Three Big Challenges As Philly’s New Police Commissioner Takes Over A Beleaguered Department

Mayor Jim Kenney’s reception room was packed Monday with veterans of the city’s political class: City Council members. Cabinet officials. Aides and observers.

But at the center of the ornate space stood a woman who will have as much influence over the city’s future as any of them. And as she introduced herself to the crowd, 43-year-old Danielle Outlaw, Kenney’s pick to become Philadelphia’s next police commissioner, made no secret that the city was also still introducing itself to her.

“I literally just landed,” Outlaw said, standing behind a podium bearing the city’s seal. Later, the Oakland native and former Portland, Ore., chief, added that she had never before set foot in Philadelphia’s City Hall.

For Kenney, the fresh start is intentional. After a year filled with embarrassing headlines about racism and sexual harassment afflicting the 6,500-member force — and with gun violence continuing to plague city neighborhoods — Kenney reached for a commissioner who is younger than any in memory, and with no connection to the department.

She also is the first black woman to lead the police force, a distinction she acknowledged when accepting the $285,000-a-year job.

How she expresses all of that in her leadership could take time to recognize. Outlaw said often on Monday that she’ll need to settle into the department — and the city — before offering specifics about how she’ll lead. As her interview process took place largely behind closed doors, she’ll be starting from scratch in developing relationships.

John McNesby, president of the police union, came away impressed after meeting Outlaw for about an hour Monday before her public introduction.

“Seemed like a straight shooter, no nonsense,” said McNesby, head of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, adding that he offered to introduce her to more union leaders. “I can’t emphasize enough that we’re going to work with her through the process and not set her up for failure.”

District Attorney Larry Krasner had met Outlaw at a gathering of police chiefs and prosecutors, and hopes to communicate with her frequently about challenges facing the criminal justice system.

“My office will stand with her to try to help make the kind of reforms that this city needs, because justice really does make us safer,” Krasner said.

Outlaw was back in Portland by the end of the week, and the Mayor’s Office declined to make her available for an interview until after she starts work in Philadelphia next month.

Much will require her attention when she arrives — establishing a leadership team, seeking to bolster accountability, and combating gun violence. These key issues are likely to shape her tenure as the city’s top cop.


None of the tasks on Outlaw’s to-do list will be quite as complicated as trying to rehabilitate the department’s image after high-profile scandals — the firings of 15 cops for racist or otherwise offensive Facebook posts, Ross’s resignation over claims in a sexual harassment lawsuit, the arrest of former Chief Inspector Carl Holmes — that had roots in long-simmering cultural problems.

In Portland, Outlaw had a crucial tool to help improve police accountability: an independent police review division that operates out of the city auditor’s office.

The division was created in 2001, but its clout grew dramatically during the last decade, thanks to city ordinances that gave it subpoena power, the ability to reject Internal Affairs findings, and a vote on a board that recommends police discipline to the commissioner.

Ross Caldwell, the review division’s director, said his eight investigators probe any misconduct allegations that involve supervisors who have a rank of captain or higher, a provision that ensures Internal Affairs detectives don’t have to worry about investigating a boss who could impact their careers.

“We have access to everything,” he said. “Officers always come down to talk to us.”

The division was an asset to Outlaw, who was an outsider in Portland. “Like a lot of police bureaus, Portland is very clique-y,” Caldwell said, “and usually an insider is elevated to chief.”

In Philadelphia, Outlaw will encounter a civilian-run Police Advisory Commission that often has struggled for relevancy. Voters approved an amendment to the city charter in 2018 that boosted the commission’s annual funding to $500,000, but it still battles the Police Department to access Internal Affairs records.

Hans Menos, the commission’s executive director, said when he pushes the department to cite specific policies that could explain why some misconduct investigations are shrouded in secrecy, he’s met with “a great deal of radio silence. When they’re right about something, they’ll let me know. When I’m right, they don’t respond.”

It won’t be up to Outlaw to decide whether Philadelphia will seek to increase civilian oversight of the police force. “That’s really a question of city policy,” Managing Director Brian Abernathy said.

Kenney’s administration is expected to fight for new accountability reforms — especially in how the arbitration process undermines discipline — as part of negotiations with the FOP on a new police contract. The current agreement is set to expire in June.

“I think the mayor, with the appointment of Chief Outlaw, and our stance in contract negotiations generally, makes it clear that we want to see some change,” Abernathy said.

Deputies and commanders

One of the more consequential decisions for any leader is in selecting an inner circle. Outlaw will face a potentially awkward situation when appointing deputy commissioners, who oversee and guide departmental priorities including patrol operations, investigations, and professional standards.

Of the five deputies who served under former commissioner Richard Ross, at least two interviewed for Outlaw’s job: Christine Coulter — who remains acting commissioner — and Joe Sullivan.

Two others, Dennis Wilson and Robin Wimberly, will be in the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP) program by the end of the month and are scheduled to retire within the next four years.

And Ross’ top deputy, Myron Patterson, is retiring as well, using up his vacation time.

At her introductory news conference, Outlaw demurred when asked whom she might tap to surround her, acknowledging it likely would take time to get to know the best candidates.

“I still have to take a look around and get to know some people,” she said.

Managing the egos and ambitions of deputies can be a challenge. Both Ross and Coulter have said that when they served as deputy commissioners, they were expected to vie for the top job. Done well, that can produce healthy competition. But it also can lead to jealousy and backbiting in a department known for fostering gossip and palace intrigue.

The last outsider to head the department, Charles H. Ramsey, brought a trusted adviser with him from Washington, D.C., and made her a high-level aide. Four months after he took over in 2008, Ramsey doubled the number of deputy commissioners, promoted or transferred dozens of other commanders, and reorganized the department to try to get hundreds more officers out on patrol.

Abernathy said Outlaw “does have some flexibility” to bring in additional support staff. Either way, she said Monday that although she may need to develop scores of new relationships here, she is confident she will be able to identify worthy partners.

“I know what I know when I see it,” she said.

Violent crime

Outlaw will be expected to drive down crime, as the city has experienced its highest levels of gun violence in years.

Although she declined to offer many specifics, she alluded to strategies the city has been developing that seek to make police just one part of an overall approach to reducing shootings, along with social services and community involvement.

One of those initiatives, generally known as group violence intervention, has been in development for months, with plans to launch in West Philadelphia in the spring.

Outlaw’s hometown of Oakland, where she worked for the first 20 years of her career, has used a similar approach by focusing tightly on those deemed most likely to shoot or be shot. The strategy there, dubbed Ceasefire, has been credited since 2012 with cutting the city’s shootings and homicides in half.

“We know it’s a very small percentage of our population that’s responsible for the larger percentage of crime,” Outlaw said. Police, she added, should be “spearfishing” for would-be gunmen instead of casting too wide a net.

The Rev. Michael McBride, who has been a leader in Oakland’s Ceasefire efforts, said he saw her right away as an officer who was focused on police accountability and who had a genuine stake in the way the community viewed the department.

“We saw a lot of potential there,” McBride said. “The consensus among us was that she’s a law enforcement leader who is serious about criminal-justice reform, and about reimagining public safety models.”

He said Outlaw, an Oakland deputy chief from mid-2013 through 2017, gained experience navigating demands made by community members as well as the concerns of law enforcement officers. She had “the courage and the ability to connect with and listen to those two sides,” McBride said.

Dorothy Johnson-Speight, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Mothers in Charge, a violence-prevention group, said she was encouraged that Outlaw emphasized community partnerships in her initial remarks, because driving down gun violence should be a collective effort, she said.

“I’m hoping she’ll bring a breath of fresh air.”


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