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Enthusiasm, hope, and ‘old guard’ warnings follow naming of Philly’s first black female police head

"I’ve been a black woman all my life, and I’ve chosen the career of law enforcement," new police commissioner Danielle Outlaw said during a news conference Monday.

Danielle Outlaw speaks during a press conference introducing her as commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department.
Danielle Outlaw speaks during a press conference introducing her as commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia’s new police commissioner is aware of what she represents in being the first black woman named to head the force.

But she said she was also the first black woman to do the last job she held, and for a long time, “it was a distraction.”

“I’ve been a black woman all my life, and I’ve chosen the career of law enforcement," said Danielle Outlaw, the Portland, Ore., police chief named Monday to lead the Philadelphia Police Department. She added: “I do not take lightly the fact that I am the first here … I understand who opened doors for me to be in this position, and I understand it’s also my obligation to help people [come up] behind me to ensure we’re not in 2020 still talking about firsts.”

But the historic nature of her appointment wasn’t lost on advocates for women and people of color. She is Philadelphia’s first female commissioner aside from Christine M. Coulter, who has served as the interim commissioner since August after Richard Ross, the former head of the police, abruptly resigned.

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“It’s a personal milestone for her, but it also is another barrier being shattered for black women,” said the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, senior pastor of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church and a police reform advocate. Tyler said he has three daughters, and the appointment is significant for girls like his: “I don’t think anybody should miss how important this day is."

Among the 10 largest cities in America, three women — now including Outlaw — lead police departments. She joins Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams and Dallas Police Chief Reneé Hall, though Philadelphia’s police department employs more officers than both of those.

Outlaw, 43, inherits a force with about 6,600 officers that has, over the last year, faced tumult, including disciplining dozens of cops for posting racist or offensive material on Facebook. And there were allegations of rampant sexism, including regarding the resignation of former commissioner Ross, who was accused in a lawsuit of retaliating against a woman with whom he had an affair. Ross denied the allegations.

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But the lawsuit described a department rife with sexual harassment and discrimination, a characterization echoed in complaints against Carl Holmes, a Philadelphia police commander arrested this year on charges of sexually assaulting three female officers. The city spent more than a million dollars settling a lawsuit brought by a woman who claimed Holmes sexually assaulted her, and last year, an audit by the city controller found that of 11 internal harassment complaints made between 2012 and 2018, one alleged perpetrator was dismissed and two were suspended while the rest received a warning or took part in training.

Women’s advocates in Philadelphia say they’re optimistic that having a woman at the top could help the department better address harassment.

“I certainly hope that she hears the stories of the victims in a different way than her predecessors,” said Monique Howard, executive director of WOAR, Philadelphia’s rape crisis center.

It’s relatively uncommon for black women to head police departments, experts said. Nationally, women make up about 13% of law enforcement, and in Philadelphia, women make up 22% of the force. Thirty-two percent of the department is made up of black officers.

Philadelphia’s first 100 female patrol officers were hired in 1976 to be part of a study aimed at assessing whether women could handle the job. Among them was Maureen Rush, now the president of the Philadelphia Police Foundation.

“At that point, I would never have imagined that we would have had a woman commissioner, never mind a black woman commissioner, in the future,” said Rush, who is also the vice president for public safety and superintendent of police at the University of Pennsylvania, and was a Philadelphia police officer for nearly three decades. “You just wanted to survive every day back then.”

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Kathy Spillar, executive director of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which houses the National Center for Women and Policing, said Outlaw should beware of an “old guard” who aren’t open to her or her style.

“There are a lot of policemen who still believe that women should not be police officers,” she said. “They buck authority when a woman rises to a command rank. They deliberately undermine the attempt to make real progress and change. But times have changed. And women are qualified and are desperately needed.”

Those who worked with Outlaw say she’s no stranger to this dynamic.

Some older, white male commanders in the Oakland, Calif., police department — Outlaw’s hometown force, where she spent 20 years — felt threatened by her, said Anthony Finnell, who was executive director of Oakland’s Citizen’s Police Review Board during Outlaw’s last three years there.

He never saw it affect her work, but Finnell felt that some of those senior commanders didn’t give Outlaw the credit she deserved.

“At one point I told her, ‘If they don’t respect you, or appreciate you here, there’s other departments in the country who will,'" he said.

Spillar said it’s vital political leadership doesn’t tolerate “undermining the new chief.”

Support from the community and advocacy organizations will be essential, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project. She said “it’s about time” for Philadelphia to have a woman of color as police commissioner. Tracy, who’s worked with the department for decades on its handling of sex crimes, said any commissioner would face challenges winning buy-in from the rank-and-file, but particularly a woman of color.

“Providing as much insight and support as a community can,” she said, “will have a lot to do with what her future success is.”

Outlaw’s elevation is also meaningful for young women considering law enforcement who might be more apt to apply if they see themselves reflected at the top, said Kym Craven, executive director of the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives.

“When people see women joining SWAT teams and being K-9 handlers and becoming part of the department at all levels,” she said, “it opens the door for other young women to go into the profession and say ‘I can do that, too.’”

Staff writers Chris Palmer, Allison Steele, and Claudia Vargas contributed to this article.