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Inside man to trailblazing outsider: Mayor Jim Kenney goes bold with police commissioner in second term

The differing approaches in Kenney’s two picks for police commissioner may reflect that the mayor, who cannot run for a third consecutive term, is less tethered to how the selection will play among local political players and more concerned about his legacy.

Not long before taking office in 2016, Mayor Jim Kenney made a safe choice by selecting Richard Ross, a Philadelphia Police Department veteran with broad support from stakeholders, to be police commissioner.

A week before the start of his second term, Kenney has gone in a more venturesome direction by choosing as the city’s next top cop Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw, who will be the first African American woman to lead the department and who, as a newcomer to Philly, was not the choice of insiders such as the police officers union.

The differing approaches in Kenney’s picks for police commissioner, widely viewed as the most consequential appointments mayors make, may reflect that Kenney is less tethered to how the selection will be perceived in the short term and more concerned about his legacy. He cannot run for a third term.

“I would suspect Mayor Kenney is going to focus on, ‘What do I want my legacy to be?’ And I think this decision is one of the things he wants his legacy to be,” said former City Councilman George Burrell, who served as a senior aide to former Mayor John F. Street. “You can’t do that by placating constituencies. You have to establish what your values are and what your priorities are.”

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 preferred acting Commissioner Christine M. Coulter for the job. On Monday, union president John McNesby reiterated that officers wanted an internal candidate to become commissioner but said, “We look forward to a professional, working partnership with Chief Outlaw.”

The appointment of Outlaw comes after a year of controversy and chaos at the department, from the publication of some officers’ racist and offensive social media posts to the resignation of Ross amid accusations that he retaliated against a former lover and that the department ignored complaints about sexual harassment in the ranks. Ross has denied the allegations.

» READ MORE: Enthusiasm, hope, and ‘old guard’ warnings follow naming of Philly’s first black female police head

The next year is expected to be no less intense. More people were 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. Talks between Kenney’s administration and the union over the next police contract begin in January, and the mayor’s negotiating team will face opposition in its bid for changes to the police arbitration process, which often allows fired cops to rejoin the force, and the restoration of a rule that requires all officers to live in the city.

Choosing an outsider sends the message that Kenney believes the department needs reform, said Joseph McLaughlin, director of Temple University’s Institute for Public Affairs.

“The idea that he went with an outsider is a pretty clear indication that he believes, given everything that’s been going on, it would be good to have a fresh approach," McLaughlin said.

In announcing Outlaw’s appointment, Kenney indicated she has a mandate to make changes.

“While I have tremendous respect for our officers, the Philadelphia Police Department does need reform, and I am appointing Danielle Outlaw because I am convinced she has the conviction, courage, and compassion needed,” Kenney said. “We’ve had terrific commissioners that have come from outside, and we’ve had terrific commissioners that have come from inside. I just think on occasion you need some outside eyes with some different experience to get to the bottom of things.”

» READ MORE: What to know about Danielle Outlaw

He noted that celebrated former Commissioners John Timoney and Charles H. Ramsey came from outside the department, and that Ross, whose performance was widely praised until his abrupt resignation, climbed the ranks.

The administration’s secretive process for interviewing candidates — important interests like African American clergy, the police union and even Council members were in the dark until hours before the announcement — further ties Outlaw’s performance to the mayor. Unlike Ross, whose candidacy was promoted by many constituencies, Outlaw arrives in Philadelphia with the imprimatur of Kenney alone.

Kenney said Monday that he didn’t want outside candidates to be discouraged from applying if they were concerned word would reach their current employers that they were on the job market.

Councilman Bill Greenlee, who is leaving office, said that while he hadn’t heard of Outlaw before, she made a strong first impression and he understands why the mayor wanted to put his personal mark on the appointment.

“Because of some of the things that were going on with the [social media] posts and the harassment charges, and all like that, obviously it was a different time” than when Ross was selected, Greenlee said. “It is his pick, so it’ll be something that is certainly tied to him, hopefully positively.”

Kenney’s pick may also help him politically if he chooses to run for a higher office, Burrell said. Kenney has indicated he would consider running for governor or U.S. senator in 2022, although many in City Hall doubt he will enter a statewide race, which would require him to step down less than halfway through his four-year term.

If he did run, Kenney would likely seek to position himself as the most progressive candidate in a Democratic primary, as he did in the 2015 mayoral race, and choosing a reform-minded African American woman for police commissioner would likely appeal to progressives and to black voters, Burrell said.

But Burrell cautioned that Outlaw will need to produce results on police reform issues and public safety for the nomination to continue to be a boon to Kenney’s political fortunes.

“If the election were today and he were running for something, it would be a political asset, but it depends on her performance,” he said. “That in and of itself is not going to get you votes without changing the issues.… People are no longer voting on these symbolic issues. We in the African-American community and in others have grown beyond symbolism and are looking for outcomes.”