Philly’s new homicide commander vows to make changes in PD’s most demanding unit
Staff Inspector Ernest Ransom says his job is to ensure the supervisors are doing their jobs and that they’re held accountable
By Ellie Rushing
The Philadelphia Inquirer
PHILADELPHIA — Amid a historic gun violence crisis, the Philadelphia Police Department has assigned a new commander to its Homicide Unit — a staff inspector with a background in internal affairs who says he intends to keep a closer eye on a unit marred by scandal in recent years.
Staff Inspector Ernest Ransom, a 28-year veteran of the force, spoke with The Inquirer recently about his background and his goals for such a high-stakes position.
Ransom, who was born and raised in North Philadelphia but now lives in Doylestown, is tasked with overseeing the 91 detectives and supervisors in the department’s most demanding unit during an unprecedented shooting crisis.
Ransom, 52, described how his negative interactions with police growing up, losing a brother to homicide, and years in Internal Affairs working to hold officers accountable, will help him keep detectives and their supervisors on track, and ensure justice is served — though he didn’t offer specifics about how investigators could rebuild trust with the community, or whether he had a targeted clearance rate in mind.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Where are you from, and how did you get into policing?
I was born in North Philly, near 17th and York, so straight-up North Philly. I graduated from George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science in 1988, and then I joined the police academy in 1995.
During that time from graduating high school to the Police Department, I only had two jobs: One was selling shoes and one was with UPS.
After engineering didn’t work out, I figured being a police officer would be the next best thing. It’s an exciting job and a great career — every day is different.
Having grown up in North Philly, did you have any concerns about joining the force?
I’m blessed that I had a mother and father who lived together, and who were very strict. But something I experienced growing up was that trauma of constantly being stopped by police. It felt like every five minutes when I was driving, I would get pulled over. It was always cordial, but it was taxing, because you knew as soon as you passed by the officers, they’re gonna U-turn and stop you.
So I figured, if I can get on the job, maybe I can make a change.
What jobs have you held?
My first job was on foot patrol in the 25th District, or the Badlands District, of North Philadelphia. You can call me sheltered, but I never experienced anything involving people buying or using drugs. Working there was a culture shock. At one time I’m like, “I’m quitting. I can’t do this,” but I pushed through it.
I was eventually a sergeant in South Philadelphia, then a supervisor in South Detectives. In 2011, I went to Internal Affairs, and I felt that formed the basis for me to become a good supervisor, and ultimately a better cop.
I did that for six years. I read all the complaints about officer abuse, unlawful arrests, abuse of the law, and worked on an internal anticorruption team that investigated police accused of crimes. I realized we can do a lot better if officers get the right training.
Then, I was the captain of the 35th District in North Philly for two years. One of the things I used to tell my officers was, “We will not suppress crime through oppression.” If you don’t have the reasons or probable cause to stop a vehicle, we’re not going to do that. But that’s sometimes what the community experiences, cops stopping us left and right for no reason at all. So I tried to make sure that didn’t happen, and that the work was being done the right way.
Finally, I oversaw the East Detectives Division before this job.
Why take this job? Especially now during a homicide crisis?
I won’t say I didn’t have a choice, but they came to me saying, “Listen, we want some changes in Homicide. There’s some issues that need to be corrected.” I’m not trying to minimize this, but this job is really just investigating. These detectives, they do a fantastic job. They know exactly what they’re doing. All they need is a little more direction.
This unit is no stranger to scandal. Some ex-detectives, like Philip Nordo and James Pitts, have been accused of abusing suspects to secure confessions. How do you ensure detectives stay motivated and close cases, but still follow the law?
It all begins with supervision. My job is to ensure the supervisors are doing their jobs, and that they’re held accountable. When we lack supervision, we lack control and discipline of our personnel, and it’s shown time and time again. I’m putting out orders that make sure they know our policies, and they know I’ll hold them responsible. If they can’t do the job, they don’t need to be here.
How do you do that?
Technology, reviewing all the paperwork that comes across my desk to make sure it’s filled out accurately and adequately. Something as simple as making sure the people placed in our cell rooms are monitored. For overtime, they need to email me a request and the reason for why it’s justified. Something as simple as a comma in the wrong position. That just shows them, now I’m watching.
Clearance rates are a big measure of success in this job. Do you have your own target number?
So far this year, our homicide rate is at 72%, which is really good. [In 2022, it was 47% for the year, according to police data, which was up 4% over the year before.]
But I don’t want to put a target on it for the whole year, because it’s based on volume. We have a finite number of detectives out there. As the number of homicides increases, once it hits a certain point, you can’t keep up, because every day more jobs are coming through. But we hope it’s a lot better than last year, because those families deserve some level of closure.
What are the tangible steps to improve over last year?
I don’t think it’s anything we have to do differently. They’re out there working their butts off. We need tips from the community. When the community says we’re not doing our job, it’s because we pretty much ran into a wall, but if you know something, you truly have to say something.
How can you repair the community’s trust so people feel safe coming forward?
Unfortunately, this is a reactive type of position. The most I can really do is reach out to the districts so they can spread the message and work to repair the community relationship.
Families often say it’s difficult to get in touch with detectives investigating their loved one’s deaths. Do you have any plan to try to improve that internal culture of communication with families?
My brother was killed when I was in the 35th District in 2018. His name was Anthony Ransom, he was 34 years old, killed in a domestic-related homicide. So I know what it means to be a family member of a victim of homicide. I know exactly what it feels like to lose that connectivity with the detective assigned. It’s often because they’re so busy. I don’t know exactly how to put measures in place for that because there are so many jobs coming in so often, but families can always give us a call at 215-686-3334. I’ll assure detectives reach out.
Do you live in Philadelphia?
No, we’re in Doylestown. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I used to live in Northeast Philly. It was a very nice block, but I would get home and my neighbors were smoking marijuana. The smell would come into my twin house. At that point I said I can’t do this anymore. I can’t work every single day trying to stop this, then I come home and I got to deal with the same thing over and over again.
Don’t you think you should live in the city to do this work?
No, I don’t think that gives me any more credibility. I’m still experiencing it, I’m still going through it every single day reading these reports. It’s all about the safety of your family.
What do you wish the public knew about this work or unit?
The public needs to know the detectives are continuously looking for those individuals who caused the crimes. Also, these detectives don’t have a life. Honestly, they’re going through divorces, because this is what they do, this is what they love. They’re trying to accomplish that arrest. I overheard a conversation where a detective said he hadn’t gone home in two days. I told him, you have to go home, you gotta take time for your family. But to be honest with you, they don’t want to, because once they have a lead in a case, if they don’t act on it, they could lose it and that kills the case.
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