Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey presented the Germantown Friends School’s annual Mercer Tate ’48 Lecture for Public Service on Nov. 4, in which he spoke about his career serving others and his work to make communities safe.
Ramsey, who grew up on the south side of Chicago, said that in his neighborhood, “violence was not something that you saw on TV. It was very real.” As a boy, he dreamed of being a cowboy like Roy Rogers. He wanted to help people. With that mission in mind, he began studying to be a doctor at the University of Illinois.
Ramsey worked to pay his way through school. “My entire life changed as a result of a chance encounter with two individuals when I was working in a grocery store,” he said.
Two police officers who frequented the store enticed him to join a police-training program – he admitted that the most attractive part of the program was the tuition assistance.
“I signed up and became a police cadet, and 47 years later I’m standing here as a police commissioner,” he said. “Policing is all about helping people, and my real calling is to be a police officer. I wouldn’t change that for anything in the world.”
Ramsey told the GFS students how lucky they were to receive an excellent education.
“You have an obligation to help others because you have had the opportunity to go to a quality school and to go on to college and continue your education,” he said. “You are role models, so think about that, and in whatever you choose to do, be the best you can possibly be.”
Ramsey also spoke about the violence in Philadelphia.
“My commitment is to do all I can to avoid more deaths, more injuries, and more people who have to go through those kinds of struggles,” he said.
Ramsey admitted that policing is at a very critical point and time. He is on Obama’s task force on 21st century policing – working to build trust and legitimacy in communities and exploring methods of oversight, training and education, as well as technology and social media.
“Commissioner Ramsey made a compelling case for public service today and we were all fortunate to gain a deeper understanding of his vision for the future of policing in our country,” said head of school Dana Weeks. “It was wonderful, too, to hear the questions posed by our students who made it clear that they are not only able to sift through media sound bites but are eager to gain a deeper understanding of the complex drivers of crime in our country today.”
The GFS students had many questions for the Commissioner, asking about tensions in communities, tactics such as stop-and-frisk, online crime, and the incarceration rate. Ramsey gave clear and thoughtful answers.
“There is no question that we have to remove a criminal element from communities, but we have to do that in a way that doesn’t have a negative impact on law-abiding people,” Ramsey said.
He believes in community policing.
“[The officers] get to know the people in that area and come to realize that even in the worst neighborhood there are more peaceful, law-abiding people than there are criminals,” he said.
Ramsey wants to see police officers who are corrupt or abusing their authority removed from the force immediately. Also, he is a proponent of body-worn cameras on officers to encourage accountability and to protect both officers and citizens.
He will be retiring from the force in January. After 17 years of running the city’s police department, he plans to continue improving police-work in this country and serving the public. He provided the GFS students with a fuller understanding of police work as well as of his vision of a future in which young people have more education, prisoners have a chance to be rehabilitated and given job skills, treatments and support, and where citizens with the ability to improve the world go forth and service the public.
The Mercer Tate ’48 Lecture was established in 1992 in honor and memory of Mercer D. Tate, who attended GFS for grades K-12. He devoted his life to public service and exemplified the kind of graduate GFS seeks to produce.