Kenney, Outlaw admit they were wrong about 676 protest tear-gassing, officers involved to be fired

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A Philadelphia SWAT officer caught on video using pepper spray on a group of protesters at close range during a demonstration on I-676 will be fired, and the police commander who greenlit the use of these less-than-lethal munitions will accept a voluntary demotion, officials announced Thursday.

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw apologized for the actions of officers under her command, and declared an immediate moratorium on the use of tear gas and pepper spray on any civilians — unless they are “armed and dangerous.”

The announcement comes hours after the New York Times published a comprehensive account of the chaos. Outlaw said she was “sickened beyond description” by the video, despite local news outlets — including WHYY and Billy Penn — having raised alarm about the same protest footage and the city’s conflicting positions in the weeks since the June 1 incident. The event became international news, sparking outcry from attorneys and civil rights advocates.

Mayor Jim Kenney also apologized on Thursday, saying he must be accountable for what happened.

Both Outlaw and Kenney initially justified tear-gassing, pepper-spraying and using bean-bag rounds on demonstrators who flooded the downtown freeway in a peaceful protest against police violence and institutional racism. In the days immediately following the event, Outlaw cited reports that protesters had trapped a state trooper in his vehicle and were pelting officers with projectiles.

In her public apology Thursday outside department headquarters, Outlaw said her earlier statements were based on bad intelligence relayed to her by others at the time.

“In the weeks that followed, I have learned those statements were … substantively inaccurate,” she said.

Outlaw faced national scrutiny for her handling of frequent protest clashes between far-right and antifascist groups when she led the police in Portland, Ore.

Falling on the sword — to use Outlaw’s words — is Deputy Commissioner Dennis Wilson, a department veteran who was the incident commander during the tear-gassing on I-676 and other demonstrations in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police.

In an unusual move, Wilson personally announced at the Thursday press event that he would take a voluntary demotion. Although video evidence obtained by WHYY depicts officers describing the protests as “peaceful” just before the gassing, Wilson also blamed bad intel given to him by his officers down on the highway.

In a short statement, he took full responsibility for the incident.

“I did this based on what I could see from my position and what I could hear on the radio,” Wilson said. “I knew the rules of engagement, Commissioner Outlaw wanted me to call her prior to using any CS gas [tear gas]. Things happened quickly. I didn’t call the commissioner, it was me and me alone.”

Wilson will assume his previous rank of chief inspector, effective immediately, he said.

City Council voted unanimously on Thursday to hold public hearings on the way Philadelphia has handled the protests, and the police response to demonstrations. Councilmember Helen Gym introduced the proposal, which she called essential.

“We need feedback, and a forum for Philadelphians to testify and make recommendations for non-discriminatory and equitable policing,” she posted online, calling the hearings “just a first step to rebuild trust.”

Commissioner Outlaw said one officer, who was seen administering gas and pepper spray at close range, would be dismissed for unauthorized and excessive use of force, in addition to behavior unbecoming an officer. The case has been handed to District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office, she said.

Outlaw would not name the officer, citing his pending dismissal, but three sources say it is Richard Nicoletti Jr., assigned to the SWAT unit. Nicoletti was among the officers who clashed with protesters on the downtown highway, turning an otherwise calm protest into chaos. A police spokesperson declined to confirm or deny.

Payroll records indicate the SWAT officer earns around $78,000 annually, plus roughly $5,000 in overtime for the first quarter of 2020.

Although other officers are visible in video footage deploying pepper spray or pellets, Outlaw refused to go into detail about “other personnel changes,” saying investigations were still ongoing with more firings possible.

PPD is working with the city law department to hire an outside consultant to conduct a thorough investigation of the 676 incident, Outlaw said.

The commissioner refused to state exactly how many police had come under internal review since the start of the Floyd protests.

Said Outlaw: “That number grows every day.”

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal