Danielle Outlaw, a 42-year-old former Deputy Chief of the Oakland Police Department, was sworn in on Monday as chief of the Portland Police Bureau. A rare outside hire, Outlaw is just the third woman, and first woman of color, to lead Oregon’s largest municipal police force.
The Mercury—in a 15-minute slot sandwiched between other media outlets—sat down with her on Tuesday to talk about her priorities, the (many) officers who don’t live in Portland, and protest policing.
MERCURY: You’ve mentioned that you need to get a sense of the culture here. Outside of that, what’s your first priority as chief?
DANIELLE OUTLAW: That is it, that’s my first priority. There are a lot of topics that come up around staffing, community relationship building, [US Department of Justice] settlement agreement stuff, crowd management—those are day-to-day activities, a part of policing and issues we’re facing. I don’t like to use the word “issues,” because it sounds like it’s a bad thing. It’s just something that’s an area of attention.
As we’re talking about these things, we can’t forget the people who are doing the work to get these things done. So my very first priority is to make sure people see me, I meet the people within the organization, sworn staff and non-sworn staff, and the community. The movers and the shakers. I just want them to get to know me, what my style is, who I am, and that happens over time.
This is only my second day, but as they see my face more, they’ll become acclimated to who I am, and we’ll work hand-in-hand to move forward. But it’s all simultaneous work—it’s not like I’m gonna meet with you first today, and then tomorrow we’re gonna work on the settlement agreement. It’s all an ongoing thing because we don’t have the luxury of time, even though it is a marathon and not a sprint.
Do you have an idea yet about your command staff—bringing in new assistant chiefs or keeping the current ones?
I’m only on day two. As I’ve shared with them—no secrets here—it’s really about making sure that folks are in the right seats. There’s a lot of talent here, and I want to make sure we’re as efficient and effective as possible. If there is a time to make some shifts and moves, that’s what I’ll do. But I’m not there yet. I’m still getting to know people, and they’re still getting to know me, getting to know who’s responsible for what.
But is it realistic to expect new assistant chiefs to come in?
I don’t know. It’s not fair to them, it’s not fair to anybody to come in and say I’m going to change the staff completely without having an opportunity to show me what’s been done. It’s too soon to say.
Most Portland police officers don’t live in Portland. Is that a problem to you?
No, it’s not—as long as they can get here when I need them here. It’s one thing to be from somewhere, homegrown, but you can also be made somewhere. I know a lot of folks from my previous agency aren’t from Oakland, but they had maybe come over from the military and landed there. But they spent so much time at work and in the community, and much less time where they actually live, that they were made in Oakland, they were still part of the Oakland culture. Same goes here. But I think what a lot of folks fail to realize is that we spend so much time here.
Because someone doesn’t choose to live within the city doesn’t mean you’re not made here in Portland, aren’t part of the culture, and not connected. I would even say there’s a special connection there. When you’re in certain neighborhoods day in and day out, you get to know the people there, and what drives that community, what the areas of concern are, what makes that particular area tick. Some officers might be more a part of that area than people who actually live there, because they, themselves, may be commuting outside [of Portland]. One of the first things I learned is people [civilians] commute from Washington. They just work here. I want to be clear that when we’re judging police officers, they’re not the only ones that do that. Other people in other professions commute as well, and it doesn’t mean they’re any less connected.
So you don’t believe that officers who don’t live in the community they police have less connection to the area?
I would be remiss in my comments if I didn’t acknowledge that. There is some truth there, but that’s where you focus on the person. That’s where you focus on the values of the organization, and making sure that what we value is aligned with everything we do: our policy, how we interact with people. If I hire someone from out of the city and they’re commuting, but I know they have a heart of gold, I know they have solid interpersonal skills, their emotional intelligence is through the roof, I know I’ll be comfortable with that person in any neighborhood, because they have the ability to empathize with those that may not be like them. As long as you can get to work on time and you respond when I need you, I’m okay with that. My preference is to be close, but that’s just a personal preference because I work long hours, and I’m very committed to what I do. I’m very hands on.
And commuting sucks.
That traffic is no joke.
Protests in Portland are very big, and get a lot of attention. There’s disagreement between activists and the police about what an appropriate level of policing looks like. Is it a good thing for police officers to show up to protests wearing full body armor?
I won’t say whether it’s good or bad. I think the tone of the crowd really dictates the response. Folks tend to forget that we have a job to do, and it’s my role to ensure that our membership is safe and doing that.
The flip side is, who’s our audience? The unfortunate thing is we could have peaceful demonstrators out there, but we all know that there are agitators, that will intentionally—it’s a strategy—embed themselves within a crowd, mask up, and cause damage. Tactically, are there some ways we can address that? Yes, and that’s a discussion to be had for another time. But our job is to make sure that everyone’s First Amendment right is protected, but it’s done safely. We’ll take so much—there’s give and take on both sides that has to happen. But throwing things, projectiles and all that, at officers that are just there to ensure safety, it just won’t be accepted or tolerated.
In a crowd of hundreds or thousands, there’ll be a few assholes throwing stuff and then all of a sudden the flash-bang grenades are coming out, the pepper spray is coming out, the loudspeaker is telling everybody to leave or get arrested.
I totally understand what you’re saying. What I’m getting at is it’s too early for me to pass judgment on what should or shouldn’t be done here. There are always areas of improvement, and I totally get the discussion that you’re having because we, as police officers, get frustrated when we’re brushed with the same broad stroke—when one or two officers do something and now the whole entire profession is painted. It’s the same thing, I totally get it, and it doesn’t help with folks trusting us. On the one hand, I’m saying we protect your First Amendment right to free speech, but I’m not letting you [speak freely]. I get it. But there has to be balance and there’s no one cookie-cutter way to address each and every one because they all change, the crowds change, the tones change.
When can we expect body cameras?
It’s my second day!
But are they important for you?
I am a huge proponent of cameras as a risk management tool. There’s a lot of benefit, all around, for everyone as far as accountability goes. But it’s only one tool. Cost is obviously something that will need to be addressed and hopefully it’s something I can push forward and make happen.