New Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw charmed a crowd of elected officials during her first public appearance on Monday afternoon. Speaking at City Hall just hours after her surprise appointment was announced, Outlaw drew both laughter and applause.
Reporters peppered the incoming top cop with questions about rooting out problems within the police department, about the city’s pervasive gun violence and the overdose crisis.
Outlaw, who has two decades of experience in law enforcement on the West Coast, downplayed her historic achievement as the first female commissioner of color in the PPD’s 166-year history, and emphasized her hope to set a new tone on the force around racism and sexual misconduct.
“Whether I was a Black woman or white male or whatever it is, I think it’s important to be very clear about what the expectations are,” Outlaw said. “There has to be clear policy.”
The incoming commissioner acknowledged she just landed in Philly and still has a lot to learn about the city. Though specifics were thin, her responses did provide insight into what her general priorities might be.
Confident she can move needle on crime
Outlaw pledged to fight crime “relentlessly” in Philadelphia, which has seen an uptick in shootings and homicides this year even as overall violent crime levels are down.
Some pressed Outlaw about her qualifications to do so, considering her previous experience. Portland, where she became police chief in 2017, saw between 30 and 45 annual homicides in recent years, official data shows. Those numbers are dwarfed by Philly’s crisis; there were more than 350 homicides this year amid more than 1,400 shootings.
In answer, she emphasized her qualifications and the uniform procedures of fighting crime nationwide. “Major city policing is major city policing — the issues are all the same,” Outlaw said. “Contemporary policing principles are no different.”
She hinted at support for a program that sounded a lot like “focused deterrence” — an initiative that identifies individuals perceived as likely to commit violence and tried to disrupt the behavior with targeted action and consequences. Oakland, where Outlaw worked for decades, adopted a variation of a similar program that saw a 50% reduction in shootings and homicides since 2012. It has been years since the program’s brief but positively received run in Philly. Officials are currently looking at re-launching a new iteration.
“There are a lot of things that worked really well with Oakland that I see Philadelphia has already began to look at,” Outlaw said.
Support for safe injection sites? TBD
On support for overdose prevention sites, which Philadelphia is poised to become the first U.S. city to implement, Outlaw did not give a clear answer.
Pressed by Inquirer opinion writer Abraham Gutman, she suggested she’d maintain an open mind. “I don’t believe that’s something the police department should spearhead, but I also believe that we have to be open to new ways of addressing the issue,” Outlaw said.
Former PPD Commissioner Ross was initially opposed to the concept as a means to combat the overdose crisis. Earlier this year, his mind began to change. The nonprofit Safehouse is tangled in a federal lawsuit over its bid to open what could be the first such medical facility in the nation.
In her response, however, Outlaw did outline a priority for the department: trying to avoid officer response to calls where social services would be a better fit — a list she said includes both domestic incidents and drug use. She touched on this problem on the West Coast too, she said.
She also acknowledged the police commissioner is limited in their ability to alter citywide policy. In her opening speech, speaking generally of bringing reforms to the department, she stressed that idea.
“I can’t do this alone,” Outlaw said.
No meeting yet with DA, hour-long call with FOP
Outlaw said she only saw Philly District Attorney Larry Krasner “very briefly” Monday morning, but hadn’t had a chance to talk with him at length.
Their relationship could have a significant impact on the city’s efforts to overhaul its criminal justice system. Krasner, elected on a reformist agenda in 2017, occasionally clashed with Ross over policy differences and outlooks on crime.
“I don’t have any opinions on his policies yet,” Outlaw said, adding that the police and DA should be “in constant communication.”
In contrast, Outlaw has spent time talking with the local police union chief — one of Krasner’s more vocal political enemies. FOP Lodge 5 President John McNesby told WHYY and Billy Penn he had an hourlong one-on-one phone call with Outlaw on Monday morning.
While McNesby said he wished Kenney had promoted someone from within the department — a wish he also expressed when Ramsey was appointed in 2007 — McNesby said he was optimistic about moving forward with the new top cop.
“She seems down to earth and ready for the task and we look forward to working with her,” McNesby said.
Krasner, speaking to reporters Monday, echoed a similar sentiment.
One of three finalists for the job
Outlaw was one of three finalists for the post out of 30 who were considered, Managing Director Brian Abernathy confirmed.
Without naming names, neither he nor Mayor Kenney shied away from the numerous scandals that have roiled the police department this year when introducing their selection. They also directly cited the structural issues — like racism and gender discrimination — that they wish to see addressed and that they said informed the hiring process.
“While I have tremendous respect for our officers, the Philadelphia Police Department does need reform,” Kenney said Monday.
Beyond the police union, the decision to hire an outsider received mixed responses, with law enforcement officials like Sheriff-elect Rochelle Bilal saying they wished Kenney had made an internal hire. Kenney, who was just reelected easily to his second and final term, had appointed a departmental insider in Ross the first time around.
Kenney made an indirect plea to rank-and-file officers who might be reluctant about the outside leadership.
“Set aside your preconceptions and your anger, and join me …as she leads the department through the tremendous challenges ahead,” the mayor said.
WHYY’s Tom MacDonald contributed to this report.