OAKLAND, Calif. — Two decades ago, LeRonne Armstrong and Danielle Outlaw bonded as trainees in the police academy here. Both had grown up in the city — he in West Oakland, she in East Oakland — and both were new parents in their 20s, each trying to balance the job with a young child at home.
Perhaps more important, both recognized that they were young, black, and from the community they would serve. And in Oakland, the birthplace of the Black Panthers in the 1960s and a city profoundly impacted by the War on Drugs 20 years later, young black residents had not traditionally rushed to join the force.
“We both came in understanding that this was bigger than just us,” said Armstrong, now an Oakland deputy police chief. “We took on the challenge of trying to be part of the change.”
Twenty years later, Outlaw’s career is about to hold broader significance once again — this time on a much bigger stage.
Interviews with nearly a dozen close associates and friends here — where she spent the first two decades of her career — reveal that in the insular and testosterone-filled culture of policing, Outlaw, 43, has long approached her work with ambition, confidence, and determination. Along the way, she developed unique allies both within and outside law enforcement.
She also has proudly infused her identity as a black mother of two sons — now 18 and 21 — into her management style, and she is unapologetically herself: short of stature and with several tattoos, a changing mix of hairstyles, a plainspoken and sometimes blunt communicator.
Friends say Outlaw, who just spent two years as chief in Portland, Ore., is committed to injecting her profession — often militaristic and wary of change — with fresh ideas. Some acknowledge that those aspirations have led to jealousy or skepticism from some colleagues.
If Outlaw had been seeking a larger platform, she has one now. Leading the 6,500-member Philadelphia Police Department is often considered one of the most challenging municipal police jobs in the country. And Mayor Jim Kenney made it clear in announcing her appointment — which comes with a $285,000 salary — that he expects her to confront race and gender discrimination claims, beleaguered morale, a long-standing lack of community trust, and a rising homicide rate.
Outlaw, through Philadelphia officials, declined to comment ahead of being sworn in. At her introductory news conference Dec. 30, she said she was “very qualified” to take over in Philadelphia, a bigger and poorer city than either Oakland or Portland, with nearly seven times as many police officers as either city, and more annual crime.
Armstrong, like others in Oakland, believes his former academy colleague is ready for the challenge.
“I think you guys will be surprised by what she can handle,” he said, describing Outlaw as “somebody who’s willing to be uniquely different than what you’ve had before.”
In East Oakland, Outlaw spent part of her childhood on a tidy block near 75th Avenue that offers sweeping views of the Bay Area. Her neighborhood sat between two sides of the city: the affluent and largely white communities perched in the hills above, and the poorer areas largely populated by minorities below.
Her father was a state transportation worker and her mother an AT&T employee, but she has not shared much about her personal life. As a teen, she spent much of her time in a leafy enclave of Rockridge, about seven miles from East Oakland, at Holy Names High School for girls — an institution that she has said “probably saved my life.”