Last week, when a 17-year-old North Philly teen was shot and wounded by a police officer who said the boy had reached for a gun, I thought of Danielle Outlaw, the city’s first black female police commissioner. I wondered if that shooting would turn out to be unjustified and if Outlaw would have to be held accountable.
It was a far cry from the feeling that overtook me in December, when I sat in the mayor’s reception room and saw Outlaw introduced as the new commissioner. Back then, I didn’t feel suspicion or animus, only a quiet sense of satisfaction.
After all, I belong to the Rally for Justice Coalition — the group of black civil rights organizations that demanded a black female commissioner. Our reason for doing so was simple. After the abrupt resignation of former Police Commissioner Richard Ross, which was preceded by two black female officers claiming that their complaints of sexual harassment were ignored by the command structure, Mayor Jim Kenney said women of color weren’t being heard in the department. Who better to address that concern than a black woman?
It was surreal to see that demand come to fruition. But the serenity I felt was shattered when Outlaw stood at the podium and fielded the first condescending question: “What makes you qualified for this job?”
She answered the question with aplomb, but as I glanced at the other black faces in the room, I saw jaws clench and eyes narrow. These were the knowing expressions of black folks who had experienced that moment when all that we’ve worked for is diminished by someone who can’t imagine that we belong.
That’s why, on Feb. 10, when Outlaw officially took the job and I taped her first interview for WURD Radio, I hearkened back to that moment in December. That moment defines what she faces as the first black woman in this position. There will be cynicism and sexism. There will be racism and backstabbing. There will be insults — both intended and accidental. And all these things will occur no matter how well she does the job — and certainly when she fields fair questions, like how the department will handle potentially unjustified shootings like this week’s.
I asked Outlaw how it felt to have someone ask what makes her qualified after she’s worked for decades in law enforcement — with many of those years spent as a chief or deputy chief in major cities.
“You know, some people, when they ask that question, they don’t realize how insulting it is,” Outlaw told me. “They’re really just looking at what’s directly in front of them … thinking that they’re comparing apples to apples. ‘You came from a place that had X amount of people, this has way more. What makes you think you’re qualified?’”
“Some people, they can’t hide their stripes,” she continued. “They’re really saying — the biases are all coming out.”
She was right, of course. As an African American, I’ve often found myself in situations where I’m forced to decipher whether a person’s clumsy words are driven by bias or a sincere desire to communicate.
As a black woman, Outlaw knows that she will continue to face those kinds of questions. And while she answered all my questions about law enforcement issues as one would expect, citing the necessity for community partners to help lower the homicide rate, and her respect for the Constitution where protest is involved, it was her genuine answer about her own hard work and sacrifice that intrigued me most.
“There are over 18,000 police departments in this country,” Outlaw told me. “And there are a lot of people sitting in the top seats that are far less qualified than not just myself but many others like me. And I will say as a black woman, we get far more scrutiny, and we’re constantly having to justify our existence to even be at the table because there’s a belief that either we’re not ready or we’re not enough.”
Outlaw told me that black women have to work harder to rise in policing, often working through injury or taking jobs that no one else wants. And rising also requires help from mentors and allies who know that the struggle is real.
Still, she doesn’t want to be viewed as a novelty. She wants to be respected for her work.
“It’s 2020,” she told me as our interview wound down. “I’m hoping as we move forward, people will see past what we are born with and look at our performance.”