Danielle Outlaw was 16 when television screens across America were filled with grainy footage of Los Angeles police officers beating a black motorist named Rodney King on a highway, their kicks and baton strikes illuminated by the faint glow of a patrol car’s headlights.

There was no escaping the ugliness of those images, which added another painful chapter to the history of violence that many minority communities had suffered at the hands of police. When several of the officers who attacked King were acquitted a year later, deadly riots spread across Los Angeles for six days.

“No one was saying they wanted to be a police officer growing up,” Outlaw, who was born in East Oakland, once told Willamette Week, a newspaper in Portland, Ore.

Yet that’s exactly what she chose to do while in high school, while the nation was still recovering from the L.A. riots. An internship with the Oakland Police Department introduced Outlaw to a cop who showed her a different side of police officers. He was friendly and approachable. Human.

Outlaw’s father, who worked for the California Department of Transportation, wasn’t impressed by her career choice. “My dad told me flat out it was a waste of a degree,” she told the paper.

Nearly two decades later, Outlaw is the new face of the Philadelphia Police Department. She was officially handed the commissioner’s job on Monday when Mayor Jim Kenney introduced her during a City Hall news conference, bringing to an end a secretive, four-month interview process that attracted 30 other candidates.

Outlaw, who has spent the last two years as Portland’s police chief, hit all the right notes about fighting the city’s appalling gun violence and building a more trustworthy police force. “We will be accountable to ourselves, to each other, and to our communities,” she said. “But to be clear, I cannot do this alone.”

The fine print about how she’ll do it has yet to be written. But as an outsider, and the first African American woman to lead the police, Outlaw undoubtedly has already led police, politicians, and Philadelphia community stakeholders to speculate about the changes she might bring to a department roiled by controversy and scandal — most notably the late-summer resignation of the first commissioner Kenney appointed, Richard Ross.

To get a handle on Outlaw’s future, it might be helpful to peer at her past. The nearly 20 years she spent in Oakland’s police department, and her recent term with the Portland Police Bureau, show Outlaw, 43, to be a study in contrasts: a cops’ cop who spent little time in patrol; a public figure who prizes privacy; a reformer who has been criticized by progressives.

Danielle Outlaw during her tenure as Portland police chief.
Craig Mitchelldyer / AP File
Danielle Outlaw during her tenure as Portland police chief.

“The problems are the same. There are just more of them,” former Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said of Outlaw’s move to Philadelphia. “She’s no stranger to crime, no stranger to violence, no stranger to keeping police officers motivated. Philly is just bigger.”

‘She’s going to call you out’

Outlaw joined Oakland’s force after she graduated from the University of San Francisco in 1998, and soon witnessed a disturbing scandal.

In 2000, four veteran officers known as “the Riders” were charged with planting drugs on citizens and committing assaults. Although none of them was convicted, the case resulted in a lawsuit that led to a $10.9 million settlement and a federal consent decree.

John L. Burris, one of the civil rights attorneys who filed the Riders case, said Outlaw always supported efforts to bring the department into compliance with the decree. She was a proponent of tightening the criteria for hiring officers, he said, and privately complained when she believed an officer had been hired because of whom they knew.

“She’s always had a good view of progressive policing, but she also has respect for the rights of the police,” Burris said. “I saw her as someone who was very balanced, someone who recognized the importance of acting in the best interests of the community as well as law enforcement.”

The Oakland department was devastated by another scandal in 2016, when officers were accused of sleeping with a teenage sex worker. A resulting investigation pointed to a cover-up, and the department lost three chiefs in one week.

Outlaw worked briefly as a beat cop and then held multiple other posts, including captain in Internal Affairs, before rising to deputy chief. “I was assigned cases where the hard calls had to be made,” she told Willamette Week.

That experience likely will serve Outlaw well in Philadelphia, where the Internal Affairs Division came under scrutiny this year after a former chief inspector, Carl Holmes, was charged with sexually assaulting three female officers. Some of Holmes’ alleged misdeeds were well known within the department, yet he continued to receive promotions for years.

Anthony Finnell, who was executive director of Oakland’s Citizens’ Police Review Board during Outlaw’s last three years at the department, said she built a reputation for holding people accountable.

“It didn’t matter if you were a police officer or a member of the public,” he said. “If you’re in the wrong, she’s going to call you out.”

‘The largest adjustment’

When Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler had to select a new police chief in 2017, he spent months interviewing more than 30 candidates.

Outlaw emerged as the top choice to address Portland’s problems, including a 2014 federal consent decree resulting from a Department of Justice investigation that found a pattern of excessive force with mentally ill individuals.

Daryl Turner, president of the Portland Police Association, was part of a public panel that helped to select Outlaw. “It was a tough political dynamic in Portland, but she started to move everything forward,” he said.

Outlaw, who has two sons, ages 18 and 21, was struck by the sense that residents viewed her as a novelty in Portland, which is largely white. She told a local TV outlet that residents sometimes tried to touch her braided hair. She also recalled being labeled a "diversity hire.”

“Getting used to or learning the culture is the largest adjustment I’ve ever had to make, ever in my life,” she said.

Outlaw struggled with the notion that being a big-city police chief is a 24/7 life, and once had to obtain a stalking protection order against a man who followed and video-recorded her.

But she faced even bigger obstacles.

“As an outsider, being asked to change the culture of the Portland Police Bureau required a herculean effort, as well as a support team, which I fear she never found,” one city official told the Portland Oregonian.

The newspaper had reported in 2018 that more than half of the city’s arrests were of homeless people despite the fact that they comprised a small portion of the population; Outlaw called for the city’s Independent Police Review Board to investigate.

This year, she lowered the hiring standards for police recruits from having some college or military service to a high school diploma or GED because the department had struggled to fill nearly 130 vacancies.

Most notably, Outlaw’s handling of large public demonstrations involving far-right and antifascist activists came under fire, especially from progressives.

In Philadelphia, raucous protests aren’t on anyone’s list of top public safety concerns.

Danielle Outlaw will have her hands full.

Staff writer Anna Orso contributed to this report.