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Ask the Chief – Philadelphia: An Interview with Danielle Outlaw

Black woman in a navy blue police uniform. Background is a blurry building.

*This interview is the third installment of Ask the Chief, a BPR interview series with police chiefs from around the country.  

Danielle Outlaw is the first Black female serving as the Police Commissioner for the Philadelphia Police Department. She was born in Oakland, where she attended Holy Names High School and served for 20 years in the Oakland Police Department. In 2017, she was appointed as the first Black female chief of police in the Portland Police Department. Outlaw has an undergraduate degree in sociology from the University of San Francisco and a Master of Business Administration from Pepperdine University. 

Sam Trachtenberg & John Fullerton: How have you approached policing in 2021?

Danielle Outlaw: My approach is being strategic and formulating good policies, practices, and procedures that can be used for the next 50 to 100 years. We need to begin making smarter decisions with the fewer resources we have. Gone are the days where we can just go flood a neighborhood with cops, stop everyone that passes by, and say “this is how we handle crime.” We can’t do that anymore. As policing becomes more professional, there is a public acknowledgement that we are of the community. We get our authority–our legitimacy–from the community that we serve. 

ST & JF: How wary are you of how you’re perceived both within law enforcement and in the community when implementing progressive changes or speaking out against racial discrimination?

DA: I make my decisions based on who I am, my lived experiences, and what I want to see for my young adult sons. There are going to be times when I speak out in support of the police department or my officers and what we do, and the community’s not going to like that. It doesn’t mean I’m turning my back on my community. It doesn’t mean that I’m turning my back on who I am, but I have to make some tough choices in this role. I’m not the police commissioner for only the Black community. I’m not the police commissioner for only single mothers. I have to advocate on behalf of everyone. So that can cloud perceptions of what my role is and, quite frankly, what people think of me. We, as police chiefs, are meant to be apolitical. Period.

ST & JF: How did the murder of George Floyd affect your department?

DA: I started as a cop in Oakland, and then was the Portland Police Chief, and now I’m the Police Commissioner for Philadelphia, so I’ve seen how different regions and cultures respond to incidents of police brutality. When that happened, we just happened to be sitting on the powder keg. It was the tip of the iceberg and people were tired of going out and marching and protesting and doing sit-ins and doing all these things and seeing nothing happen.

This last year showed us that people are looking for implementation— they want words put into action. Gone are the days where we had meetings about all these great things that should or could happen, and then we walked away without any advancement.. 

Depending on where you are, you have some people that make decisions based on pressure from the community or because of some guilt. Sometimes the pendulum swings way too far in one direction or the other because they’re trying to make certain groups in the community feel better. It takes someone like me to come and say, “No, can we please get back to common sense? Let’s do this because it’s the right thing to do.” We’re not doing no-knock warrants. We already had a ban on chokeholds, but the language of the ban needed to be made clearer. We also adopted or already were in the process of implementing some of the policy measures other agencies implemented following the murder of George Floyd.

ST & JF: How does the national attitude towards policing affect your job?

DA: If something happens in another part of the country, regardless of the size of the city, we don’t get to say, “Oh, since that didn’t happen here, folks won’t protest here. They’ll only protest over there.” I’m used to having worked in places, whether it be Oakland, Portland, or Philadelphia, where regardless of if something happened in another part of the country, we were going to be ground zero for civil unrest.

ST & JF: Do you have any comments on the shooting of Walter Wallace?

DA: This is yet another incident where the community may think one thing, but as a trained law enforcement officer, we may think something else. We still don’t know what’s going to happen on the criminal side of that investigation. So I won’t go into detail, but things blew up, and there was a lot of civil unrest around that. 

I don’t want the DOJ to come in and tell me that my practices need to be reviewed. My leadership style is to not wait for somebody to come in and say “You need to do this, this, and this.” We knew right off the bat that we needed to ramp up our efforts and push out our co-responder model. We knew that we needed to make sure that we had prompts in place to ask the right questions because when people are in crisis or someone’s calling on behalf of someone who’s in crisis, those details don’t always get relayed to the officers who show up. And that didn’t happen with Mr. Wallace. 

So I put somebody on the radio to also triage the type of calls that we get to make sure that we’re sending the most appropriate response. If someone’s in crisis, you shouldn’t always send a police officer. There’s a lot of work that’s been done, not necessarily because of any particular incident, but because of the assessments made when I first took this job. 

ST & JF: Are we asking too much of police officers by having them respond to every type of call? 

DA: Yes. We have to be more intentional about identifying alternative strategies to policing because it’s not working, period. When we talk about re-imagining public safety, you may be surprised that a lot of my colleagues will tell you we don’t want to respond to a lot of the things that currently we have to respond to. 

We need to be thinking of those alternative strategies, like calling the social service providers or working with your legislators to find ways to eradicate that issue without just bringing in the heavy to say, “Okay, I’m moving you by force.” But before you pull us from it, we have to make sure there’s an alternative strategy in place to make sure that the actual issue, that root problem, is being addressed.

ST & JF: How do the recent calls to defund the police play into these problems?

DA: Reasonable demands have been made for the proliferation of body cameras, tasers, and implicit bias training. But, guess what, folks? That all costs money. People want divestment, but at the same time, they ask us to step up and do more. It doesn’t work that way. We have to phase in reform with appropriate resource allocation.

The same problem exists for prison reform. If you want to empty out all the jails, what’s the re-entry strategy? How do we make sure that this person isn’t going to recidivate?  Quite frankly, some people need to go to jail for a long time. There needs to be a balance between reforming our prison system while still keeping the public safe from violent offenders. 

ST & JF: How do you teach your officers about the history of race and policing in your community in Philadelphia? 

DA: We take our recruits on a walking tour to some of our hardest-hit areas to show why tensions exist and why we have to move forward with reforms. I think it’s very, very important our leadership makes it clear that discrimination plays a big role in our nation’s history. These problems are generational, and they are being passed on to our children. If law enforcement officers aren’t being educated on the history of their Black communities and why community members feel the way they do about police there’s going to be constant tension. 

We rolled out implicit bias training in October of last year, shortly after I got here. We talk about the history of policing and people’s personal biases. The instructor presents it in a very non-offensive way, but you can see so many light bulbs flick on, and people can have their learning moment without being put on blast or made to feel embarrassed.

ST & JF: We read that you deeply admire Rosa Parks. How do you weigh admiring someone for civil disobedience while arresting people for similar behavior during the protests over the last year?

DA: I want to make it very clear: there’s a very strong distinction between civil disobedience and tearing shit up, burning buildings down, and acts of violence. It’s one thing to be disobedient by going out to protest and to demonstrate. If you broke the law because you marched or protested without a permit, we won’t bother you. We’ll even facilitate and go alongside you to make sure you don’t get hit by cars. There’s a big difference between peaceful demonstration and throwing Molotov cocktails and hitting cops with cars.

Rosa Parks sat and refused to give up her seat even though, by law, African Americans were supposed to give up their seats because we were deemed inferior. I’m using my words here, but that’s just a dumb law. 

ST & JF: Do you enforce any of these so-called “dumb laws?”

DA: Those of us in law enforcement who are bold enough to do it are taking a hard look at some of the laws we have been asked to enforce. These laws are creating disparate impacts in communities of color because of how they’re enforced. So while I might not be able to change a law, I can look at how we enforce it in order to reduce the disparities.

Law enforcement has always been given discretion on how to enforce the law. Depending on who’s in charge, laws can be used to further the institutional racism that we know exists. I use common sense to recognize when we’re perpetuating the problems that we’re trying to get away from. That’s what I do, and I think that’s what a lot of my colleagues are doing as well.

Every police department in this country, regardless of size, has values up on the wall: honor, integrity, service. How do we continue doing things that don’t align with our values? How do we hire people that don’t align with our values? We don’t, and we shouldn’t. 

ST & JF: How do you want to be remembered as Philadelphia Police Commissioner? 

DA: Fair, authentic, and open. People say things because it’s the popular thing to say or they want to show their level of wokeness. I saw it a lot in Portland. I don’t want to have to come back later and retract my comments because I didn’t take the time to educate myself before speaking. 

I’m very intentional. If I open my mouth to say something, please believe I put some thought behind it—regardless of the setting. The responses you’re going to get from me in the grocery store are the same ones you will get in an interview like this. What I say or do is because I believe it’s the right thing to do. I don’t lose sleep at night because of the decisions I’ve made. 

ST & JF:  What does the future of policing look like? 

DA: I envision more types of positions within the police department. In Oakland, for example, there are non-sworn positions that can respond to certain types of calls and handle some of the lower-level things that a police officer might not necessarily be needed for.

You will also see a greater use of technology. You’re seeing a lot of us switch to machine learning and artificial intelligence for things like early intervention systems and predictive policing. But we’ve still got to have a human being behind it. We also can use data and artificial intelligence to determine how we should best utilize our shrinking budgets. We want to have a smaller footprint and reduce the size of our fleet.

The future will also include much more community engagement. I wouldn’t even say civilian oversight is coming—it’s already here. Ceding more of our authority back to the community is going to be a big part of police reform in the coming years.

ST & JF: Is the public even ready for these types of changes?

DA: There’s a huge education component to it that I think a lot of folks tend to miss. We can sit here in this interview and agree that police officers should not be responding to every type of call. But try telling that to someone that’s set in their ways and expects to see a cop every time they call 911.

ST & JF: What should we, as members of the community, be asking ourselves when it comes to policing?

DA: We need to ask ourselves, what can the community do to best support law enforcement? Don’t teach your kids to flip us off when we drive by. Don’t instill fear in a three-year-old because now you’re teaching them to fear cops instead of seeing them as somebody they can go to when they’re in need of help. 

People sure don’t have a problem with saying, “We don’t know our cops, we feel distant, and we want more representation in the police department of people that look like us and come from our neighborhoods.” I think there are a lot of people out there that want to be supportive but don’t know how. 

 If I’m thinking about going into law enforcement, think about how destructive a response like“Why would you want to be a part of the police when they don’t do anything good for the community?” is. Think about how that response resonates versus, “Oh, really? That’s good stuff. How can I help you get ready?” When we empower people from our communities to do these jobs, you’re going to see more people wanting to become police officers.

I want the community to recognize that being supportive of police and holding us accountable aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s okay to do both because we’re human beings. People need to see us as human beings.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.