In many ways, Danielle Outlaw is just what Portlanders expect in a police chief.
She is tough, ambitious, and hardworking. She can be a little brusque at times. She has close to two decades of experience in law enforcement, and has spent the last four years as a deputy chief in Oakland, California.
But she also bucks expectations.
Like her three tattoos. On work days, they are covered by the sleeves of her uniform.
“This one is a quote from Shakespeare that says, ‘Though she be but little she is fierce,’” Outlaw said, quoting “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and pointing at her left arm.
Outlaw stands 5 feet 4 inches tall.
A tribal band circles her right arm, a Taoist symbol of eternal life and divine blessings.
“I got that one after I went on ‘Wheel of Fortune’ during college week,” she said.
Her third tattoo is a treble clef.
“At some point, I thought I was going to be a celebrity, I thought I was going to be a singer. But that didn’t quite work out,” she added with a smile.
Outlaw’s palpable joy in sharing the stories behind her ink illustrates a quality many people point to as one of her core strengths as a leader: an ability to let her guard down and to be empathetic. It is that last quality, her supporters said, that allows her to connect with the officers she manages and the communities she is responsible for keeping safe.
“She is the personification … [of] a current 21st-century mindset in police and policing in the community,” said Derald Walker, president of Cascadia Behavioral Health.
Walker served on the interview committee — which comprised dozens of community members — that recommended finalists for the police chief position to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.
“When she left the room, there was an audible collective sigh that represented an incredible impression,” Walker said. “I think it’s going to be very hard to see her negatively, and for those people who have an ax to grind with police, to vilify her.”
At the same time, Outlaw remains, in some ways, deeply private and in control of her public image.
She has a relatively small footprint online. Her Facebook page is largely private, and public records searches reveal little about her past.
She has largely declined to speak publicly since being named Portland’s next chief, including repeated interview requests from OPB. On her second day on the job, however, she granted 15-minute interviews to local media.
Joining The Force
Outlaw’s decision to became a police officer was an unusual choice for a young African-American woman in Oakland.
Oakland is smaller than Portland. It’s about 35 percent African-American and 30 percent white. It has one of the highest crime rates in the country.
Like the Portland Police Bureau, the Oakland Police Department has struggled to recruit local residents to join the force. In 2013, for example, just 8 percent of the police academy’s graduates were from Oakland, according to the Mercury News. The agency has also historically struggled to recruit non-white officers.
“I didn’t grow up with law enforcement in my family, I didn’t grow up necessarily with a positive outlook of police officers,” Outlaw said.
Her mother worked for AT&T, and her father worked with the California Department of Transportation.
“I’d never got the sense that the police were there to serve me,” she said. “For whatever reason. It could be, you know, because of what I’d been exposed to, or seen on TV or heard.”
Outlaw grew up at a time when racial bias and police misconduct were as much a part of the national conversation as it is today.
When she was 16, a witness recorded home video of four police officers brutally beating Rodney King in Los Angeles.
When she was 17, a largely white jury acquitted three of the officers of criminal charges and deadlocked over charges for the fourth. Riots broke out in Los Angeles and 63 people were killed.
Outlaw said she remembers being shut inside her Catholic school, Holy Names High School, during the protests in Oakland.
“They put chains on the doors to keep us inside, to prevent us from walking out and marching,” she said.
Around that same time, Outlaw said, she had her first exposure to police officers through a two-week long high school internship program with the Oakland PD.
That experience was pivotal.
Outlaw still remembers the name of the officer she joined for a ride along, Tim Sanchez. She was surprised to find he knew the history of the city and ate lunch at the same places she did.
“We never think of officers being compassionate, or even laughing, or cracking a smile, or saying a bad word every now and again — and I saw all of that in an hour,” she said. “I could just relate to him. And that really drew me in.”
Outlaw eventually became a police cadet, and when she graduated from the University of San Francisco she joined the force. She saw a role for herself helping bridge the divide between her community — especially young people of color — and the police.
“It’s cheesy and cliché, but be a part of the change you wish to see,” she said. “That’s the route I chose to take.”
Reform And Scandal In Oakland
Over the next 19 years, Outlaw worked her way from patrol officer to a deputy chief in charge of more than 400 people.
On her way up, she served as a public affairs officer, an internal affairs investigator, a patrol watch commander, and briefly as the commander in charge of internal affairs — the branch responsible for investigating officers’ use of force and citizen complaints.
“Outlaw has been known as a reformer, a pretty straight-shooting cop,” said Darwin BondGraham, a reporter with the East Bay Express. BondGraham spoke to OPB shortly after Portland announced Outlaw’s hire.
Outlaw’s years with Oakland were book-ended by a pair of misconduct scandals that tarnished the reputation of the department.
In spite of that, she built a reputation, even among critics of the OPD, as a reformer who is committed to constitutional policing and comfortable with civilian oversight.
“She respects it and appreciates the work that oversight does toward law enforcement,” said Anthony Finnell, the executive director of Oakland’s Citizen’s Police Review Board, a police use-of-force oversight agency.
For much of Outlaw’s career, the Oakland PD operated under strict court-ordered oversight.
According to media reports in 2003, a police cadet alleged four officers working in West Oakland were routinely beating suspects, planting evidence and falsifying police reports. The officers, nicknamed “The Riders,” were fired. One fled the country.
More than 100 people who said they were victims of the officers sued the city. Oakland eventually paid $10.9 million to settle the case and agreed to comply with a series of reforms.
More recently, in 2016, multiple officers in Oakland were accused of sexually exploiting a minor, engaging in prostitution, and tipping off a prostitute to a sting operation. Federal monitors concluded that the Internal Affairs division had failed to properly investigate the officers.
Reeling from the scandal, Oakland went through three police chiefs in the span of two weeks.
Asked what she learned from serving under so many chiefs who were forced out due to misconduct, Outlaw said she learned about “creating a culture of accountability.”
“It starts from the top,” she said, “and it has to be consistent.”
From 2012 to 2014, according to her resume, Outlaw was rapidly promoted through positions that gave her considerable responsibility to implement court-mandated reforms in Oakland.
She progressed from the captain in charge of Internal Affairs to inspector general to interim deputy chief of police running the Bureau of Risk Management. She completed her career in Oakland as deputy chief in charge of the Bureau of Services.
In 2010, Oakland became the first large police department in the country to outfit all its officers with body cameras. More recently, the department enlisted researchers at Stanford University to look for patterns in the data captured by the body cams.
“She’s been pretty instrumental in the department’s turn toward analyzing uses of force, analyzing stop data, and using that to try to re-train officers so that they have less racial bias,” said BondGraham.
The department’s increased effort to collect and review use-of-force data led to policy changes that, by many accounts, have significantly cut down on how many times a year officers in Oakland draw their guns.
In one example, according to BondGraham, the OPD realized officer-involved shootings were happening most frequently when suspects were chased into confined spaces, like backyards.
“So they changed their policy, and they no longer chase people into backyards,” he said.
In 2015, Outlaw received a national award from the Police Executive Leadership Forum for her work on the settlement agreement and restructuring the OPD’s force review process.
In conversation, she’s quick to deflect credit for the reductions in officer use of force.
“I’m not a one-woman show,” she said.
But her experience implementing court-mandated reforms is part of what made Outlaw an appealing candidate for the chief position in Portland.
The city is in its fifth year of implementing policy reforms mandated by a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice. In 2012, a federal investigation found the Portland Police Bureau had a pattern of using excessive force against people with mental illness.
Outlaw said her priorities include showing the community that the bureau is introspective and open to constructive criticism and ensuring officers get immediate feedback on their performance.
“We might have a use of force, say an officer-involved shooting, God forbid,” she said. “There’s this big critical incident review, and then that review gets up on the shelf. Well, how does the officer know what went well, what didn’t go well?”
Challenges To Come
For many years in Oakland, Outlaw was the highest-ranking woman in the police department.
In Portland, she is the third woman to hold the job of chief. She will lead a force that is still largely male and white, and has struggled to recruit officers as quickly as they have retired.
About a quarter of the people who work at the Portland Police Bureau are women, and about a quarter identify as people of color, according to data published by the city’s Office of Equity.
Outlaw said she hopes to support both demographic diversity and what she calls “diversity of thought” at the bureau.
“You can be a mother, and do this job,” she said, “or not have English as your primary language, and come here and work.”
Outlaw said the bureau needs to publicly show that it rewards officers who spend their time in the community, and who have problem-solving skills.
“It starts at the recruiting end, but it shows in how we reward and measure our performance while folks are here,” she said.
Outlaw is also inheriting a post that comes with a laundry list of challenges.
For starters, training officers to do a job that constitutes social work as often as solving the crime. Many officers spend significant amounts of time interacting with the city’s homeless population and people with mental illness and addiction.
The Portland Police Bureau has also been under scrutiny for its use of force and controversial crowd control techniques at political protests since the presidential election last year.
The protests pose a thorny set of challenges.
Some of the marchers on the right have been linked to white supremacist groups and ideology, most notoriously Jeremy Christian, who is accused of stabbing three people, killing two of them, on a light rail train.
The self-declared antifascists and anarchists who rally against the right-wing marchers have at times clashed with police and engaged in their own acts of destruction, ranging from minor incidents to more than $1 million in property damage following the election.
Outlaw has dealt with similar protests in Oakland.
And, according to Walker, she told the interview panel that she’s aware of the cultural conflict between Portland’s more recent identity as a center of progressive thought and its deep history of racist groups and institutions.
“She wasn’t naïve about that,” Walker said.
But the police chief job has a long history of humbling promising Portland reformers — including the two women who have preceded Outlaw.
Penny Herrington and Rosie Sizer were both initially celebrated and ultimately forced out of their jobs.
Herrington was 42, like Outlaw, when she was named Portland’s chief in 1985. She was the first female chief in any large American city and was an early proponent of the community policing philosophy. Mayor Bud Clark demoted her less than two years later after her husband was placed under investigation by the bureau’s vice squad.
Sizer became the city’s next female chief in 2006. She was praised “as a transformative leader, a gifted communicator, a role model to women and a champion for minority rights” in a 2009 profile by the Willamette Week.
Sizer was also deeply distrusted by many rank-and-file officers. She ultimately faced a vote of no confidence from the Portland Police Union, and was fired by Mayor Sam Adams after four years in the job.
In a frank interview with the Oregonian the day after she was fired, Sizer described being caught between a liberal Portland community with sometimes unrealistic expectations for police performance, and officers who, according to reporter Maxine Bernstein, “expected her to offer public support almost regardless of the behavior.”
The Oakland Police Officers’ Association did not respond to multiple inquiries about their experience working with Outlaw.
So far, the union that represents rank-and-file officers in Portland has greeted Outlaw, at least publicly, with chilly silence.
The Portland Police Association publicly endorsed the local candidate, Interim Chief Mike Marshman, and called Mayor Wheeler’s decision to conduct a national search misguided.
Marshman announced his resignation from the bureau just hours after Wheeler said he’d chosen Outlaw, though she wasn’t scheduled to start for two months.
Daryl Turner, president of the Portland Police Association, served on the hiring advisory panel that interviewed Outlaw. He has refused to comment on her, instead praising Marshman.
“She has big shoes to fill,” he said back in August.
In her first local press appearance with Wheeler in August, Outlaw sounded as though she was extending an olive branch to the rank-and-file officers.
“Anything that we discuss can’t be done without you,” she said. “I want you to know that I value you, I recognize you, I acknowledge you, and I look forward to our partnership moving forward.”
But those who know her from Oakland said she won’t be easily intimidated by the union.
“Danielle or anyone else that sits in that seat, they’re going to catch criticism from officers who don’t get it, or don’t want it,” said Anthony Ferrell, with the Oakland Citizen’s Police Review board.
“She’s not one that’s going to be afraid of that criticism, and I think she’s more than capable of holding her own as a chief.”
Starting Over In A New City
Perhaps the most daunting challenge Outlaw faces in Portland is getting to know a new city, and establishing her credibility here.
Outlaw is one of just three outsiders in recent history to run the Portland Police Bureau.
She’s getting paid a small bonus for choosing to live within city limits, making her salary $225,750.
Asked what neighborhood she’s moved into, Outlaw declined to answer, only confirming “the city of Portland.”
In Oakland, Outlaw relied on her deep ties in the community to help deal with the pressures of police work.
Three years ago, she joined a sorority: the Oakland alumni chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the oldest sorority in the country founded by and for African-American women.
At work, Outlaw was surrounded by male police officers. At home, she has two teenage sons.
“She said that she missed the sisterhood and she wanted to make sure that she was still grounding herself with women, and kind of keeping that soft side of her intact,” said Nichole Jordan, president of the sorority chapter and an old friend of Outlaw’s.
“She said that having a career in policing, you tend to become hard, because you see things over and over again.”
Jordan said she’s asked Alpha Kappa Alpha’s chapter in Portland to welcome Outlaw and help her get to know the city.
For all of the challenges ahead, the new chief has at least one other ally in the city.
Portland Trail Blazers point guard and star player, Damian Lillard, is also from Oakland, and Outlaw goes to an annual backyard barbecue he hosts there.
Shortly after she was hired, Lillard posted a photo of the two of them together. In it, she is wearing aviator sunglasses and Lillard has his arm around her.
“Oakland taking over Portland!” he wrote. “The new chief of police in Portland is from the town!”
Fifty-two thousand people quickly liked the photo.