Philadelphia police monitor a protest in August 2017 Credit: Kriston Jae Bethel

During her two years as police chief in Portland, incoming Philly Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw faced national scrutiny for her handling of the frequent protest clashes between far-right and antifascist groups in the liberal Oregon city.

Under her watch, several politicized rallies ended with violent clashes between leftist protesters and the 1,000-member police force, and Outlaw was criticized for what people described as siding with white supremacist groups.

On the same issue, Outlaw’s department took heat from the right — including from Donald Trump Jr. and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — after conservative activist Andy Ngo was punched in the face during a demonstration.

Philadelphia, where Outlaw will take control of the police department in February, has plenty of other problems. Protests don’t exactly top the list of public safety concerns — but they’ve become part of everyday life in the city, and regularly draw national attention.

What does Outlaw’s record on mass demonstrations bode for Philadelphia’s protest culture in the years to come?

Deborah Rose, an organizer with the left-wing Abolish ICE demonstration that set up camp in Center City in 2018, said Outlaw’s appointment appeared to be a step forward for the PPD. But she and other activist leaders told Billy Penn that Outlaw’s conduct in Portland raises questions about how she will command the rank-and-file police in Philadelphia.

“The idea that conscientious citizens of Philadelphia making their voices heard deserves violent paramilitary suppression,” Rose said, “is one that, if adopted, will show a deep lack of respect and understanding of Philadelphia’s values.”

Danielle Outlaw is introduced by Mayor Jim Kenney as the new Commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department on Monday. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY) Credit: Bastiaan Slabbers

Outlaw: Protesters were using ‘guise’ of free speech to be violent

During her first public appearance in Philadelphia on Monday, Outlaw talked about overseeing hundreds of demonstrations as Portland police chief.

She said she considered most to have been well-handled — even those that drew the department into the national spotlight, such as the Ngo incident — and repeated past remarks about having zero tolerance for demonstrators who come to stir up violence.

“I am a firm believer in upholding free speech and the right to assembly,” Outlaw said Monday. “What I will not tolerate are those who come under the guise of free speech or under the guise of the Constitution to create acts of violence against others.”

Philadelphia police, once infamous for brutality toward protesters, have mellowed out in recent years. The department has received resounding accolades for its handling of large protests over the years, including at high-profile events like the Democratic National Convention in 2016.

Outlaw echoed the praise of the PPD’s record on protests, and acknowledged that in her previous position, lack of resources was an issue.

Portland’s police department is a fraction the size of Philadelphia’s, the fourth largest in the nation — and recruitment has proven difficult. Outlaw recently relaxed the admission requirements to the police academy in fill glaring vacancies on the force.

“Crowd management in Portland is a lot more complex than what the rest of the world had a chance to see,” Outlaw said, “but the Philadelphia PD has done a good job handling demonstrations here already.”

Not everyone agrees with the characterization. Megan Malachi, an organizer with the Philadelphia Coalition for R.E.A.L Justice, a leftwing group that calls for police abolition, said that under former Commissioners Richard Ross and Charles Ramsey, anti-police protesters encountered excessive force.

“In our experience, the police were extremely brutal, particularly bike cops and the regular rank-and-file…we’ve been pushed around, we’ve been assaulted,” she said.

“We don’t expect anything different from Danielle Outlaw,” Malachi continued. “She’s been accused multiple times of supporting rightwing activists and Proud Boy types of people, and has come down really hard on [leftwing] activists.”

Credit: Photo by Durrell Hospedale

Outlaw’s talk-radio jab at leftists

At the height of Portland’s 2018 clashes between right- and left-wing demonstrators — some of which drew firearms onto the streets — Outlaw supported a failed legislative push for a ban on protest masks.

She also doubled down on her force’s tactics, even after they clashed exclusively with leftwing protesters during a massive demonstration and counter-demonstration in August 2018.

Police initially claimed they had seen firearms on the leftist side of the protest line, according to local alt-weekly Willamette Week, but later said there were reports of guns on both sides. No weapons were recovered. Months later, it came out that Portland Police had discovered right-wing protesters with a cache of weapons on top of a parking garage, the Week reported.

After that incident, Outlaw appeared on a conservative Portland talk-radio show and likened leftwing activists to schoolyard bullies who pick a fight and then “get mad because I kicked your butt” only to later “whine and complain.”

The analogy drew ire from many activists, some of whom accused her of protecting white supremacists while directing attacks on progressive or left-leaning protests.

When Outlaw was a lieutenant in the Oakland Police Department in 2011, police used non-lethal munitions on Occupy protesters who’d set up camps in the city and declined to leave when asked. The city eventually paid out $1 million in damages.

In Portland, Outlaw pushed for reviews of the department’s crowd management tactics as well as use-of-force policies. She contracted an outside consultant to review protests that ended in clashes with law enforcement.

“You hear me say this all the time, because I mean it: we are a learning organization,” Outlaw told reporters after another round of protests this summer. “It’s important for us to go back and assess what worked for us and what didn’t.”

Speaking at City Hall on Monday, Outlaw said she considered even the most controversial clashes in Portland as generally “successful” from a crowd management perspective, and chalked up the headlines and negative coverage to isolated individuals.

Outlaw takes the reins of the PPD on Feb. 10.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...