Four months after Police Commissioner Richard Ross abruptly resigned, and just a day before Mayor Jim Kenney’s self-imposed deadline, the Mayor’s Office announced that Philadelphia’s police commissioner will be Danielle Outlaw. Coming to Philly from the West Coast, Outlaw has been the police chief in Portland, Ore., since 2017. Prior to that, she spent 20 years as an officer in her hometown of Oakland, Calif. Outlaw is going to be the first black female police commissioner in the history of Philadelphia.
As such, she represents a chance for an important new chapter in Philadelphia policing.
In the past few months, police accountability activists, including members of the clergy, have been pleading for the city to allow them to be involved in the process in some way. The city, in turn, rejected those requests and refused to release any information about the process — including who interviewed the candidates. Kenney’s clandestine selection process means that Outlaw is going to start her tenure at a deficit — with no buy-in from the community — a critical ingredient for her success as commissioner in a city with a long history of distrust of police and at a time that the department is plagued with scandal.
Outlaw’s first order of business should be to seek out every opportunity to introduce herself to community stakeholders and to listen. The challenges ahead of her are enormous — both for the city and the department. Shootings have increased for the third consecutive year, homicides flattened at an unacceptably high rate, and the rate of solved homicides and shootings is abysmal. The recent slew of sexual harassment and gender discrimination complaints and lawsuits indicate that the department is an extremely hostile workplace for women, especially women of color.
The Philadelphia Police Department needs radical change. A part of that is shifting priorities and police resources away from stopping and searching pedestrians and vehicles for petty reasons like marijuana odor and toward bolstering the department’s Homicide Unit and Internal Affairs Bureau.
To be able to bring about this change, Outlaw must remain above the fray of the battling and bickering that the top men in the city’s other law enforcement agencies seem unable to resist. Being able to communicate well across city and state agencies could be the key to productive cooperation that is required for effective violence strategies, such as Focused Deterrence (now dubbed Group Violence Initiative) and Cure Violence.
The biggest challenge ahead of Outlaw is to assert herself as the leader of the Philadelphia Police Department — not just a rubber stamp for the Fraternal Order of Police. Past commissioners have chafed at the idea that their disciplinary decisions are often appealed and reversed by binding arbitration. But that doesn’t mean that disciplinary actions shouldn’t be pursued when they are needed. Even if they are reversed in arbitration, it sends a strong message to every police officer — and the residents of Philadelphia — that the department does not tolerate misbehavior. The FOP might push back against you, Commissioner Outlaw, but right now, the people of Philadelphia — and this board — have your back.