Philly Police Commish Outlaw grilled over police response to Floyd protests

Members of City Council questioned Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, bottom left, during a video-conference hearing (Screen Capture via The Philadelphia Tribune)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia legislators grilled the city’s top cop over her heavy-handed response to the protests following the police-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

During a City Council committee hearing held on Tuesday via video conference, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw confessed she had not adequately prepared for the level of demonstrations and civil unrest that flared in Philadelphia beginning on May 30.

Several days earlier, an officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes while officers took him into custody over the passing of a counterfeit $20 bill in the Minnesota city. His death at the hands of police lead to riots and demonstrations worldwide.

The department lacked any intelligence that local protests would grow so large or spark a high level of violence throughout the city, Outlaw said.

“The level of planning that we know now should have taken place prior to this did not happen,” she told legislators.  “There is no playbook, there is no reference.”

Legislators criticized the inequitable police response that occurred in Black areas compared to predominantly white neighborhoods.

City Councilwoman Jamie Gauthier (D-3) said the police department has a “terrible and harsh history” in her West Philadelphia district, which she believed influenced the department’s response in that area during the protests.

“It is a history rooted in racism,” Guathier said.

The department’s Internal Affairs Division is investigating approximately 50 use-of-force incidents by officers stemming from the protests, Outlaw said.

“They’re all fluid,” she said referring to the investigations. “We could get more depending if more people come forward.”

On May 31, police indiscriminately used tear gas where little to no demonstrations or looting was occurring in Black neighborhoods around 52nd and Market streets. About a mile away, there were incidents of looting and vandalism at the WestPark Town Center at 52nd and Jefferson streets.

A day later, police did little to stop a vigilante group of white men wielding baseball bats and hammers from prowling the predominantly white neighborhood of Fishtown.

The vigilantes assaulted at least two people, including a WHYY reporter who was beaten. Others reported the vigilantes used racial and homophobic threats and spit on them. At least one assailant was arrested and charged in the assault on the reporter.

The vigilantes claimed they were protecting the area from protesters and looters.

Capt. Benjamin Nash stressed that officers’ objective in the Fishtown incident was to “maintain peace” and de-escalate the situation.

“We did everything with the idea of fairness and impartiality,” Nash said.

Some legislators weren’t buying his explanations.

At-large Councilwoman Helen Gym said the soft police response conveyed the feeling that the vigilantes were deputized.

“I saw it certainly as a vigilante group,” Gym said.

The city’s response to the protests led to additional high-profile incidents of police using force, including the firing of tear gas on peaceful demonstrators marching across Interstate 676 in Center City.

Former City Manager Brian Abernathy resigned over his handling of the protests. The city also is conducting an independent investigation into the police response to the demonstrations.

The weeks of protests and civil unrest left 104 officers injured, and 12 police vehicles destroyed and 72 vandalized. Hundreds of stores were looted and destroyed throughout the city.

The first five days of protests cost the city $7 million in police overtime, Deputy Commissioner Christine Coulter said.

The department’s resources were “depleted and diluted” as demonstrations and riots spread throughout the city, rather than remaining in a centralized hotspot, said Outlaw, who was joined by interim City Manager Tumar Alexander. Police staffing at the time also was at lower levels due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Lynda Garcia, policing program director at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said the city’s police response to the protests inflamed tensions between officers and communities.

The Philadelphia Police Department, as well as others across the U.S., “employed militarized responses that were disproportionate to the threat imposed by protesters, intimidated and attacked people, and endangered entire communities,” she said.

Garcia called for bolstering the accountability measures for the police force, including random audits of police reports and body-cameras footage, data analyses to identify patterns of misconduct and robust investigations into officers accused of misconduct.

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared