A defiant Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, following a critical independent report, on Thursday forcefully defended how she led her department during protests and civil unrest last year, saying she has the support of Mayor Jim Kenney and other community leaders and will not resign.
Outlaw has repeatedly acknowledged there were some failings in the police response, particularly on May 30, the first day of mass protests in the city, saying the force was “woefully understaffed.”
But she said that the department soon bolstered resources and that there was “simply not a blueprint available” for the mass unrest cities across the nation faced last spring after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Outlaw said she made decisions on tactics such as using tear gas out of concern for community and officer safety.
“Am I enough? Absolutely, and some,” she said when asked about her leadership during a news conference. “Do I deserve to be here? Absolutely, and some. Did I lead this department in the last year? Absolutely, and some. No police commissioner, chief, superintendent has ever had to deal with what we’ve dealt with in the past year.”
Kenney did not attend the news conference, but tweeted shortly after that Outlaw has his “full support,” saying, “I appointed Commissioner Outlaw because of her commitment to true and lasting reform, and she deserves the city’s support to make that a reality.”
The report on the department’s handling of the protests, released Wednesday, was commissioned by the city controller and conducted by two independent firms, Ballard Spahr LLP and AT-RISK International Inc.
It revealed new details about Outlaw’s actions during three days of unrest, including her role in authorizing the use of tear gas, as well as her presence on the scene in West Philadelphia and near I-676, when she either observed a hostile situation without taking command or left as it escalated.
But questions remained Thursday over exactly where Outlaw was when tear gas was deployed in both places.
The controller’s report said she told investigators that on May 31, as crowds gathered in West Philadelphia and clashed with police, she tried to reach 52nd and Market Streets but could “not advance past 50th and Market Streets,” where the air was thick with gas.
Cpl. Jasmine Reilly, a department spokesperson, said Thursday that contrary to the controller’s report, the commissioner was at 52nd and Market but arrived after tear gas had already been deployed.
“She doesn’t have specific times,” Reilly said. “She recalls she got there and it wasn’t chaotic. Everything was pretty much over.”
But law enforcement officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the matter said Outlaw was at 52nd and Market while bricks were being thrown at officers and police cars were smoldering after being set ablaze. They said she spoke directly to commanders, then left the scene while SWAT trucks deployed tear gas. One high-ranking source with knowledge of the Internal Affairs investigation into the response confirmed that Outlaw had huddled with on-scene commanders as SWAT teams readied to deploy the gas.
Reilly said Outlaw went to the scene after monitoring the violence from a Center City command center and giving the order over the phone for gas to be deployed. The commissioner told Ballard Spahr investigators her authorization was limited to a one-block area around 52nd and Market. But SWAT officers fired canisters of gas and rubber bullets over a half-mile stretch, not only at agitators, but at bystanders and down residential streets, according to the report.
A spokesperson for the controller said the office and Ballard Spahr stand by the accuracy of the report.
According to the controller’s report, Outlaw met with top brass earlier on May 31 around 12:30 p.m. — hours before crowds gathered in West Philadelphia — and discussed using tear gas to quell civil unrest. At Thursday’s news conference, Outlaw said that the decision to use gas “was not predetermined” and that her decision was not made lightly.
“I specifically requested the use of tear gas when my officers, my incident commander out in West Philly, said, ‘We’re surrounded,’” she said. “I saw the cars being pushed into the officer. I saw the things being caught on fire. I’m hearing them [officers] taking rocks and bricks. I’m hearing about officer injuries. And the phone call was made to me to request to use gas and I said yes.”
The use of tear gas, she said, “was authorized to help get those officers to safety and to try to disperse the crowd.”
The controller’s report also offered new information about Outlaw’s role on June 1 when protesters took over I-676.
The commissioner told investigators she and then-Deputy Commissioner Dennis Wilson had discussed by phone whether to use tear gas to disperse the crowd, but said she told him to call her before he gave final approval. That didn’t happen, according to Outlaw. Officers then used tear gas and rubber bullets as protesters were trapped in the ravine and had to scale a 10-foot fence to get away.
According to the report, Outlaw told investigators she was sitting in a parked SUV on an overpass “as the crowd made its way onto the highway.”
But Outlaw said Thursday that she was around the “perimeter” when she heard over police radio that tear gas had been deployed. She said she parked on an overpass and could not see what was going on, but was close enough to “have some form of situational awareness.” She said she called the incident commander “to ask him what was going on” and did not take over command of the situation.
Wilson was demoted weeks later — the same day Outlaw and Kenney apologized for using tear gas on the highway.
Outlaw took the department’s top job in February of last year, just weeks before the pandemic took hold and four months before Floyd’s death. Before coming to Philadelphia, she worked for 20 years in law enforcement in Oakland, Calif., then was head of the 900-member Portland Police Bureau, where she oversaw some progressive reforms related to police interactions with people in crisis.
But she also drew national scrutiny for how officers responded to clashes between political activists. In 2018, after Portland police used chemical irritants and other munitions against protesters, Outlaw suspended the use of flash-bang devices, but defended police tactics as successful in keeping confrontational actors apart.
Last year, when Outlaw made history by becoming the first Black woman to lead Philadelphia’s 6,500-member force, some in the city’s law enforcement community raised concerns about her lack of experience leading a big-city department.
After the release of the controller’s report, some of those detractors said her documented failure to take command and provide direction at critical moments during the unrest added to the chaos.
John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #5, on Wednesday said the failed planning and response to the unrest was the result of an “absence of leadership” from the Managing Director’s Office down to the Police Department.
“The bottom line is it didn’t make the police look good,” he said of the report. “It didn’t make the city look good.”
Efforts to reach McNesby on Thursday were unsuccessful.
Outlaw said Thursday she was “very present,” both in the field and in the city’s command center, where officials monitored the response through media livestreams. She did so without an inspector of homeland security, a high-level deputy whose work traditionally includes planning for large protests, and a position she had left vacant since March.
The controller’s report was not the first to fault Outlaw and her department for the handling of last spring’s protests. An independent report released last month by the Kenney administration also cited short staffing and a lack of planning.
That review concluded that police and city leaders were “simply not prepared” for the large-scale protests, leading to a “cascading” effect that left dozens of police and protesters injured and scores of businesses burglarized. In response to the probe, the department committed to implement a number of recommendations, including developing a citywide civil unrest plan.
Both the controller’s report and the review commissioned by the administration called the amount of force used in some cases last spring “excessive.”
Outlaw said Thursday that dozens of internal reviews are still in progress over police use-of-force, and she pledged to make the findings of those investigations public when they conclude.
She said the situations officers faced during the unrest were “unprecedented.”
“It can be very difficult to discern between peaceful and non-peaceful,” she said, “and we have to make split-second decisions.”