PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw will step down this month, the mayor said Tuesday, ending a turbulent three years in which she guided one of the country’s largest police forces through pandemic lockdowns and Black Lives Matter protests to take a leadership position with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Outlaw, the first Black woman to run the 6,000-member department, came aboard just before the pandemic shutdown and quickly had to oversee the city’s safety as intense protests broke out in Philadelphia and across the country in the summer of 2020 over the police killing of Black people.
Her resignation comes just a few months before the end of Mayor Jim Kenney’s tenure and as the rates of homicides and other crimes have become a major issue in the race to replace him.
Tensions between Philadelphia police and the public escalated after George Floyd’s killing in May 2020, when mostly peaceful protesters who shut down a major city expressway were met with tear gas and rubber bullets. The city council issued a statement calling the police response “brutal,” “excessive” and “unacceptable,” but Outlaw initially defended the strategy. The city later paid a $9.25 million settlement to hundreds of protesters.
Later that year, police came under rebuke again when a young Black man named Walter Wallace Jr., who had a history of mental illness and was brandishing a knife outside his home, was shot and killed within seconds of police arriving to the scene. Outlaw bemoaned the lack of mental health services while pledging the department would do better.
And they came to a head again just last month, when the department had to backtrack to say that a man who was killed by an officer who had stopped him for erratic driving had neither lunged at police with a knife nor exited the car, as police officials initially claimed. Outlaw moved to fire the officer for insubordination and other alleged policy violations in the Aug. 14 death of Eddie Irizarry.
“Commissioner Outlaw has worked relentlessly for three and a half years during an unprecedented era in our city and a number of crisis situations, and she deserves praise for her commitment to bring long-overdue reform to the Department after years of racism and gender discrimination prior to her appointment,” Kenney said in a statement.
He has named First Deputy John M. Stanford Jr. as interim police commissioner. While campaigning, Democratic mayoral candidate Cherelle Parker has skirted questions over her plans for leadership at the police department.
Over the last few years, Philadelphia has seen a sharp increase in homicides, setting a modern-day record in 2021 with 562 homicides that year. Homicides declined slightly in 2022 and advocates have said they are on track to decrease further this year.
But even though Philadelphia was hardly alone among U.S. cities in experiencing a rise in homicides over that time, it has had a hard time combatting a Republican narrative of being a Democratic city with a progressive district attorney that is overrun with violence and danger.
Meanwhile, Outlaw faced a gender bias lawsuit from within the department that yielded a $1 million federal verdict to two female officers who said they endured a hostile work environment that included being put in undesirable jobs after they lodged sexual harassment complaints.
Outlaw came to Philadelphia from Portland, Oregon, where her handling of protests had also raised concerns.
At the port authority, Outlaw will be the deputy chief security officer. The agency also announced the creation of a new security and technology department that will oversee safety at facilities throughout the agency.
The scrutiny on police funding, tactics and practices in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police officers contributed to more than half of the leaders in the Major Cities Chiefs Association — a group comprised of the heads of the 79 largest departments in the U.S. and Canada — to retire, resign or otherwise leave their posts in 2020 and 2021, including those in Dallas, Miami, Detroit and Boston.
“While there will be many Monday morning quarterbacks second guessing her performance and decision-making, I have nothing but a great deal of respect and admiration for the job that she has done for our city,” Parker, the presumptive favorite in the mayor’s race, said in a statement.