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Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Ramsey: ‘We Are Sitting on a Powder Keg'

What to Know

  • Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey leads the White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
  • Violent crime in Philadelphia dropped during his tenure at the helm of the department, where he emphasized community policing strategies.
  • Ramsey said he fears the Republican and Democratic National Conventions will bring with them more incidents, as tensions remain high.

Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey told NBC News Sunday morning that the United States is "sitting on a powder keg" as tensions between police and communities across the nation boil over into tumultuous and sometimes violent protests.

Ramsey, who passed the helm of the Philadelphia Police Department last year, was tapped in 2014 by President Obama to lead his Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The White House established the task force to take a hard look at police-community relations in the wake of calls for more police accountability and a number of earlier killings by police that stoked controversy.

"You can call it a powder keg, you can say that we're handling nitroglycerin," Ramsey told NBC News' Chuck Todd on "Meet the Press." "But obviously when you just look at what's going on, we're at a very critical point in the history of this country."

Ramsey went on to day that he fears the Republican and Democratic National Conventions won't go off without some kind of incident occurring. The climate is simply too volatile, he said.

"[The conventions] are going to be very challenging to handle, and I don't think they're going to go without some incident taking place. It's unfortunate, but that's what I personally think," Ramsey said. "I hope that's not the case, but you've got too many people that are now with this extreme rhetoric, and that is just not good for anybody. We need to come together. We need thoughtful people to sit down and engage in dialogue and actually come up with solutions."

Ramsey also talked about the vast differences among police departments across the country, saying that training and standards need to be made more consistent across the board for all law enforcement. Todd pointed out that many of the police-involved incidents that have sparked protests and outrage have occurred in smaller suburban police departments.

"There are approximately 18,000 police departments in the United States. In my opinion, that's far too many," Ramsey said. "In your larger cities, where you have a lot of diversity, obviously you have officers that are very accustomed to dealing with a variety of people. We still have parts of our country where that is not the case."

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In Philadelphia, Ramsey placed a heavy emphasis on community policing, putting new recruits out on the street in some of the city's most challenged neighborhoods to interact with citizens on the ground level. His eight-year tenure leading the city's police force boasted a drop in violent crime, with the city recording nearly 150 fewer homicides in 2014, toward the end of his leadership, than it did in 2007 before he took the reins.

Ramsey also gained notoriety in the city when he called for the United States Department of Justice to come review Philadelphia's police-involved shootings at a time when they seemed to skyrocket in the city.

Ramsey cautioned against reading too far into statistics recently published by the Washington Post saying that police killings of civilians and police being killed in the line of duty are both up this year compared to last, warning people to keep the numbers in context.

"We do have some rising crime rates, and let's face it, we have on average about 13,000 murders in the United States every year. These are not shootings by police. These are people killing people," he said. "There's a disproportionate amount of it going on in many of our more challenged communities. Who do you think goes after the people responsible for these crimes? It's the cops, and we encounter a lot of very dangerous people out there on the street."

He also told NBC's Todd that he agreed with FBI Director James Comey's worry that police may be hesitant to act as aggressively now in light of recent events and officers' actions immortalized in viral videos. Both Ramsey and Comey did point out that no official statistics have shown this phenomenon, sometimes referred to as the "Ferguson effect."

"Police officers are human beings, and when you're being attacked like that, or at least you're perceived of being attacked, it does create some issues and some problems," Ramsey said.

"I think we all need to recognize that there are changes that need to be made," he continued. "We can't look at it from a defensive posture. How do we move forward? How do we create an environment where we're on the same page? There's only one issue, and that's creating safe neighborhoods, but also neighborhoods where people who live in [them] have a sense of justice and fairness as the law is being applied."

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