Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw resigns her post for another position

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Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw is resigning later this month to become a deputy security chief at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, ending her three-and-a-half-year run as the first Black woman to lead the city’s police force.

Her often-tumultuous tenure was marked by a series of unprecedented challenges, including pandemic shutdowns, record levels of gun violence and homicides, mass protests that her department responded to with heavy-handed tactics, and significant staffing shortages amid waves of retirements and resignations.

Outlaw’s last day will be Sept. 22, after which her top deputy, John Stanford, will serve as interim commissioner, Mayor Jim Kenney said in a news release. Stanford is a two-decade veteran of the department whose experience includes stints overseeing Internal Affairs, leading a West Philadelphia district, and serving as department spokesperson.

Outlaw said her departure was voluntary, but it comes just months before Kenney is set to leave office and a new mayor is to be sworn in. Such transitions have traditionally been a time of turnover for big city police chiefs across the country, and Outlaw acknowledged in an interview that stepping aside now gives “whomever the new mayor is the opportunity to select their commissioner.”

She also said she believed the timing was right because gun violence has begun to fall from its record-setting heights. The city’s year-to-date homicide tally is 20% lower than last year, police statistics show, although still higher than most other recent years in city history. Still, Outlaw said she believed the reduction is the result of the department and its roughly 6,000 employees remaining dedicated to driving down crime.

“We’re really beginning to see the fruits of our labor,” Outlaw said. “We — not just me, all of us — have really endured some challenging times.”

Kenney, in a statement, said Outlaw “has worked relentlessly for three and a half years during an unprecedented era in our city and a number of crisis situations” and that she “deserves praise” for accomplishments that include record numbers of gun seizures by police and upping the gun violence clearance rate — the percentage of investigations considered solved.

Still, the Police Department has continued to face challenges and criticism, most recently over a case in which an officer fatally shot 27-year-old Eddie Irizarry in his car in Kensington. Police initially provided an inaccurate account of what happened, forcing Outlaw to walk back the details other commanders had provided. She later moved to dismiss the officer who opened fire, Mark Dial, for insubordination for failing to cooperate with the police investigation into the incident.

Outlaw’s professional future had become a topic of discussion within law enforcement and political circles in recent months, with speculation about who might be tapped to replace her. Democratic mayoral nominee Cherelle Parker is heavily favored to be the city’s next chief executive, and she had demurred on the campaign trail when asked if she’d keep Outlaw.

With Outlaw now stepping away, the future of the department’s leadership is sure to become an even hotter topic — and one with tangible stakes. The city’s top cop is one of the most visible officials in the region, someone who can set priorities and dictate tactics for one of the nation’s largest police forces in a city that has chronically struggled with crime.

Outlaw, 46, acknowledged “I have a lot of years left” in the workforce, and she said she has interests beyond leading another municipal police force. Without offering many specifics, she said her new role in New York would entail overseeing the security of institutions including that region’s airports, bridges, tunnels, and ports. The agency she’s joining appointed a new chief security officer at the end of last year.

“There’s so many things that I know I’m capable of doing, not just in [traditional] law enforcement,” Outlaw said.

A shifting mandate

Outlaw’s career had taken off over the past decade. After rising through the ranks in her hometown of Oakland, Calif., she became chief of police in Portland, Ore., in 2017, and came to Philadelphia less than three years later.

She was recruited after a series of scandals within the department over allegations of racism, sexism, and sexual harassment — including a lawsuit that effectively led to the resignation of Outlaw’s predecessor, Richard Ross. He had been accused of retaliating against a former love interest, who also worked in the department.

Outlaw and Kenney spoke openly about the need to put in place measures of change around those issues. When he introduced Outlaw in late 2019, Kenney said: “I am convinced she has the conviction, courage, and compassion needed to bring long-overdue reform to the department.”

Still, just weeks after Outlaw was officially sworn in, in February 2020, her mandate shifted amid mounting crises.

First, Cpl. James O’Connor IV was fatally shot while serving a warrant in Frankford. Days later, the city shut down due to the pandemic, forcing Outlaw to make unprecedented choices about how and when officers should engage with residents or confront suspects.

Months later, demonstrators spent several days marching across the city protesting the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Officers tear-gassed residents and protesters, detained journalists, and seemed unsure about how to respond to large and, at times, unruly crowds. Two officers were later criminally charged with assault, and a review commissioned by the Kenney administration said the Police Department was “simply not prepared” for the situation.

The city went on to spend nearly $10 million to settle a host of lawsuits over the department’s response to the protests.

Then, in the summer of 2020, gun violence began surging to unprecedented levels.

By the end of 2022, nearly 1,600 people had been killed in homicides over the previous three years, and another 5,400 people had been wounded in shootings. The annual pace of gunfire was the highest in at least six decades, and Kenney’s administration — including the Police Department — was frequently criticized as lacking urgency.

Meanwhile, police staffing levels were plummeting, leaving the department hundreds of officers short of its target staffing. And hundreds of officers still on the books were out on injury claims — about 14% of all patrol cops at one point, an Inquirer investigation found.

Many of those trends were not unique to Philadelphia, particularly the rise in gun violence. And this week, as she discussed her tenure, Outlaw said she believes “what we’re doing is working” when it comes to addressing the shootings crisis, because the number of incidents is declining compared to the past several years.

Looking to the future

As for her overall tenure here, Outlaw said she hasn’t had time yet to reflect on her legacy. She said she was often facing several once-in-a-career episodes at the same time, and that “the history books have not yet been written about what we all went through.”

She acknowledged that it took her longer than anticipated to get her footing in the department because COVID made meetings mostly virtual — something she said made it challenging to establish relationships within a large and new organization.

Still, she said she believes the department is in good hands moving forward — that “the framework and foundation for success is here,” and that Stanford, her interim replacement, is “more than capable and competent to carry out anything we have in progress.”

One memory she said will endure is the community members who approached her to thank her for stepping into a role that a Black woman had never held before. She said she used those sentiments “to inspire myself, and to keep me going.”

Of her time in Philadelphia, she said: “I don’t have any regrets whatsoever. It’s pushed me, I’ve grown in so many ways, and I’m excited for the future.”

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