‘An imperfect storm’: Commissioner Outlaw discusses gun violence surge amid pandemic, calls to defund police

By KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio)  Only five months on the job, Philadelphia’s police commissioner has faced a police officer’s killing, two COVID-19-related police deaths, rioting, looting, unrest and massive protests.

With a surge in gun violence — 214 homicide victims, more than 900 shooting victims — amid the pandemic and a national call to defund police departments, Philadelphia’s top cop spoke to KYW Newsradio about how the department is handling the chaos, and how Commissioner Danielle Outlaw plans to move the city forward.

Outlaw says the spike in gun violence paralleled the stay-at-home order, as many shooters are seeking out their victims, who are home, and some are re-offenders.

“We also know that there’s a lot of disputes over their social media beefs. There’s also beefs over territory. There are also people getting out of prison that are seeking to reclaim their territory. There are a lot of disputes over narcotics, narcotic sales,” she said. 

"We have seen some folks who have been released for lesser offenses and they come out, and commit violent crimes, and it seems like we are chasing our tails time and time again, as we are chasing those individuals."

She says police officers have been reactive rather than proactive, as officers are handling protests and unrest.

“I don’t even want to call it a perfect storm, ‘cause it’s not perfect. It’s an imperfect storm of a whole bunch of things that are happening at once that are uncomfortable,” she said. 

Outlaw has finalized her plan to reduce crime, focusing on accountability with prosecution, the community and the department, amid police reform demands.

"We all have to get through this together, because what is going on right now is bigger than me. It’s bigger than the police department. It’s bigger than any union. It’s bigger than any individual. This is a movement," she said, "and it would behoove us to take part in what is happening now, so we can ... be at the table."

But she rejects any notion to tear apart the department, as Philadelphians continue to be killed daily.

“I think we need to be very cognizant of the fact that the police budget does not encompass a bunch of extra, fluffy, nice things. The majority of our police budget is personnel costs, so when you start talking about defunding or divesting or taking money away from the police department, you are laying off police officers. And until we get to a place where we know we do not need 6,500 police officers in this city, we are not in a place right now where we can stay laying off police officers. We see crime going up,” she said. 

Outlaw says most police officers agree that they are handling too many calls, such as suicides, overdoses, and even noise violations.

“Whenever you call the police, it automatically criminalizes whatever the issue is,” Outlaw said.  

She says cops shouldn’t be called for every problem that arises like addiction or mental health issues.

"I do believe those who handle the money need to be creative about making sure that those social services and agencies do get the funding that they need."

Outlaw also calls for accountability within the community.

“There has to be more accountability in the community. We are killing ourselves, kids are dying, and there has to be personal accountability as well. The police cannot arrest their way out of or solve these crimes by fixing the learned hopelessness that we are seeing,” she added.

As for morale in the department, which Outlaw says has been low, she hopes citizens recognize when officers go above and beyond.

"Our police officers are human beings too. And when I talk about our community, it’s not just our external community, we have an internal community here as well. Police officers need to hear that they are supported. It is OK to say 'you did that right,' it’s OK, 'You did that great. Thank you, officer such & such, for responding to whatever it is.' It’s OK to say that."

Listen to the entire KYW In-Depth interview with Commissioner Danielle Outlaw below: