Philly’s first female top cop wants to change public opinion about law enforcement, and herself

A new mayor will need to partner with Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw — or replace her — to tackle the city’s gun violence crisis.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw is shown up close, with a city block and street visible behind her.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw joined 22nd district officers for walk through the city’s Sharswood neighborhood on May 4, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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This story is a part of the Every Voice, Every Vote series.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw’s journey into law enforcement started with a dare.

It was the spring of 1992 in Oakland, California, and Outlaw and her high school friends were closely following the Rodney King riots. They were preparing to protest when she was selected for a two-week career exploration program with the Oakland Police Department.

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“I had to do it, I couldn’t say no,” she said. “I ended up shadowing a police officer … and saw a completely different person.”

Three decades later she’s PPD’s first permanent female police commissioner, and one of the only Black female top cops in the country.

Outlaw says her introduction to the world of law enforcement as a teen fuels her current dedication to the safety and wellbeing of Philadelphia’s youngest citizens.

Sometimes that means showing up at the scene of a shooting, especially if it involved young people or multiple killings.

“It came to be so much I had to come up with a rotation amongst my executive team,” she said.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw joined 22nd district officers for walk through the city’s Sharswood neighborhood on May 4, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

She remembers a particular night where she found herself in an emergency room, consoling a young girl whose brother had shot himself while playing with a gun.

“She just grabbed me and I hugged her, I couldn’t let go,” she said. “And you know that hard cry where you’re shaking …  I just knew by the time we let go that my shirt would be drenched.”

But it was completely dry.

“She was in that much shock that she couldn’t even struggle to get a tear out.”

She said nights like that keep her motivated to make Philadelphia safer, and she wants the public to see where she’s coming from.

“Hopefully people see Danielle, the human being, the person, the mom,” she said.

Outlaw said she hopes Philadelphians can take a pause and recognize she’s part of their community — a resident who loves outdoor concerts and cooking. She’s a mother of two sons, one who works for Major League Baseball and another who serves in the U.S. Air Force.

“I’m the same person you’ll see here in uniform, the same person you’ll see in a grocery store, the same person you see in a nail shop,” she said. “I’m as down to earth as you can get.”

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw hands the phone of a resident who requested a photo with Outlaw at Anns Nails on Ridge Avenue to a member of her staff during a tour through the neighborhood on May 4, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Since taking her position in February 2020, Outlaw has tried to restore trust between young Philadelphians and police officers by creating a Youth Advisory Commission. She’s building a more robust pipeline to retain teens from the Police Explorer program until they’re old enough for the police academy.

She’s also putting cops on the street, changing use-of-force policy, ensuring the health of her employees, and boosting recruitment to fill the department’s dwindling ranks, she said.

“There’s a lot of things that have been going on behind closed doors that folks didn’t really realize were happening.”

Outlaw is pursuing these reforms despite a cascade of challenges, including the murder of PPD Corporal James O’Connor, COVID-19 restrictions, and the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Amidst all of that, she’s been saddled with addressing record levels of gun violence– the city saw a 41% increase in murders between 2019 and 2020, according to police data.

Ryan Harris grew up in the Hunting Park neighborhood of North Philadelphia. Now 36, he heads a nonprofit called As I Plant This Seed. His resource center is designed to keep kids safe from street violence and on track for their goals.

He’s never met Outlaw, but he serves on a gun violence task force through the city’s Office of Violence Prevention. He has organized events where teens can interact with cops.

He said he thinks Outlaw has gotten “the short end of the stick” because of the environment she stepped into.

“I believe that she is doing the best she can with the hand that she was dealt,” he said. “And I find it really ironic sometimes that a lot of people want to put a lot of the blame of years and years and years of bad leadership on her.”

Her tenure could end when Philadelphia’s 100th mayor takes over in 2024. The question of whether to replace her has already been a talking point among candidates, who will face off in the mayoral primary Tuesday

Despite that possibility, Outlaw remains committed to rebuilding relationships between citizens and police

“It’s important for them to see me in a different light … not always talking about something bad or crisis or gloom and doom,” she said. “When I got here, I didn’t have the ability to do that in the traditional way, so I kind of feel like I lost some time.”

Managing expectations

At 11 a.m on a recent Thursday, Outlaw arrived at the corner of Ridge Avenue and 23rd Street in North Philadelphia to join seven officers  patrolling the 22nd police district.

They made it about a block before people started shouting for Outlaw and asking for photos. She obliged and posed, flashing big smiles and thanking residents for their support.

“Sometimes I have some not so good days,” she said. “And then you come out and get poured into, and it reminds me that I’m walking in my purpose and why I’m here. Because this is not easy work.”

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw took selfies with 22nd district residents on walk through the neighborhood on May 4, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

She said she’s happy to be out and about after years of being limited by the COVID-19 pandemic. When she first took over, she had to deal with immediate safety questions such as how to hold people in custody or whether two officers could ride together in a car, she said.

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“We didn’t have masks, we didn’t know which masks were best,” she said in a recent Instagram Live conversation. “And I hadn’t even met everybody yet.”

She didn’t have the benefit of being a known entity like she was in her hometown of Oakland, California, where she served 20 years in both internal and public affairs.

When she was hired as commissioner for the Portland Police Bureau in 2017, she was able to spend much of her first year attending town halls and other community events. The pandemic hampered her early days in Philadelphia.

“Things shut down, you didn’t see me at all,” she said.

Public policy experts say that period of absence, on top of Outlaw being an outsider, has hurt her reputation with the public.

“The commissioner came into a really difficult situation,” said George Burrell, who served as an advisor to former mayors Bill Green and John Street. “She didn’t come in here with a smooth transition …  People are frustrated.”

Robbie Ridgeway expressed his disappointment directly to Outlaw when she visited his Ridge Avenue barber shop during her recent tour.

“We’re talking 10 years of the same nonsense and the same promises,” he told her as they chatted on the sidewalk. “The businesses are ready to move out because of the fact that the violence is still in the way that it is.”

Bobbie Ridgeway, owner of a barbershop on Ridge Avenue since 2013 (right) questions Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw (left) and 22nd District Captain Michael Goodson (center) about violence in the neighborhood.
Bobbie Ridgeway, owner of a barbershop on Ridge Avenue since 2013 (right) questions Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw (left) and 22nd District Captain Michael Goodson (center) about violence in the neighborhood on May 4, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Outlaw told him that the police department is just “a spoke in the wheel of the criminal justice system,” and that while she understands he feels unsafe, violent crime rates are actually down slightly in his neighborhood.

“It’s important to manage expectations,” she said to Ridgeway. “This stuff didn’t happen overnight and so it’s going to slowly chip away … It’s a frustration of mine, too.”

Outlaw said she can’t put an officer on every corner, as some people have asked her to. That’s because the department is facing a historic officer shortage, with roughly 600 officers leaving the force between fiscal years 2019 and 2022 according to an audit from the Office of the Controller, and another 761 expected to retire in the next four years according to the city.

This January, Outlaw redeployed 100 officers to four districts: the 22nd, the 24th, the 25th and the 39th, in response to rising crime in those areas. And gun violence generally decreased, according to police data as of April 30.

She also successfully pushed for a change to the arbitration agreement between PPD and the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, the city’s police union, which will allow civilians to work administrative jobs so that sworn officers can be reassigned to patrol.

Recognizing that officers are exhausted and overworked, she wants to  pilot a program to give officers more flexible schedules, similar to what the New York Police Department just instituted. And she’s implementing an evaluation tool to identify when officers are at risk of poor performance and offer resources to help.

“I can have the best strategy in the world, but if I don’t have healthy people to do it, we’re not going to community meetings, we’re not being able to put a dent in crime prevention or reduction,” she said.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw spoke with Sharswood residents during a tour through the neighborhood with 22nd district officers on May 4, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Building trust

In the spring of 2020, Philadelphia streets were filled with demonstrators decrying the police killing of George Floyd. Outlaw was coordinating not only her own officers but also SWAT teams that arrived on scene.

Outlaw authorized the use of tear gas on demonstrators in West Philadelphia, according to a January 2021 investigation of police conduct from the Office of the Controller. After the findings of the investigation were released, the editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer called on Mayor Kenney to ask Outlaw to resign. Kenny opted to keep her in place.

Roughly a year after the demonstrations, Outlaw announced a ban on officers using tear gas for non-violent protests, sitting or kneeling on a person’s face, neck, or head, or entering homes to conduct searches without knocking.

She said the fact that there haven’t been any instances of police officers killing Black men since then speaks to the efficacy of those reforms.

But relationships between officers and residents are still strained — especially among young people.

“The public do not trust the police officers,” said Jordan Smith, an 18-year-old student at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts.

Jordan Smith, right, performs with his dance team in a gym.
Jordan Smith (right), 18, performs with his dance team at a recent Philadelphia Police Department gun violence prevention event. Smith believes fostering relationships between teens and officers could help improve public safety. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY News)

Smith recently attended a recent gun violence prevention basketball tournament hosted by the Police Department.

“When things do happen, when there should be an officer in the area, people don’t want to call the officers because they don’t know how the officers will react to the situation and if they’ll make it worse or if they’ll make it better. ”

The challenge of being first

Outlaw doesn’t have a choice about bringing her identity to work.

“I just happened to choose policing as my profession, but I’ve been a Black female my entire life,” she said. “We’re typically hired when things are at their worst, and if it’s not improved right away, then it’s, ‘Well see, I told you, you only got it because you check the boxes,’ regardless of how overqualified we are.”

Kym Craven with the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives said women make up only 3% of police chiefs and 12% of sworn officers nationally, according to their data.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw (left) with 22nd District Captain Michael Goodson on the corner of Cecil B. Moore and Ridge Avenues in the city’s Sharswood neighborhood on May 4, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

She remembers hearing about Outlaw standing up for women on the commissioner’s first day on the job – when a colleague told her that her nail polish was a violation of the department dress code, she had the policy changed.

“When we can use the successes of commissioners like Danielle Outlaw to illustrate that women can make it to the top of these organizations and be successful, it helps us,” Craven said.

Outlaw is on the board of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, and a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, the oldest Greek-letter organization established for African American women.

Charlene Collins, president of the Omega Omega chapter in Philadelphia, said she sees Outlaw fighting an uphill battle, and doing so effectively.

“We have a number of members who have been ‘first,’ and her job is very challenging,” Collins said. “She’s definitely innovative … she’s still sharing in trying to use what she knows about what good policing is to help us change some of the processes we have in Philadelphia.”

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw (left) greeted residents with other officers from the 22nd district in the city’s Sharswood neighborhood on May 4, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

In spring 2022, Outlaw hired Leslie Marant as PPD’s first ever Diversity, Equity and Inclusion officer in an effort to make the force more representative of the community it serves.

Outlaw says she’s dedicated to doing her job — she’s not concerned with anything else.

“I have had the honor of leading this department through one of the most tumultuous times in history,” she said. “The history books have not yet been written, but we’ve gotten so much accomplished.”

This story is a part of Every Voice, Every Vote, a collaborative project managed by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Lead support is provided by the William Penn Foundation with additional funding from The Lenfest Institute, Peter and Judy Leone, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Harriet and Larry Weiss, and the Wyncote Foundation, among others. Learn more about the project and view a full list of supporters here.

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