Mayor Jim Kenney on Monday named Danielle Outlaw, the chief of police in Portland, Ore., as Philadelphia’s police commissioner, marking a new chapter for a 6,500-member force plagued by scandal.
The appointment is a landmark decision for Kenney, just days away from starting his second term, and it comes as the department continues to grapple with fallout from allegations in lawsuits and news accounts that its culture is marred by rampant sexual harassment, discrimination, and racism.
Outlaw, 43, will be the first black woman to lead the city’s police force, and the second woman to take over as commissioner. She will also be the city’s youngest top cop in at least two decades, and with a salary of $285,000, among the city’s highest-paid employees. She is scheduled to start Feb. 10.
She has led Portland’s 877-member force since 2017, after a 20-year career as an officer in her hometown of Oakland, Calif. In Philadelphia, she will oversee seven times as many officers, in a city with a homicide rate five times higher than Portland’s and a significantly higher poverty level.
At a news conference Monday afternoon at City Hall, Outlaw expressed confidence that she would be able to handle the new role because she is familiar with 21st century policing and challenges she said translate across cities and police departments.
“I am very qualified to make the jump,” she told a room filled with reporters and city officials. “The issues remain the same. I am very experienced in each of them.”
Kenney said Outlaw was the right person to take on Philadelphia’s host of challenges, including persistent gun violence that continued to rise in 2019.
“I am convinced she has the conviction, courage, and compassion needed to bring long-overdue reform to the department,” Kenney said. “After meeting and speaking with her at length, I came away confident that Danielle Outlaw possesses the strength, integrity, and empathy vital to the tasks ahead.”
City Managing Director Brian Abernathy said that out of a field of 31 candidates — including 18 from within the Philadelphia Police Department — Outlaw’s directness and intelligence stood out.
“We threw her some curveballs” in interviews, Abernathy said. “And she hit them all out of the park.”
Outlaw’s appointment comes after a four-month search process largely cloaked in secrecy. Christine M. Coulter has been serving as acting commissioner since the abrupt resignation of former Commissioner Richard Ross in August, after a woman accused him in a lawsuit of retaliating against her for breaking off their affair. Ross has denied the allegation.
Stakeholders in the city’s criminal justice and political establishments reacted favorably to Outlaw’s appointment.
“Most of us are very encouraged,” outgoing Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell said of her colleagues in City Hall. “They’re especially happy that she’s a woman — and happy of course that it’s an African American woman — but especially happy that she’s a woman.”
District Attorney Larry Krasner said: “I am very hopeful and optimistic that she’s going to actually carry out the reforms that she’s spoken of so eloquently.”
U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain said he looks forward to working with Outlaw and appreciates what he said seems like her “no-nonsense streak.”
Rochelle Bilal, president of the Guardian Civic League, a black police officers’ organization, and the incoming sheriff, said the group was disappointed Kenney didn’t appoint a woman of color from within the department, but added that “we are committed to embracing [Outlaw] and ensuring her success here in the city of Philadelphia.”
John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, said that the police officers’ union also had hoped an internal candidate would win the job, but that “we look forward to a professional, working partnership with Chief Outlaw that includes making our city safer for our residents and our police officers.”
Former Philadelphia Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey called Outlaw’s selection “a good choice.”
“She’s very bright, very talented,” said Ramsey, who met Outlaw several years ago when he was president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. The Police Department "is in a position now where an outsider will be a breath of fresh air.”
Outlaw faced several controversies during her two years leading Portland’s force.
Her department was criticized last year for using flash-bang devices and some chemical irritants during a right-wing rally and antifascist counter-protest, and she also made a decision last summer to clear a protest camp that surrounded an ICE office.
This year, after a video showed right-wing activist Andy Ngo being punched by counter-protesters, city officials drew scorn from national figures including Donald Trump Jr. and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), who claimed that officers allowed violence against right-wing activists for political reasons. Portland’s mayor denied that assertion.
Outlaw on Monday defended the department’s handling of protests and demonstrations on her watch, while acknowledging that officials studied ways to improve their practices after the controversies arose.
Daryl Turner, president of the Portland Police Association, the local police union, said Monday that Outlaw was smart and determined, and that “her vision was moving our department forward, and that’s what she did.”
“You’re getting a damn good chief,” Turner said. "We hate to lose her.”
Outlaw will inherit challenges in Philadelphia. The lawsuit that prompted Ross’ resignation also claimed that the Police Department had been overrun by a culture of sexual harassment and discrimination. Those allegations seemed to gain steam when one of Ross’ former high-ranking commanders, Chief Inspector Carl Holmes, was subsequently arrested and charged with sexually assaulting three female officers.
Ross’ departure came less than a week after he had helped negotiate the end to a violent standoff with a gunman in Tioga, who allegedly shot and wounded six cops during a botched drug raid.
Earlier in the summer, more than 300 active-duty cops were accused of posting racist or offensive material on their personal Facebook accounts, a scandal that included other jurisdictions around the country and attracted national attention. It led to the benching of 72 Philadelphia officers and the forced departures of 15 — the department’s largest disciplinary action in recent memory.
After Ross stepped down, Coulter was named interim commissioner, the first woman to lead the department. But she soon had to apologize for a controversy of her own — a photo from the 1990s showing her wearing a shirt that appeared to refer to the infamous Los Angeles police beating of Rodney King.
The tumult has come amid a backdrop of ongoing gun violence: More people have been shot in the city in 2019 than in any year since 2010, and the annual homicide tally has matched last year’s decade-long high.
Abernathy acknowledged those issues in his remarks Monday, noting that the environment in which Outlaw will assume control is different from even a few years ago, when Ross stepped into the commissioner’s office.
Outlaw said she was aware of the challenges, but eager to get to work.
“Yes, it’s a larger city, yes, it’s the same issues on a different scale,” she said. “But I already know there’s some really good people that are working in the Police Department that help can move us forward to where we need to be.”
Staff writers Allison Steele, Sean Collins Walsh, Claudia Vargas, and Ellie Rushing contributed to this article.