Philly Police Commissioner Outlaw talks the good, bad, and ugly of her first year

By: - February 9, 2021 6:30 am

New Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw (Photo via The Philadelphia Tribune)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw took the reins of the Philadelphia Police Department one year ago on Wednesday.

As the first Black woman to lead the approximately 6,500-member force in the department’s history, Outlaw was tasked with reversing a departmental culture plagued by sexual harassmentracism and decades of mistreatment of people of color, and gun violence and homicides.

Then the coronavirus arrived in Philadelphia in March. Then the fatal police killing of George Floyd Wallace in May sparked mass protests against police brutality in the city and across the U.S. Then two Philadelphia police fatally shot Walter Wallace Jr., a Black man allegedly suffering from a mental health crisis, in West Philadelphia. The incident led to more civil unrest.

Outlaw has faced calls to resign over her leadership during the 2020 protests and her department’s perceived heavy-handed tactics, which included teargassing protesters and Black neighborhoods far from demonstrations. Also cited was the apparently inequitable application of force against Black protesters compared with whites.

The Philadelphia Tribune conducted a 45-minute one-on-one interview with Outlaw on Friday. The following responses have been edited and condensed.

Q: What are your thoughts and reflections about your first year leading the department?

A: Some good moments. Clearly some tumultuous times.

Getting here. Needing to build a team. Cpl. James O’Connor IV being killed, was fatally shot serving a warrant. Then the pandemic hits. Then we have to rethink how we do policing from start to finish; come up with new protocols with how we interact with folks while we’re fighting to get personal protective equipment for our employees. Homicides increase. Non-fatal shootings increase. Civil unrest …. And all the things after that.

It’s literally been one thing after the other. Whereas in a lot of my colleagues’ careers, one would be a once-in-a-professional-lifetime event, or maybe two, but we had all these things happening simultaneously.

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Q: How has all of that affected you?

A: I’m looking forward to taking a vacation — at some point.

But we know when we take these jobs, whether we’ve been a chief or a commissioner before, that in first year we’re hitting the ground running and it’s going to be non-stop.

And then generally by the second year the hope is that we’ve established some form of foundation, we’ve laid some framework, we can let this team step in, be responsible for their areas.

Q: So you have your system and policies in place?

A: Well, sort of, not really. Because the one piece that I missed last year is the budget. The pandemic had a huge impact on the police department’s budget.

When I got here, I was already walking into budget season and we needed to identify cuts. We anticipate the hit’s going to be even worse.

When I rolled out my plan, which is really a strategic framework, to address many things, not just crime prevention and reduction but organizational excellence and how we engage with the community, a lot of those things in my plan weren’t funded.

Q: What has gone unfunded?

A: I’d like to establish an early intervention program to identify at-risk behavior or positive performance of officers. It’s a risk-management tool and performance-based.

I don’t like to hear about a high-profile incident that involves force, and then it’s the media or someone else that finds this person might have had several incidents before.

It’s machine-learning to identify risk, and positive but also things that could be predictors. You would look at use-of-force incidents to arrest ratios, or complaints to arrest ratios, or some things that would make you say, I need to take a look at and then intervene.

Q: What does intervene mean? You mean remove officers?

A: No. Ultimately, it would lead up to termination, maybe. But a lot of times, some folks need training or they need mentoring, coaching or reassignment. Just whatever it is so you can address the behavior before it snowballs into something worse.

And then you have some folks that do really, really, really well. How do we put that in a bottle and sell it?

Q: How would you describe these officers that need intervention?

A: I don’t put the bad apple label on everyone. Don’t get me wrong: Some folks don’t need to be cops anymore.

But we also have to be able to look at ourselves as a department and say, Have I set this person up to thrive and be successful? Have I given the resources that they need?

Folks want us to get Tasers. It costs a lot of money. We’ve had a line-item for several years.

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Q: It sounds like what you’re saying is that the department doesn’t have the resources now to identify these troubled officers and offer interventions and the department is creating its own problems.

A: The answer is yes to that. But I don’t necessarily agree that we don’t have the — I think this is a different way of looking at things.

If we shift from a disciplinary culture, which is what I’m trying to do, to that of a performance culture, that means we’re prioritizing in a different way.

If I’m saying … ‘I’m waiting for something negative to happen and then I wait for it to come across my desk and then I impose discipline,’ to me that is reactionary and after the fact.

As opposed to being more proactive and utilizing a risk-management strategy and focusing on performance. This allows us to develop, train and coach our folks, but we can identify snags as they occur and we can address it early.

But again, it costs money. It takes time and it takes resources. And, quite frankly, it’s a new way to think for our department.

Q: How much would this early intervention program cost?

A: It ranges from $500,000. And then costs to maintain it each year.

Q: And you plan on asking City Council to fund this early intervention system during budget hearings this year?

A: Yes. We’ve asked for the Philadelphia Police Foundation to help us fund this initially. But the ongoing costs would have to come from the city.

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I reason I mention contract negotiations with the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 is because it’s part of a larger picture, in that I want to look at positions that can be civilianized or maybe even create civilian positions to do work that traditionally have been done by unionized officers.

Q: You were brought in as an outsider to correct a troubled department. Describe in your own words what the state of the department was when you took it over.

A: Having worked in departments before where there was high turnover at the top, it creates a sense of uncertainty because no one knows what’s going to happen. Meaning: Who is the new leader going to be? What is his or her style going to be? What’s going to be their platform?

I was very publicly hired to not only to address crime but to really address issues of reform and accountability.

And when people hear reform and accountability, all the things that come along with it, the immediate thought is: ‘Uh oh, somebody’s going to come in with a heavy hand and discipline their way out of everything.’ That’s not my style. I want to create a performance culture.

We knew there were some issues on the table around sexism, gender harassment and discrimination. But I’ve peeled back the onion. I’m looking at all of our processes. I’m looking at our administrative processes, our internal affairs processes, our health and well-being programs and initiatives because it all lends to our ability to do the job.

There are so many things where we’re peeling back these scars, where we recognize diversity and recruiting and retention. All of these things are key issues that need to be prioritized and need to be given resources. Folks just want clear direction. We’re there. We have a framework but now it’s also a matter of getting people in the right seat to ensure we can move that forward.

Q: How would you grade yourself in creating that new performance culture at the department?

A: Shoot, I’m not going to get all that accomplished in a year by any means. I’ve been asked to grade myself before. I think that’s a tough one.

But I am proud of the fact that, given everything that’s been thrown at us — not just me — and everything we’ve experienced as a department, we continue to execute and implement. We’ve accomplished quite a bit, not just in policy reform but in really trying to change how we see things in our role in the community. And that’s going to take time.

Asking me to come and undo decades and decades of culture is definitely not going to happen in one year.

Q: Many Philadelphians of color probably weren’t surprised to see city officers applying force inconsistently during the 2020 protests over police brutality. It’s part of a long history in the department. Yet you were tasked with enacting reforms. How do you respond to that?

A: Let’s be mindful, that happened when I was here for four months. Culture does take time.

All of us in law enforcement, not just here in Philadelphia, are having to step back and rethink and reset not just how we address violent crime but even how we respond to mass events that call for crowd management.

But what we saw over the summer and what we’ve seen recently, no one, quite frankly, was prepared for that.

And given that there were so many commonalities in response across the country, that tells us that we’re all going back to the drawing board and saying, ‘OK, how do we need to rethink? How do we train our folks to transition when a situation goes from chaotic to when it starts to trickle down? How do we utilize the tools that we have available or do we need new tools to discern between peaceful protesters and non-peaceful when we know that the tactics of some of our anarchists are to intersperse within those who are peaceful?

So communities change their tactics whether for the good or for the bad. And law enforcement has to catch up.

Law enforcement has to catch up with how folks use social media now. For the most part, we were used to folks posting stuff on social media, maybe a threat of something, for example, but we had time to either further investigate it, knock on their door and ask, ‘Are you going to do this?’ And now it’s happening in real time and we find ourselves being reactive.

Q: Homicides spiked last year to their highest levels since at least 1960. Carjackings also rose last year. Are these indications that the city’s anti-violence plan is not working or needs adjusting?

A: For sure. And I’ve been very publicly open about our need to adapt. But what it also says is that there are other factions in the criminal justice system that need to do the same. We are but one part of this.

2020 showed us that there were a lot of theme and patterns that related to the social media piece, domestic violence, narcotics, and we had to adapt our strategies to focus more on that, not just through the use of data.

We’re all trying to figure it out right now because a lot of the models that worked in the past — surefire, even where I came from in Oakland, California — everybody’s experiencing the same upticks and we’re all saying we have to go back to the drawing board and figure out how we need to make tweaks or changes.

Q: Can you name one or two changes you’ve made?

A: We bolstered our narcotics bureau because we realized a lot of the violent crime was being driven around the narcotics trade. And that’s in the East Division.

We created a Kensington Police District, which rolled out on Jan. 24 with 38 officers and a command structure and a temporary police facility. So we have high-visibility there but we have the ability to be on foot and bicycles so we can be more reactive there. Because we know what’s happening there is a lot of people make their purchases and go to other parts of the city.

Partnering on the domestic violence piece with community partners and the city’s Office of Violent Prevention to get ahead of that. And not only bolster awareness and education around domestic violence, but also prioritizing those cases — internally, here — to make sure the domestic violence cases get the attention that they need before they turn more violent.

And continuing to utilize data and working with our local, state and federal partners.

Q: How do you plan on reducing homicides and carjackings, and improving quality of life issues this year?

A: We are being asked, under the Bailey agreement [a federal consent decree], we are being asked by plaintiff attorney’s to cease quality of life enforcement. There’s a lot of stuff going on that people don’t know about.

There’s also a contingent of folks that think we should stop doing vehicle enforcement. That all addresses quality of life issues. The more we have the ability to not only be visible and get officers out on foot, out of their cars, getting out to know their residents, that lends to quality of life enforcement.

But at the same time, we’re the police department. I want to be clear. We’re the police department. We are but one entity of this. There are other city services that also have a role in addressing quality of life issues.

I think it’s really easy to turn to the police and say, ‘OK, what are you doing about it?’ Because we’re the most visible and upfront and we’re 24-7. We all have a role to play in this. If we do not address quality of life issues, we’re going to see the increases that we see.

Q: You have said no one could have prepared for the protests in 2020. But the recent City Controller’s report on Philadelphia’s response to the civil unrest last year said otherwise, finding the root cause of the lack of planning was a lack of leadership at the highest levels, including yourself and Kenney. Is that criticism fair?

A: I don’t even know if fair is the word because life isn’t fair. But to say that there was a blueprint or a plan for something that’s never occurred before is disingenuous. It’s an easy go-to and short-sighted response because we knew that people were looking to point a figure toward.

What we’ve learned in law enforcement is that even if there’s nothing specific to Philadelphia or in this region or if it’s never happened before, we’d better plan like it’s going to happen here. And that’s what we’ve done. We did that almost immediately after those incidents occurred over the summer.

Q: But the fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. occurred in October, followed by more looting.

A: It did happen again. But what we’re saying is, these were unanticipated events, right? And even when the first round of unrest happened in the summer, what we’re saying was: There was no intelligence or anything to indicate that something like that would happen here.

Same thing after the shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. The looting happened and a lot of folks said, ‘Why didn’t you have officers there?’ There was nothing indicating that that would happen in those areas.

And what had happened before, this is what I was talking about with social media, was it happened in real time: Someone would post on social media, ‘We’re going to go loot this store,’ or, ‘We’re going to go to this intersection and do X, Y and Z.’ And then the next thing you knew, it happened. We were being reactive. So in a lot of those locations, even though we had officers there, it wasn’t enough.

Q: Can any police department control those sorts of events and react in real time?

A: It’s not sustainable and it’s not feasible, no. Ultimately, we’re building out our resources. Even just to have a presence, one or two police cars, we saw that wasn’t enough after the Walter Wallace incident.

Q: So the department cannot stop the sort of civil unrest seen in 2020 from happening again?

A: We’ve done it since but it’s been very expensive, not just fiscally. It takes a toll on officers. It requires cancelling days off so we can have folks everywhere, not just downtown. It’s very resource intense.

Q: Have the events of 2020 made you a better cop?

A: I think so. I wouldn’t say a better cop. I’d say a better person.

Q: How?

A: It takes a lot out of you every time you hear a wailing mother or a family member after a child dies or someone dies or there’s negligence around a gun. And I’m out there. I’m out there on the scenes.

And learning from challenges or missteps. It only makes you stronger. You don’t know what you don’t know.

For anyone to portray they’re perfect, they know it all, they’re the expert on all things — I don’t think that’s genuine. The only way for us to improve is to go through something, to experience adversity. It makes you stronger. It’s certainly humbling. But it also further connects me to the community that I’m serving here.

Q: What’s the top thing you have learned about Philadelphia?

A: Honestly, I’m going to tell you, I feel robbed. I feel robbed by this whole pandemic. I had a whole list of stuff that I wanted to do when I first got here but I haven’t had the ability to do that.

And it’s because the places are closed. I’m a huge foodie. I had a whole list of restaurants that I wanted to try. And short, little two-day drives I wanted to take. All of that I haven’t been able to do since I got here. I’m looking forward to it as the vaccinations roll out.

Yeah, it’s been work, sleep, work some more.

Q: What are your top goals for 2021?

A: Connectivity is really important to me. To be able to get out and engage people not always from behind a computer screen because I know that’s worked to my detriment because people don’t know me. And so because of that, I don’t get the benefit of the doubt that maybe someone else would have gotten if they were already from here.

Getting my initiatives off the ground and finding funding for them, like early intervention system.

These things lend to our ability to impact crime.

So I want to focus internally on what we need to do to strengthen ourselves. I want to connect even more internally and externally. And my hope is to strengthen our partnerships and really bring awareness to identify gaps throughout the criminal justice system so we’re all working together more collaboratively to get the end results we’re looking for.

Q: How would you describe your management style?

A: Fair. Consistent. Folks get the benefit of the doubt — once. I rely on folks’ expertise until I realize if I can’t, I have to step in. Decisive. Firm when need be.

I am really big on collaboration and bringing folks to the table. But it depends on the circumstances.

Q: Correct me if I’m wrong, but from my limited experience, it seems you have a behind-the-scenes style. You’re not the one calling news conferences every day on any number of issues. You’re not seeking the limelight all the time. Is that correct? Do you shy away from that?

A: I don’t shy away. I’m very open and transparent. If there are requests to speak with me, I’m more than happy to oblige. I think there needs to be a very clear delineation between elected officials, politicians and the police.

We are neutral beings. My thinking is, ‘When you see the police commissioner, oh! This is something big.’

I don’t expect folks to see me speaking about day to day stuff. We have an amazing staff here. We have very competent leaders here. It’s important for the community to see their leadership, not just the commissioner.

I don’t shy away from the media. I think there’s been this expectation placed upon me to be out front as if I were an elected official, which I am not.

Q: Do you think you’ve done a good job introducing yourself to everyday residents (taking the pandemic restrictions into account)?

A: The answer is no because I’ve had to meet everyone virtually through a screen or I’ve met them during times of tragedy, and we just don’t have the same connections when you’re meeting folks virtually.

I’ve done many community meetings and town halls. Again, they’ve all been virtual.

A lot of folks want to compare me to predecessors. They had community meetings. They had receptions. They had opportunities to attend events where all this stuff happened. That wasn’t my introduction here.

I feel robbed by the pandemic. It’s almost like starting over hopefully when these vaccinations roll out and maybe one day the pandemic will go away. But it’s almost like every day I’m starting over.

Q: Does the department still have a culture problem?

A: Absolutely. I’ve only been here a year.

Q: Then what are the top issues regarding the department’s culture problem?

A: You name it. All of the -isms that are reflected in the community are still here. We are a subset, we are a subculture of the community that we live in, that we’re a part of, so nothing has changed here.

Q: What do you think your biggest misstep was in the past year?

A: I don’t know.

Q: Nothing?

A: I told you, there are a lot of lessons learned. I don’t know which one was bigger than any.

Q: So you’d characterize them as lessons learned, not missteps?

A: Absolutely. A lot of lessons learned.

Q: So, what’s your top lesson learned?

A: There’s a lot of them. I don’t know.

You’ve asked me this. There’s almost like an expectation of perfection of me. There’s no perfect being. And just be asked something like that is — I don’t know. Pick one.

I’ve been asked, or it appears there’s an expectation that I was supposed to come in with this magic wand and fix all the ills of Philadelphia that existed for many, many, many, many, many, many years. So if you want to talk about lessons learned, I don’t know which one is more important than any because they’re all important.

We talked about acting on a lack of information. I think that was important when responding to unrest or potential unrest. Again, I think we did really well with that in working from those lessons learned when you look at elections and all that stuff after. It’s like planning for a party that’s never going to happen.

Q: You know what I’ve always wanted to ask? A lot of media portray you as being trigger happy when it comes to using tear gas and other less-lethal munitions, and reference your use of those tactics when you were chief of the Portland, Oregon, Police Bureau.

Is that fair? How would you describe your relationship with those tactics?

A: The answer is absolutely not because no one wants to have to deal with the aftermath of using less-lethal munitions.

But at the same time, we in police leadership, I, as the police leader, have to ensure that my officers are safe.

Now, with that said, there’s been a lot of focus, and rightfully so, on our use of munitions. But what we forget about is the number of officers that were hurt during last year’s protests; the number of officers that were hospitalized.

I got my orientations to our local hospitals in a way that I never thought I would, and that was from visiting, as they occurred, hurt and injured officers in trauma bays and emergency rooms. We tend to forget about that.

We have the resources, the tools that we have for a reason. Now, we can talk about whether or not they were utilized within or out of policy. That’s one thing.

But what’s real here — I had hit and run over by a car. Two, right? Bricks through. Noses broken. Legs surgeries needed. That’s very, very real.

So, no, I’m not trigger happy because no one wants to deal with the aftermath of using it. Quite frankly, that’s me selfishly speaking — nobody wants to deal with that.

You have to balance that with making sure that officers have what they need to protect themselves.

There’s a lot of anarchy in Portland also where munitions were used on occasion. Now, it was used a lot more after I left. So i don’t know if they’re associating me with a perceived culture there, but, trust me, nobody wants to use this stuff. Nobody, quite frankly, wants to use force. The best resolution is not to have to use force at all and there’s voluntary compliance.

Q: The economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic is expected to stress the city’s budget again this year. And this is the first budget season after the protests over police brutality last year. Are you planning for cuts to your department?

A: We’ve been asked to offer 5%, 7%, and 10% cut scenarios. And we’re also being asked to invest in ourselves. There’s been calls for more training, there’s calls for more tools and equipment.

When you look at the recommendations that come out of these reports, there are budgetary implications there because these things cost money. But at the same time, we’re being told the budget is more dire than it has been in recent years and you’ve got to find some cuts.

I’ve said this before: When we start cutting, that means we start cutting people because the majority of our budget is personal cost.

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

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