The voices over police radio were growing frantic.
What had started calmly at noon on May 30, with large groups of protesters marching peacefully through Center City Philadelphia, had given way by 4 p.m. to throngs of demonstrators converging on City Hall and the Municipal Services Building.
Some chanted and waved signs, demanding justice for George Floyd, the unarmed 46-year-old black man who had been killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis. Others threw bottles of urine and chemicals that, according to police reports, left some officers hospitalized. Still more tried to pull down the bronze statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo, for many a painful reminder of the city’s history of police brutality. Police cruisers were engulfed by flames, sending plumes of smoke into the sky.
Cops moved in with batons.
Blocks away, a handful of police officials stood in a command center inside Police Headquarters, where they tried to call in reinforcements and improvise a way out of a deteriorating situation.
“Sir, it’s chaos!” one police official shouted over the radio. “We need so many more at MSB.”
This was the beginning of a wave of unrest that had not been witnessed in the city since the height of the civil rights era — and a new reckoning over systemic racism and continued brutality by police.
Just a day earlier, department leaders considered a comprehensive plan that devoted significantly more personnel to managing crowds on a day of large protests — an approach that the city had successfully relied on for a decade.
Instead, The Inquirer has learned, they chanced getting through the protest with minimal staffing.
The chaos of that initial day of protest — detailed in hours of radio recordings and hundreds of pages of police reports, along with interviews with police officials and witnesses — would bring the city to a standstill. The department’s fumbled planning would bleed into the next two days, leading to a disorganized response.
In the absence of clear direction, some officers resorted to dangerous tactics: A 14-year-old was bit by a police canine and a longtime commander was arrested after video footage emerged of him allegedly assaulting a protester. Looting spread to already struggling neighborhoods like West Philadelphia, where police, in response, fired tear gas that wafted into residential areas. The events were capped off by a confrontation on I-676, when the department attracted national attention for spraying tear gas at protesters trying to flee the highway.
For nearly 60 hours, from Saturday afternoon to late Monday night, the Philadelphia Police Department fell into a state of confusion and disarray.
This failure left, in its wake, wounded protesters, bystanders, and officers, scores of damaged businesses, and inflamed tensions between police and community residents. And it raised critical questions about the new police commissioner’s control of the department — deepening the stakes of a growing national debate over the role police play in society.
Commissioner Danielle Outlaw declined multiple interview requests to discuss tactical decisions made during the protests, including why the department moved forward with a pared-down plan. Inspector Sekou Kinebrew, a department spokesperson, said in an email that Outlaw had ordered several “after-action reports” to evaluate the response, and that “comment at this time would be premature and might impede or unduly influence the status of the ongoing internal reviews.”
During a City Council hearing Wednesday, Managing Director Brian Abernathy — who oversees an array of city operations including law enforcement — acknowledged that he had underestimated the possibility that the demonstrations might spin out of control. He was so confident in the Police Department’s ability to manage large events, he said, he had assumed before the first day of protests that he would be home for dinner.
“I was dumbfounded by how out of touch I truly was,” he said. “And how I had underestimated the anger and rage and frustration of folks I’m hired to serve.”
A storm was coming.
The video footage of Floyd’s final moments — spent gasping “I can’t breathe,” while police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes — proved to be a breaking point for a nation that had long witnessed police shootings of black men and women.
Police precincts burned in some cities. Heavily armored police met marchers with fired tear gas and rubber bullets. The nation was already on edge from a pandemic that had upended daily life and left 40 million jobless.
But despite the national upheaval — and the simple fact that beautiful weather in Philadelphia would likely draw even larger crowds — city officials gambled that the weekend protests would unfold peacefully.
The Police Department had routinely handled large crowds during the last decade with little violence or damage, including during the 2016 Democratic National Convention and countless Black Lives Matter protests. For those events, the department had a successful formula: Hundreds of bike cops and emergency response teams allowed protesters to march with little interference, but drew the line at property damage and blocking highways.
Preparing for the weekend protests was the responsibility of Deputy Commissioner Dennis Wilson, who has been in charge of the department’s homeland security duties for less than a year. According to four high-level department sources with knowledge of the preparations, a plan mirroring those past approaches was presented the day before demonstrations were set to begin.
The similar past plans called for as many as 250 officers on bicycles and on foot to handle crowd control as well as additional cops, including some on horses, and mobile units held in reserve. On-duty officers would have seen their shifts extended, and some cops who were off would have been called in to assist. A command center would have been established.
But this time, planning on each of those fronts was scaled back or eliminated. The department declined The Inquirer’s requests to explain why.
During her tenure as chief of police in Portland, Ore., Outlaw fielded national criticism for her police department being heavy-handed with protests, including one in 2018 where officers fired stun grenades at demonstrators. After that episode, Outlaw compared protesters to schoolchildren who’d lost a fight and then “wail off, whine, and complain.”
City officials didn’t seriously consider the possibility that Saturday’s protest would escalate into a confrontation. At critical points Saturday, there were only 50 bike cops on the scene, according to two high-level sources who were on duty.
By 6 p.m., it was clear the department had miscalculated. Looters had splintered off from the crowd at City Hall, running toward the Rittenhouse shopping district and stores along East Market Street. They smashed shop windows, ran off with merchandise, set fires in the street. Outnumbered officers largely stood by as businesses were plundered.
“There’s no resources here,” one officer reported from Benjamin Franklin Parkway, pleading for reinforcements. Another said: “There’s no resources here whatsoever.”
As the protests at City Hall continued to spiral, supervisors commandeered SEPTA buses to ferry cops from Southwest Philadelphia and the Northeast down to Center City.
“It seems like we’re getting hit from 15th and Chestnut all the way down to, uh, probably somewhere around 12th or 13th Street, and also 15th and Walnut down to 1300 as well,” one cop told a dispatcher. “Do we have resources we can put on them blocks and just shut this down?”
Without a cohesive plan and needed backup, commanders can be heard on police scanners trying to improvise a solution.
As one high-ranking commander would describe it days later: “We let it snowball out of control. We sent a message that we didn’t have control. And then it was every man for himself after that.”
By late Saturday night, Center City’s main retail corridors lay in shambles. Windows in nearly every storefront on Walnut and Chestnut Streets, from Rittenhouse Square to Broad, were left shattered and clothes ripped from their racks littered the streets. Garbage fires burned, casting shadows on mannequin limbs, shattered glass, and other detritus.
In Logan Square, looters outside a 7-Eleven accused a 40-year-man of calling the cops, then beat him unconscious and stole his girlfriend’s car, according to police records.
And on Chestnut Street, a woman fleeing in an SUV from a ransacked beauty supply store allegedly ran over Officer Antonio Nieves. The officer’s torso was crushed, his sternum shattered, his arm broken, his ribs and vertebrae fractured.
By Sunday afternoon, Outlaw conceded that the department’s strategy had been slow to develop.
Responding to the crises of the day before, the department erected barricades around Center City and deployed a phalanx of cops to stand guard around the Rizzo statue and the Municipal Services Building, projecting a show of force.
But officers who were out on patrol complained that there was still no plan for them to follow.
“There was no direction given — there was no direction at all,” said one veteran intelligence officer, who requested anonymity. “I have never been at work and didn’t know what to do. I was confused.”
With so many police pulled downtown, violence and looting continued to erupt across the city.
An off-duty city sanitation worker, caught looting at a Rhawnhurst shopping center, repeatedly tried to ram an officer with her car. He dived through her driver’s side window to try to stop her and was dragged 30 feet.
Some officers, meanwhile, started responding with aggressive tactics.
In Northeast Philadelphia, on Roosevelt Boulevard, officers used their canine to pursue a crowd of looters fleeing a Snipes sneaker store. According to a police report, the dog bit a 14-year-old boy that police claimed was a part of the group.
The teen, who just finished eighth grade, told The Inquirer he wasn’t in the store but had been walking home from a park, when he saw people running from the shop being chased by a dog. “I seen the dog first and I started running, because it was a big dog and I was scared,” he said.
The police told him to kneel on the ground and raise his hands, and he said he did so, but the unleashed dog bit into his arm.
“The police said, ‘Hey stop right there,’ and I got on my knees — they let the dog bite me.”
The teen was arrested and treated at Jefferson Torresdale for his wounds. A week later, bite marks still cover his upper left arm.
His father, Saidu Conteh, who is originally from Sierra Leone and works with the federal government, said he believes his son wasn’t looting. But even if the boy had been, he said, a police dog shouldn’t have been allowed to attack a child.
“I am strongly upset about it,” he said. “Because I see no reason why they should use a police dog. I see it as too excessive.”
Kinebrew, the department spokesperson, said Conteh’s son had fled from inside the store.
“As is the case with all uses of force,” Kinebrew said, “this incident will be internally reviewed.”
He added: The dog also bit a police officer:
While Center City — and the Rizzo statue — remained secure, police radio once again filled with the sounds of a neighborhood confrontation that was beginning to unravel.
Protesters had gathered at 52nd and Market Streets, West Philadelphia’s Main Street. Some began looting local shops and throwing rocks and bottles.
“They’re stealing police cars, they’re pushing police cars,” one officer told a dispatcher about 4 p.m. “They’re lighting them on fire, putting the vehicles in drive, and pushing them toward police.”
Police officials considered how to respond.
In recent years, the Police Department has attempted to address decades of oppressive police tactics that were used on black communities. Those conversations have been undermined by policing practices that have continued to disproportionately affect black people, including fatal shootings of civilians.
This particular stretch of West Philadelphia had struggled for years under the weight of poverty, disinvestment, violent crime, and encroaching gentrification from local universities.
“Sir, can I have approval to disperse gas — chemical gas — at 52nd and Chestnut?” he asked over the radio.
“Go ahead,” replied Wilson, the deputy commissioner.
Officers peeked over the tops of armored cars and fired tear gas at looters inside a Foot Locker. But as they continued to use the gas, neighborhood residents became collateral damage; one family had to flee their house when a canister landed on their porch, and some children needed to be treated by off-duty doctors from the neighborhood.
Street medics treated two women for wounds from rubber bullets fired by officers, and were soon treating one of their own who was struck in the leg.
Two police commanders were hospitalized for injuries, one of them after being hit in the head with a brick.
Firefighters who were battling a blaze at 52nd and Walnut twice called over the radio to ask police to stop firing gas, which wafted down toward them.
“I need you to get in touch with this detail on 52nd Street,” one firefighter said. “They’re still deploying OC spray into our operation.”
Abernathy would later say that a group of officials, including himself, Outlaw, and Mayor Jim Kenney, approved using force that included gas and rubber bullets as they huddled on Sunday at a command center on Spring Garden Street. They let commanders decide when to use it.
Meanwhile, the city’s 911 system grew overwhelmed.
City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas called 10 times in West Philadelphia to report a shooting. He could not get through, he said: “No one was home.”
The Rev. Mark Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Society Hill, decided to check on the neighborhood. He steered his motorcycle to the ParkWest Town Center, a busy shopping mall at 52nd and Jefferson Streets.
He watched looters stream into a Lowe’s and a ShopRite. Nearby, a group of men used an ax to try to break into an ATM.
There were no police at the scene, he said.
Tyler made a short drive from the shopping center to 52nd and Market, and slammed on his brakes when a teargas canister skittered in front of him.
“Man, you would have thought it was a hostage situation,” Tyler said. “It appeared to me like this was one of those moments where the cops were like, ‘We’re going to show you we’re in charge of this neighborhood.'”
He wondered why commanders continued to fire tear gas on streets filled with residents and didn’t attempt to protect the shopping center, which is an integral part of the neighborhood.
“The cops allowed for one of the best shopping centers in West Philadelphia to get totally decimated,” he said.
Kenney and Abernathy would later deny abandoning any neighborhood. They said Sunday’s conflicts presented the city with an unprecedented deployment challenge. And in addition to the looting, bursts of gun violence left 13 people wounded that day alone.
“It’s difficult to take those officers at 52nd and Chestnut, who are having cars set on fire, dealing with looters at a corner store,” Kenney said, “and then divert those officers to another location. We’d be overrun in both places.”
West Philadelphia wasn’t the only neighborhood where police struggled to gain control and protect local businesses. One responding officer came upon bumper-to-bumper traffic on Kensington Avenue — looters who sought to empty stores and drive off.
“We couldn’t hold it. We lost the avenue,” one cop recalled.
They had to move block-by-block to regain it. Police officers who normally work in the Kensington area, but had been deployed to Center City, listened over the scanner with alarm as the situation grew more desperate. With the downtown area now calm, they expected to receive orders to head to the trouble in Kensington.
Those orders never came. Some cops left their posts and deployed themselves.
Some of the Police Department’s success in managing past protests hinged on a cardinal rule: Don’t let demonstrators swarm into traffic on a busy highway. But the department’s planning failed here as well, leading to more controversy.
About 4:30 p.m. Monday, as the protests continued into a third day, the Rev. Marshall Mitchell, a 50-year-old pastor who lives in Center City, rode his scooter alongside a crowd of demonstrators as they moved downtown.
He had witnessed the destruction that swept through Center City on Saturday. The energy from this crowd seemed different.
“It took on a spirit of sweetness,” he said.
Mitchell began filming the group as it neared Vine Street. He planned to show the footage to congregants at his church in Abington.
The Police Department, meanwhile, was once again caught off guard.
“I mean, you know the crowd is moving,” said one high-level commander. “At that point, before they got there, they should have asked the State Police to shut down 676.”
Instead, protesters streamed down an access ramp onto the highway, stopping midday traffic. Mitchell heard two loud flash-bangs from his perch on Vine Street. Police were shooting tear gas down onto the ravine, where demonstrators were weaving through lines of cars.
Kelsey Romano, a 33-year-old teacher at Walter B. Saul High School, tried to help a protester who’d been struck in the face by a rubber bullet. She turned to run up the embankment, and a rubber bullet slammed into her back.
She toppled over.
Another protester dragged Romano up the hill, but the plumes of tear gas overwhelmed them.
“Near the top, honestly, there was so much tear gas and I couldn't really breathe,” Romano said. “And with the pain in my back, I just collapsed and started throwing up. I thought I was going to die.”
Officials would present different explanations of why they fired on nonviolent protesters who had no easy means of retreat. At first, Outlaw and Kenney said that protesters had started throwing rocks at officers and that police used tear gas as a “last resort” to clear the open highway.
But State Police would explain that their troopers had fired tear gas first — and Philadelphia police followed suit — because demonstrators had surrounded a trooper who was stuck in his vehicle.
Neither agency has provided evidence to support those explanations. And protesters, neutral observers, and journalists on the scene reported seeing no acts of aggression on the level described by police.
The Police Department earned even more criticism after it cleared the highway of demonstrators. That night, a group of white Fishtown residents gathered outside the 26th District headquarters with baseball bats, tire irons, and — in one case — a hatchet, claiming they were there to protect the neighborhood.
Officers greeted them with handshakes and selfies. A WHYY journalist was attacked. No one has been arrested.
Kenney would later deride the group as “vigilantes,” but seemed at a loss to explain why police allowed the armed men to linger outside, after the city’s curfew, just hours after firing rubber bullets and tear gas at unarmed protesters.
By nightfall Monday, police leaders contended they’d finally regained control.
But the days ahead would bring more challenges: A police inspector was criminally charged with assaulting protesters — deepening tensions between District Attorney Larry Krasner and the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5 — while the unsettling sound of random explosions still echoed through the city for nights.
Police said 27 officers were injured during the three days of tumult but did not say how many protesters were hurt.
Some were treated by friends, family, or street medics, and privacy laws for hospital patients make it near-impossible to determine an independent tally.
Cries of outrage have now turned into calls for investigation.
Four city councilmembers — Helen Gym, Isaiah Thomas, Kendra Brooks, and Jamie Gauthier — have called on Outlaw to prohibit the use of pepper spray, tear gas, and rubber bullets during protests.
Outlaw has pledged to conduct her own internal inquiry, but declined to say when it would be finished.
She now faces a stark set of challenges just four months into her tenure: implementing promised police reforms, rebuilding trust with wounded communities, and earning the confidence of a demoralized 6,500-member police force.
Philadelphia, meanwhile, is left to pick up the pieces.
Staff writer Ellie Rushing contributed to this article. Broadcastify provided access to the police audio.
The Inquirer’s investigative reporting is supported in part by the Lenfest Institute’s Investigative News Fund. Editorial content is created independently of the fund’s donors. A listing of Lenfest Institute donors can be found at lenfestinstitute.org. Gifts to support the Investigative News Fund can be made at www.inquirer.com/donate.