Police of the Patrol Division. He then was appointed Chief of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C. In 2008, he was appointed to head the Philadelphia police. He has had a long and stellar career in policing and spoke with experience, insight, and authority on that day last month.

In the opening conference address, Ramsay made some important comments about the absolute necessity of community-oriented policing and challenged those who saw themselves as a “thin blue line.” Instead, he challenged them to become a “blue thread” that weaves within, and holds together, the tapestry of community life. He cautioned fellow chiefs to be careful about doing something just because they could (because it’s legal) versus asking the question, “But should we?” Notably, Ramsay called for a national commission on law enforcement (it has been nearly half a century since the last one which called for by President Lyndon Johnson).

I applaud Commissioner Ramsay for what he said. This was a grand opportunity for chiefs to hear from a 40+ year accomplished police leader who holds a graduate degree and has held top leadership positions two major police departments.

But I have to say that I would have like to have heard him say more. He holds a unique position that could influence policing for years to come.

Here’s what I would have liked him to say:

  • Reinforce the need for educated police officers on our streets and encourage police leaders to continue their educations, to obtain advanced degrees as he has; to encourage collaborations between universities, researchers and police.
  • Speak to the matter of ethics, that policing is a noble cause and those who practice it must always obey the law while enforcing it and be honest and respectful to others.
  • Encourage compassion among police and the sanctity of human life; that the legality to use physical force is a public trust and that police should only use the minimal amount of force in carrying out their duties.
  • Continue the quest for diversity in the ranks, to be more specific regarding the role of women in policing and that police departments need to reflect the racial compositions of the communities they serve.
  • Caution against the growing threat of police militarization; that the functions of our nation’s military and its police must be clearly separate.
  • Cast a bold vision for police; a clear and distinct vision for the future of policing; a vision that would inspire young men and women in policing to aspire to lead and to strongly grasp the vision before them and work passionately to make it become a reality.

[To hear his entire speech CLICK HERE.]

A copy of Ramsay’s speech comes from the PhillyPolice blog:


Saturday, October 26, 2013


I am honored not only to welcome you to Philadelphia but also to address you at the start of the 2013 IACP conference.

I want to share with you some of my thoughts about policing.  Where we’ve come from, where we are, where we are headed, and what we must do to create the future we want.


The Philadelphia Police Department was founded in 1797.  It is the nation’s oldest police department.  It was based on the watchmen model and has evolved over the past four centuries.  The profession of policing is still based on the nine principles of Sir Robert Peel.  And yet, our profession changes and reflects the values, social structure, technology advancements, and political demands of the times.

Policing has changed since I began my career as a Chicago Police Cadet 45 years ago, in 1968.  I cannot believe that I have spent two-thirds of my life in this wonderful profession.  Like many of you, I was part of the changes that make-up policing today.  We’ve come from call boxes for communication, pin maps for tracking crime, typewriters, card files to manage our data, and just reacting to crime. We’ve come from a belief that we can fight crime alone, as the thin blue line… the only barrier standing between peaceful, law-abiding citizens and lawlessness.  In the first half of my career, I believed my sole job was arresting the bad guy and I was good at it.

Fast-forward 20 years when then Chicago Police Superintendent Matt Rodriquez put me in charge of developing and implementing community policing.  As a result, I began to see policing differently and have seen the profession evolve to where we are today.  I began to accept the fact that the police must have the help of many people, agencies and organization to create public safety.


Today, we are in an era of proactive and preventive policing.  We are better informed.  We rely on precise data and technology to track crime and inform policing strategies.  We measure and hold ourselves accountable for the victories and consequences of our deployments and the strategies we adopt.

We are being “smarter” and using evidenced-based approaches.  We have access to mega-data like surveillance cameras, gunshot detection systems, automated license plate readers, and social media data.  We use analytics and technology to help make sense of these data and help us make better decisions.

In fact, science and technology are among the driving forces of today.  Science is playing an ever-larger role in policing in terms of forensics, analytics, and developing evidence based strategies to combat crime.

Technology influences the nature of crime as well as policing practices.  It broadens the scope of crime and extends the reach of criminals by creating more avenues to commit crimes like fraud, identity theft and human trafficking via the internet.  Cyber crimes allow local criminals to reach beyond geographical boundaries and commit international capers.

Why rob a bank with a gun when you can do it from overseas with a computer? Crime and criminals are more networked, diverse and global.

We’ve joined the social media revolution, using technology to connect with the people through twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest and Instagram.  We post surveillance video to find suspects and post links to good news stories about our officers on our websites.  In cities like Milwaukee and Boston police have developed news outlets on their websites.

We live in an era of cameras everywhere and instant posting on the internet.  It means we are under constant scrutiny of the media and the watchful eye of countless private cameras and cell phones.

Policing is moving from low visibility, high discretionary work to one with more visibility of how our officers use their discretion.  This will result in a greater public demand for the control of police discretion.

Today our discretion on stop and frisk is being challenged.  Tomorrow, our discretion around arrest decisions may be challenged.   We need to understand what this will mean and how we want it to look.

9-11 brought the threat of terrorism to the doorstep of our cities and towns.  It also brought the realization that what happens on the other side of world affects us.  We are all interconnected.

We have to balance the deployment demands of combatting traditional crime with the constant threat of terrorism. We understand that the farther we are from 9-11, the closer we get to the next big act of terrorism on U.S. soil.  Boston was a grim reminder of this reality.

We have to create this balance in the face of fewer resources and in many instances smaller police forces.  I don’t think we will ever get back to old police staffing numbers.  And in cities like Philadelphia where we are seeing a potentially record setting dip in crime, it’s hard to justify the need for more resources.

With all the changes we’re facing, we are relying more on partnerships and collaboration.  While officers on the ground are still the tip of the crime fighting spear, partnerships and collaboration with people in the communities, academia, private security (and more) are needed to strengthen our ability to combat crime and disorder in neighborhoods.  Our relationships with our allies need to shift from one of being a partner to being a collaborator.


The trends I just identified – increased use of analytics and technology, evidence-based policing strategies, social media and increased visibility of police discretion as well as decreasing resources, increasing demands for collaboration, and an increasingly connected, networked, global world – will continue to drive how we work and what we face in the future.

Technology is a powerful tool.  It will be both the benefactor and the curse for policing. Moving forward we must be thoughtful about technology.  We must drive technological solutions to our problems and not be driven by the technologists.  We will increasingly face challenges surrounding the issue of individual privacy vs. public security.  For example, license plate readers are in use now.  They could be the predecessors of facial recognition equipment in patrol cars. We must remind ourselves that, “Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do it!”  We must decide where the limits should be before we face or cross them.  We need to be part of that discussion and understand that our first priority is the protection of constitutional rights.

We need to understand that all crime is local but much more of it will be global.  What is the effect of global-based criminal networks for local police departments?  The person whose identity was stolen will call her local police department.  If we cannot help her, then we become obsolete and useless for her and thousands like her.  How can we respond?

Our success is currently measured by crime rates.  As our work changes our measurements must become more robust.  What if public safety was measured by graduation rate and not incarceration rate or harm reduction and not just arrests?  What would a Compstat session look like and who would be at the table?


We certainly must build on what has worked for us so far, but we cannot afford to hold on to the Status Quo.  We must constantly strive toward excellence.  Build and participate in collaboration and share our power and influence.  We must promote diversity within our workforce and know our success lies with our people.  We must lead our departments into this interdependent, complex, and global world for which we are charged with keeping the peace.

We must develop ourselves and our future leaders to succeed in managing the complexities facing police departments of the future.  We must recognize that trends are shifting.  For example, there is a concerted effort to de-incarcerate large populations of offenders.  This is being driven by a combination of economic realities and a realization, that for some offenders, prison does more harm than good.  The political right and left are agreeing that we need to incarcerate fewer people.  For this movement to be successful, it requires sufficient community-based resources and the participation of police leaders in the decision making process.  Otherwise, I fear our hard efforts and good work in reducing crime will quickly disappear.

I mentioned several trends that will be driving us into the near future.  I believe, for policing to be prepared for this future, we need to establish a national crime commission that examines every aspect of crime and policing in a democratic, and increasingly complex global society.  The last commission was convened by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965.  It is not too much to ask that, every fifty years, this country stop and debate what crime in the United States will look like in the future and how we should respond.  All police organizations must continue to be united in their call for such a commission.

And National Commission or not, we must:

•Nurture and grow collaborations and networks;

•Invest in our people and foster participation by “outsiders” in our work;

•Understand our role in a democratic society is to protect the constitutional rights of all people;

•Define our role in a complex global society; and

•Remain true to the principles of policing.

If we don’t create a template for our future, others will.  If we don’t define our role, others will. We must be active, co-creators of the future of policing, starting now.

I suggest we begin by shifting the way we see ourselves and our role in society.  We must change our metaphor of the thin blue line.

Given all that we have become and all that we anticipate, we can no longer think of ourselves as the thin blue line that stands between good and evil.  The problem with being that line between the lawful and lawless is that you are not a part of either side.

What I’ve come to see as a more accurate metaphor is one in which the police is a thread woven through the communities we serve.  A thread that helps hold communities together – creating a tapestry that reinforces the very fabric of democracy.  Our partnerships and collaborations will take on more meaning when we see ourselves as part of an even larger fabric that drapes our world.

As a thin blue line, we can suppress crime in neighborhoods.  But as part of the tapestry, we can collaborate with others to create safe and healthy places to live and work.

We can no longer afford to be seen as something that stands by itself.  We are part of this networked world that is weaved from complexities connecting us with each other, the global community, and the people we serve.

It is a world that my son, a new recruit of the Philadelphia Police Department, will inherit soon enough.  It is those of us here and now that must strengthen the foundation of policing, plan for the future and prepare those coming behind us to meet the evolving challenges of tomorrow.

This is our collective legacy.

Let’s pledge to do all that we can to make it a better profession and a better world for them to police.



  1. We met Chief Ramsey at a D.C. protest I was covering for CounterPunch on April 20, 2002, intense protest for Palestinian rights. ( http://www.counterpunch.org/2002/04/21/250-000-say/) Protesters were crowding around him, joking, and treating him like a rock star. Ramsey was great; I walked up and told him I came from Madison, Wisconsin to cover the event and asked if I get a quote about the event. He laughed, and said something like, ‘only if you brought me some brats. And I don’t forget I was chief of the Chicago Police once.’ The guy’s a riot, and is indeed a man with a stellar career.


  2. Chief,
    I had the pleasure of hearing Commissioner Ramsey’s address at the IACP Conference, and I support many of the suggestions made in your response.
    However, I have a question regarding the following point. When you wrote “Police should only use the minimal amount of force in carrying out their duties,” are you suggesting it as an imperative standard or an aspirational goal?


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