A call for change is bringing Police Commissioner Outlaw to Philly. Now it’s time to move forward

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

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

This week, when Mayor Jim Kenney announced the appointment of Danielle Outlaw as Philadelphia’s next police commissioner, it was the next step in a journey I never foresaw.

It began back in June when the Plain View Project revealed that over 300 Philadelphia police officers had posted racist or otherwise offensive material on Facebook. I called on the people to protest at police headquarters, but I didn’t understand that by doing so we were setting in motion a series of events that could fundamentally change the Philadelphia Police Department.

When I watched a Black woman be introduced as the next police commissioner, I understood that she was the answer to a Black community that had shouted for change. In the coming months, we will learn the extent of her power. But in the last few months, we have learned the extent of our own.

That’s because Outlaw is the embodiment of community demand. It was a demand that came after a summer of turmoil and the sudden resignation of former Police Commissioner Richard Ross. The Rally For Justice Coalition, a group of mostly Black community organizations and leaders, demanded a Black woman police commissioner. Now that we have her here, we must support her when she’s right, hold her accountable when she’s wrong, and do all that we can to assure that she does not fail

Make no mistake — Outlaw will be challenged at every turn, not only because she is a woman, but also because she is Black.

I saw it at the press conference after the mayor announced her appointment. A white reporter asked Outlaw what made her qualified for the job, and I wondered if he would’ve posed the same question to a white man.

I saw it online, as so-called progressives mounted a campaign to tear down Outlaw’s record on handling protests when she was Portland’s police chief.

I heard it from police officers who saw colleagues harshly criticizing the new commissioner in law enforcement chat rooms.

Most heartbreaking of all, I heard it from Black people who questioned Outlaw’s commitment to the community before she’d worked a minute on the job.

I understand my people’s hesitation to look beyond the blemishes on Outlaw’s record. It is Black people, after all, who bear the burden of bad policing. We are the ones who are harassed when stop and frisk policies are implemented. We are the ones who are shot and killed by police when we are unarmed. We are the ones who were targeted by hundreds of Philadelphia police officers who wrote offensive posts on Facebook.

But now, after the protests at police headquarters and City Hall, after the meetings with the mayor and two police commissioners, after the firings of cops who engaged in open hatred of our people, it is time for our city to move forward. 

Those of us who took to the streets to demand a new kind of leadership in the police department must now demand a new kind of cooperation from ourselves.  

The people told the mayor what we wanted and he listened. Now it’s up to the people to make it work.

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