Philly’s new police commissioner and the LGBTQ community

Courtesy of City of Philadelphia, Photo by Samantha Madera

In a new year so fraught with gun violence in Philadelphia, and in which hate crimes against various communities, including LGBTQ folks, are way up, former Portland, Oregon Chief of Police Danielle Outlaw has been hired as Philadelphia’s new commissioner.

With over 6,300 sworn members, Philadelphia is home to the fourth-largest police department in the country. Currently, the department faces lawsuits over harassment and discrimination within its ranks. In 2019, the city moved to fire more than a dozen officers because of racist and violent posts made to police social media pages.

Former commissioner Richard Ross resigned in August 2019 after allegations of sexual harassment and gender discrimination by a former girlfriend. Ross denied the charges.

Outlaw, 43, was hired following an extensive four-month search. A native of Oakland, California, she served for nearly 20 years in the Oakland Police Department, rising through the ranks to become Deputy Chief of Police. Outlaw was the second woman named Deputy Chief in the history of the Oakland Police Department. Her other assignments in Oakland included Patrol, Criminal Investigation, and Internal Affairs. While in Oakland, Outlaw won the 2015 Gary Hayes Award, a national award given to those who have demonstrated leadership and innovation in the police profession.

Outlaw was appointed Chief of Police in Portland, Oregon, in October 2017, becoming the first Black woman to hold the position. In Portland, Outlaw implemented crime strategies tailored to the needs and challenges of individual precincts, which resulted in decreased crime rates. Portland’s Police Department has 1,000 sworn members.

According to the Mayor’s Office, Outlaw moderated use of force reforms under a federal consent decree instituted prior to her tenure. This included new policies to address excessive force against those suffering from mental health issues. Under Outlaw’s watch, the Portland Police Bureau received national and international recognition for work in community trust-building, crowd-management response, and constitutional policing.

“While I have tremendous respect for our officers, the Philadelphia Police Department needs reform,” wrote Kenney in a press statement. “I am appointing Danielle Outlaw because I am convinced she has the conviction, courage and compassion needed to bring long-overdue reform to the department.”

Kenney mentioned Outlaw’s work addressing excessive force against Portlanders experiencing a mental health crisis. According to Portland PD sources, the city is close to meeting requirements set out in a 2012 settlement agreement with the US Department of Justice meant to improve police officers’ disproportionately violent interactions with mentally ill Portlanders.

But according to sources in Portland, there were more fatal shootings of mentally ill Portlandians by Portland police officers in 2019 than at any time since 2010. Outlaw received mixed reviews from both the media and others in Portland, and her sudden departure was remarked upon by both. Outlaw oversaw conflicts arising from the Trump administration, such as protests against ICE and white supremacists.

Cameron Whitten is executive director of Portland’s Q Center. A long-time political activist across numerous communities, Whitten was a member of Occupy Portland, among other activist groups, organized for same-sex marriage and against Donald Trump and has been deeply engaged in addressing anti-LGBTQ violence in Portland.

Whitten, who identifies as queer, noted that they had headed Q Center for the same period that Outlaw was police chief, and while they had met her, “there was never any outreach to us in that entire time.”

Whitten suggests that the rise in violence against LGBTQ Portlandians should have been cause for Outlaw to reach out. Whitten and Q Center organized a town hall event to address the violence in February 2019, after a particularly violent incident involving a trans woman who had been attacked and suffered a traumatic brain injury and a detached retina. Both Whitten and various Portland news reports stated that Portland police had told the woman they thought she was drunk, not attacked.

Local news media reported more than 500 people attended the QQ Center event. One local newspaper reported that Whitten was asked if they had invited police to attend. When Whitten said no, because of their concerns for the LGBTQ community, cheers erupted.

Outlaw never engaged Whitten or the Q Center after the event despite the news reports, nor did she have anyone else reach out to Whitten.

But on the positive side of Outlaw’s tenure, in June 2018, for Pride month, she announced the promotion of the first transgender officer to hold the rank of captain in the police bureau.

Stephanie Lourenco was promoted to supervise the bureau’s traffic division.

Outlaw told local news media she wanted to “highlight Lourenco’s accomplishments during Pride Week, but didn’t want to diminish the fact that the promotion is based on her skills and abilities.”

Lourenco joined the bureau in 1999 and most recently served as a lieutenant in the family services division. In 2012, Lourenco volunteered to appear in the bureau’s “It Gets Better” video, where officers shared personal experiences as members of the LGBTQ community.

Lourenco founded Transgender Community of Police Officers/Sheriffs with other transgender officers across the country. The group provides support and encouragement to its members.

While reviews remain mixed on Outlaw, more people than just Mayor Kenney are hopeful that Outlaw’s tenure will be good for Philadelphia and the LGBTQ community. Deja Lynn Alvarez, co-chair of the Philadelphia LGBTQ+ Police Liaison Committee, thinks Philadelphians should give Outlaw a chance and keep an open mind. Alvarez is especially heartened that a Black woman was chosen for the position and thinks this augurs well.

“I believe the new commissioner deserves our support as a Black woman who was able to rise in the ranks of law enforcement — a field of work that we all know is traditionally wrought with misogyny, racism and anti-LGBTQ behaviors,” she said.

“I will offer any support I can and look forward to working with the new commissioner in both my role as the co-chair of the Philadelphia Police LGBTQ+ Liaison Committee and as a trans activist to continue the work being done to advance the rights and treatment of the LGBTQ communities of Philadelphia — particularly the LGBTQ communities of color.”

Outlaw will begin her job in Philadelphia on February 10.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.