A little over 100 days into her job as police commissioner, Danielle Outlaw faced a trial by fire when peaceful protests over the killing of George Floyd turned chaotic and destructive.
It was a trial demanding leadership and preparation that she failed miserably. But this failure is not hers alone. It was compounded by a failure of leadership from Mayor Jim Kenney and other city officials, including Managing Director Brian Abernathy, who has since resigned.
These failures are detailed in an investigation released Wednesday by City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, conducted by Ballard Spahr, At Risk International Inc., and input from a community advisory council.
The report detailed the city’s failure to anticipate or prepare for the protests here despite their presence across the country, a failure to create a plan for handling protests despite the existence of a blueprint for just such events, and a series of disastrous and troubling decisions — from declining to activate an Emergency Operations Center to using tools and weapons on crowds and neighborhoods that created chaos instead of control.
At the height of protests about police brutality and violence, Philadelphia police responded with often militaristic force, using tear gas, rubber bullets, and force, including in a neighborhood where children and innocent bystanders were present. The city’s failure to anticipate or plan meant there were not enough police or vehicles to stop or contain looting. The report also details the troubling inconsistencies between police response to Black Lives Matter protesters and their friendlier interactions with white vigilantes wielding baseball bats and racial slurs.
Most troubling, though, is Outlaw’s reliance on tear gas — a chemical weapon banned in warfare and not used in the city in 35 years. She gained notoriety for using it on protesters in Portland, Ore., prior to coming to Philadelphia. She conferred with Kenney on its use during the protests, who discouraged its use but left the decision to her. While one of her requests to use it was denied, tear gas was deployed three times — once in West Philadelphia, once in Kensington, and once that led to the disastrous trapping of protesters on I-676. The controller’s report revealed that Outlaw was parked on an overpass above I-676 as protesters spilled into the ravine.
Over the course of three days and many bad decisions, the police created chaos and danger instead of delivering order and safety. There is no more profound law enforcement failure than that. There is no simpler rationale for the mayor to ask the police commissioner to resign.
We doubt that will happen. The mayor’s response to this report mirrors the defensiveness and lack of accountability he has exhibited throughout. The mayor’s own report on the handling of protests was released a day before Christmas Eve and created a fog over where exactly accountability lay for the protest failures. On Wednesday, Kenney’s spokesperson griped that the controller “attempts to cast blame for mistakes that have been acknowledged on multiple occasions.”
That’s a shameful response. Leadership requires more than admitting “mistakes were made.” It means owning responsibility and taking action that ensures consequences. The mistakes and miscalls made by the mayor, the police commissioner, and other city officials imperiled the safety and security of Philadelphians. That’s as serious as it gets.