Police reform activists “cautiously optimistic” about new Portland chief
Last year, Portland, Oregon Mayor Ted Wheeler successfully ran on a platform that championed police reform as a major priority. But since he took office, Wheeler has repeatedly drawn the ire of local criminal justice reform activists and organizers. On Monday, Wheeler took a step that could begin to heal his relationship with concerned Portlanders by appointing Danielle Outlaw, a 19-year veteran of the Oakland Police Department to lead the Portland Police Bureau.
“My life’s passion is policing,” says Outlaw in a statement from Wheeler’s office. “I want to make a positive difference in the lives of my fellow officers and the residents of the community.’’
Outlaw, who will be the first African American woman to head the troubled bureau, has her work cut out for her. Following Trump’s election, Portland police have repeatedly used militarized force against nonviolent protesters, injuring some of them, including a 66-year-old woman. The department also has an ugly reputation for its racially–biased policing, and a pattern of using excessive force against the mentally ill, which attracted a U.S. Department of Justice investigation in 2011. And Outlaw’s new role has historically belonged to a series of scandal-ridden chiefs.
Though it’s too early to know if Outlaw will ultimately be able to tackle this litany of problems, there is reason to believe she’s up to the task. Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris, who repeatedly sued the Oakland Police Department, tells The Portland Mercury that Outlaw is “a progressive thinker” with the skills required to overhaul the department. Outlaw comes to Portland from a police department with a reputation that is arguably far worse than Portland’s, yet Burris depicts Outlaw as utterly unlike her former colleagues, who’ve been caught planting drugs, making bad arrests, assaulting people, and sexually abusing Oakland residents.
“Transparency and accountability are issues she firmly appreciates and understands,” Burris tells the Mercury. “I think she’ll be a chief who’s progressive in thinking and understanding of these kinds of issues.”
Following the sex scandal that rocked the Oakland Police Department in 2016, then-Deputy Chief Outlaw helped implement changes to the police academy in an effort to prevent future misconduct, downsizing classes and introducing a more rigorous background check procedure for new officers.
Amid what appears to largely be a record of policing with a progressive bent and an eye toward strengthening community relations, there is one blemish. In July, when Oakland’s City Council voted to rescind a data-sharing agreement with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, Outlaw was a vocal opponent. The city council vote came as many so-called sanctuary cities across the country actively work to distance themselves from the Trump administration’s policies and shield immigrants from deportation. In spite of the council’s unanimous vote, Outlaw advocated to preserve the city’s cooperation with the federal government, saying the police department’s relationship with Homeland Security “allows us to have that federal arm and to have that transnational piece that we just as a local municipal agency do not have access to.”
That stain on an otherwise progressive record seems not to have tarnished the views of hopeful activists. Portland’s Resistance, a group of local organizers formed after Trump’s election, have pressed Wheeler on police reform and led recent local efforts to bring the hiring process for the new chief out of the shadows. As a leading voice for local police reform, the group says they are “cautiously optimistic that [Outlaw’s] hiring will mark a new direction for policing in Portland,” in a statement issued on the group’s Facebook page.
“We have no illusions that this new police chief will be perfect,” the statement continues. “Nor can a single person reform our incredibly corrupt and violent police department. However, this could be a step in the right direction.”