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What to know about Danielle Outlaw, the first black woman to lead the Philly police

She will be Philly's first female commissioner aside from Christine Coulter, who served as the interim commissioner when Richard Ross resigned abruptly.

Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw in August in Portland. She has been tapped to lead Philadelphia's police department.
Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw in August in Portland. She has been tapped to lead Philadelphia's police department.Read moreCraig Mitchelldyer / AP File

A 43-year-old black woman who heads a West Coast police department will soon take over Philadelphia’s police force.

Danielle Outlaw, chief of the Portland Police Bureau, will be the Philadelphia Police Department’s first female commissioner aside from Christine Coulter, who has served as the interim commissioner since August, when former Police Commissioner Richard Ross abruptly resigned.

Here’s what to know about Outlaw:

She comes from a much smaller force

In taking over in Philadelphia, Outlaw would lead the nation’s fourth-largest municipal police department, which has about 6,600 sworn officers and 800 civilian employees. By comparison, the Portland Police Bureau has 877 sworn officers and 300 civilian employees, according to city data.

In Philly, Outlaw is inheriting a department that’s faced tumult and scandal over the last year, including the disciplining of dozens of officers who posted offensive material on Facebook, as well as allegations that the department has a culture of sexual harassment and discrimination. This comes amid ongoing gun violence — more people were shot this year than in any year since 2010.

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But she’s not a stranger to controversy.

She’s been criticized by protesters on both sides

Outlaw’s Portland department was criticized last year for its use of chemical irritants and flash-bang devices during a right-wing rally and antifascist counterprotest. She addressed the protesters further, appearing on a conservative talk radio program and comparing the police’s engagement in the matter to a schoolyard brawl.

“I tell you, ‘Meet me after school at 3:00. Right? We’re gonna fight’,” Outlaw told Portland radio host Lars Larson. “And I come with the intention to fight. And then you get mad because I kicked your butt. And then you go back and you wail off and whine and complain.”

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The same summer, Outlaw said she told Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler police planned to sweep an encampment of Occupy ICE protesters who parked themselves outside an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Portland for five weeks. (A similar sweep took place last summer in Philadelphia.)

"I wasn't asking for permission to go out and clear this camp. I said, 'This is what's going to happen and here's how it's going to happen,’” Outlaw said in the interview, noting that Wheeler was supportive.

Then this year, her department faced criticism from the right, including from Donald Trump Jr. and Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), after a right-wing rally resulted in a viral video of activist Andy Ngo being punched by demonstrators. Cruz tweeted that Wheeler “for political reasons, ordered his police officers to let citizens be attacked by domestic terrorists.”

Wheeler responded “get your facts straight” and Outlaw defended her officers in a news conference, saying “there’s a perception that they ‘ran away’ from confrontation, and that couldn’t be the furthest from the truth.”

In her introductory press conference in Philadelphia, Outlaw said, “Modern policing is data-driven, but the paramount facto so easily quantified, and that’s trust. … I am convinced that trust can be restored, here and all across our nation.”.”

She doesn’t fit neatly into a political category

After having spent 20 years on the force in her hometown of Oakland, Calif., Outlaw was sworn in to lead the Portland Police Bureau in October 2017, becoming the first black woman to head the force in one of America’s most liberal and whitest big cities. Her hire in Portland in 2017 was met with optimism from police reform advocates, who characterized her as progressive.

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Outlaw made a name for herself in law enforcement, speaking on topics related to race and policing, women representation and use of force investigations. Last year, she delivered a Ted Talk about 21st-century policing and restoring “the humanity in authority.”

In her introductory press conference in Philadelphia, Outlaw said, “Modern policing is data-driven, but the paramount factor is not so easily quantified, and that’s trust. … I am convinced that trust can be restored, here and all across our nation.”

“I cannot do this alone. … I ask each of you for more than your support. I ask for your help, your thoughts, your wisdom, and your ideas. Most importantly, your time. Because I do not know what I do not know,” she said later in the press briefing. “This is not an us versus them, one side against the other. We can be supportive of police and we can be supportive of police accountability at the same time. They are not mutually exclusive.”

» READ MORE: Danielle Outlaw’s long journey to Philadelphia police commissioner

A 2018 story by the Portland weekly newspaper Willamette Week indicated she was a “cops’ cop” less interested in the reforms the mayor who hired her campaigned on than in “taking back control of the city’s streets.”

Some progressives also saw a blemish on her record as it relates to immigration. In 2017, when Outlaw was deputy chief of police in Oakland, she opposed a City Council move to rescind an agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to SFGate, the sister site of the San Francisco Chronicle. The agreement had allowed the department to classify its officers as U.S. customs enforcement officers to allow them to work with federal immigration authorities on cross-border issues like drug smuggling and sex trafficking.

Outlaw wanted to keep the set-up, telling a city committee that working with Homeland Security “allows us to have that federal arm and to have that transnational piece that we just as a local municipal agency do not have access to.” She said the partnership didn’t violate the city’s sanctuary city policy -- Philadelphia has a similar policy limiting cooperation with ICE -- which department at the time “absolutely does honor and value.”

In September of this year, while Outlaw was in charge, the Portland Police Bureau ended a two-year contract with Homeland Security that allowed federal immigration officials to use its training space in Portland, according to The Oregonian.

She’s a straight-talker

Anthony Finnell was executive director of Oakland’s Citizen’s Police Review Board, a police oversight agency, during Outlaw’s last three years at the department. He said she was known for a direct, suffer-no-fools approach when it came to her dealings with police officers and civilians alike.

“She’s not afraid to say or do what needs to be done,” he said. “And she’s not afraid of offending people if they’re in the wrong.”

Outlaw, who joined the Oakland police department just out of college, has a sociology degree from the University of San Francisco and a Master of Business Administration from Pepperdine University.

According to the Willamette Week, she’s 5 feet 4 inches tall and has a number of tattoos, including a quote from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It reads: “Though she be but little, she is fierce.”

Inquirer reporters Allison Steele and Chris Palmer contributed to this article.