After weeks of defending the decision to let Philadelphia police use tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets on protesters gathered on I-676, Mayor Jim Kenney and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw abruptly apologized Thursday, calling the use of force that day “unjustifiable” and admitting that they had offered incorrect and uncorroborated explanations for why officers resorted to the tactics.

In a remarkable news conference outside Police Headquarters, Kenney and Outlaw said videos that surfaced since the June 1 demonstration clearly contradicted their initial version of events, in which they said protesters had thrown rocks at unnamed officers and threatened a state trooper’s car before authorities began using what they called “less than lethal force” to clear the highway.

In particular, Kenney and Outlaw each cited a nine-minute video posted Thursday by the New York Times that featured a host of footage from the scene showing police firing clouds of gas and pepper spray toward a peaceful crowd — even as the people tried to escape and were trapped on a steep embankment.

Police use tear gas to disperse protesters who descended onto the Vine Street Expressway and blocked traffic on June 1.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Police use tear gas to disperse protesters who descended onto the Vine Street Expressway and blocked traffic on June 1.

Outlaw said she was “extremely disturbed and quite frankly sickened beyond description” by the compilation.

The comprehensive video largely confirmed what protesters, journalists, and neutral observers have reported for weeks — that there was no evidence of the type of aggressive action toward law enforcement that officials said prompted police to fire upon the crowd.

Asked why she was apologizing Thursday, Outlaw said the Times’ video account had more detail than she had previously known.

“The second I find out as the leader of this department and organization that there’s contradictory information to what I personally came out and said … it’s important for me to come out and clarify what now I’ve seen,” she said.

Kenney said the Times’ video displayed tactics that were “completely unacceptable,” and he apologized for his statements in the wake of the incident in which he justified the use of tear gas: “I now know that my statements were based on inaccurate information being relayed from the scene.” He did not say who gave him that information.

The apology from two of the city’s top officials came as Outlaw announced other changes in response to the handling of the protest.

The commissioner said she was placing a moratorium on the use of tear gas to disperse crowds. She also said she would suspend and seek to fire a Philadelphia SWAT officer captured on video ripping down protesters’ masks and pepper-spraying them as they knelt in the middle of the highway.

She did not name the officer, saying the disciplinary process would not begin until Friday. District Attorney Larry Krasner said his office is investigating possible charges.

Outlaw also said Dennis Wilson, the deputy commissioner who authorized the use of tear gas on 676, was being demoted to the rank of chief inspector.

Wilson was not only present for that announcement — he participated in it, standing before Outlaw to tell reporters that he had acted unilaterally in approving the gassing of protesters without first seeking her consent, as he was supposed to do.

“I didn’t call the commissioner. I gave the approval. And it was me and me alone,” he said. “For violating the rules of engagement and the commissioner’s trust, I’m going to take a voluntary demotion.”

Despite the admitted breach of protocol, Wilson continued to participate in protest responses for weeks, and was on scene at a demonstration as recently as Tuesday.

The news conference was the latest fallout from the Police Department’s bungled response to several days of protests earlier this month in the wake of Minneapolis police killing George Floyd.

Earlier Thursday, City Council members announced public hearings to examine the department’s response to the unrest, which had also featured a lack of preparation for the first day of demonstrations, tear gas deployment that wafted into residential neighborhoods in West Philadelphia, and officers allowing violent, armed mobs of white men to roam the streets of Fishtown, where they allegedly assaulted a WHYY journalist.

Kenney has previously said the city made a mistake in allowing the men carrying bats and hatchets in Fishtown to roam freely, especially after curfew.

And on Thursday, he said he also regretted his decision to green-light the use of tear gas in West Philadelphia, where police confronting what the mayor called “violence, arson, and looting” fired gas that ended up affecting some residents, including children. Wilson, the deputy commissioner, also sought to use force in that situation, but said he had cleared the decision with Outlaw.

“I ignored what my instincts told me,” Kenney said. “I have never believed tear gas was an effective tool when I’ve seen other cities use it in protests. It always seemed to me to make situations worse. And it has.”

That explanation did not sit well with everyone. Councilmember Jamie Gauthier said on Facebook that she was “beyond frustrated that the use of tear gas and other munitions on 52nd Street — a residential Black neighborhood — is not receiving equal attention.”

“We need to parse through the events that took place that day,” Gauthier said. “We need to review the use of force policies.”

Before Thursday, Kenney and Outlaw had repeatedly defended the use of tear gas on 676.

In a statement issued late the night of June 1, Outlaw said protesters “surrounded a State Trooper, who was alone and seated in his vehicle, and began rocking the vehicle, with the trooper having no safe means of egress.”

She also said, “Members of the crowd began throwing rocks at the officers from the north and south sides, and from the bridges above the officers. The crowd also began rushing toward the officers.”

Deana Gamble, a spokesperson for Kenney, said in late-night text messages on June 1 that the information about protesters throwing rocks came from firsthand accounts of high-ranking police commanders who witnessed the incident.

“Some were [hit] and one in particular remembers because he didn’t have a helmet on so he needed to duck,” she said.

The next day, the mayor and commissioner again defended the use of gas, calling it a “last resort” and reiterating that protesters had flooded an open highway, surrounded a state trooper’s car, and thrown rocks at officers.

But they did not provide evidence of those events. And protesters, neutral observers, journalists on the scene, and TV news helicopter footage showed nothing resembling that level of aggression.

On Wednesday, dashcam video released from a State Police SUV stationed on I-676 the day of the demonstration also did not appear to show any rock-throwing or threatening behavior by protesters. And though someone spray-painted the SUV’s windshield, the video seems to indicate that the trooper had left his car by the time protesters began walking past it.

Nothing on the video indicates that protesters shook the car.

But moments later, distant shots can be heard in the background — and protesters begin to scream.