At a recent Moda Center luncheon to honor promising young college scholarship recipients, Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw, the featured speaker, confided with the audience that when she applied to attend Holy Names High School in Oakland she had to undergo a second, additional interview.
Noting Outlaw's excellent standardized test scores but terrible grades, school officials were blunt: Would she ever do anything to get herself expelled?
"They said 'You seem to have a problem with authority," the fully uniformed Outlaw recalled, her delivery of the punch line sparking a round of laughter from the Albina Rotary audience.
It's been more than seven months since she moved to Portland, but Outlaw's honeymoon period is still going strong. She has been getting along well with a city that includes a vocal minority that also has some problems with authority — police authority.
An improved relationship with the community is what Mayor Ted Wheeler had hoped for when, in August, he announced his hire of the then-40-year-old Outlaw despite the mayor already having a chief, Mike Marshman, who was still drawing a paycheck.
Outlaw, in contrast, is being asked to be a different kind of chief, one that will be an ambassador to Portlanders, including communities that historically have been alienated.
Interviews and a good part of a day spent shadowing her at work show that she is also quietly beginning to shake up the police bureau internally, putting her stamp on day-to-day operations with a new command team that has her officers' full attention.
It's too soon to say how her story will play out. But even the critics, as well as the bulk of her officers and many command staff, seem cautiously optimistic.
Greg McKelvey, head of the group Portland's Resistance, said the bureau seems to be "better" under Outlaw, including a slightly restrained attitude toward protests so far.
Dan Handelman, of the group Portland Copwatch, has said that while he still hasn't seen the systemic change the group seeks, in his meeting with Outlaw "she didn't get defensive" — making her the first chief to respond in that way in his decades of activism.
"She's very bright, she's an excellent communicator and she is big on data, which is good," says Sgt. Ken Duilio. He called her focus on crime prevention "a breath of fresh air."
"The word inside the bureau ... is she's probably one of the smarter leaders that we've had at that level," said Capt. Frank Gorgone. "The term I've heard multiple times is, 'She gets it.' "
Cautious optimism is also Nkenge Harmon Johnson's take. "She is leading by example," said the head of the Urban League of Portland, citing Outlaw's response to recent auditing that was critical of the bureau's gang enforcement team. "Is that trickling down to other areas of the agency? I don't know yet."
Portland Police Association President Daryl Turner said Outlaw has been true to her word in pushing for more officers and officer safety.
"I think the troops genuinely do like her," he said.
At her 8:30 a.m. command staff meeting last Monday, Outlaw is all business as top staff, including her assistant chiefs Chris Davis, Ryan Lee and Jami Resch, report on recent events and plans for the week ahead. Only her second-in-command, Deputy Chief Bob Day is absent on vacation.
Outlaw promptly gives feedback or clear instructions on every issue. On most every change, her feedback concerns how the bureau's actions will be interpreted by others: the community, the bureau's officers, the city council, or affected individuals.
Several shootings took place over the weekend, and Outlaw asks how the bureau's response of deploying two teams of additional officers to suppress further violence will be rolled out.
"I want to be able to message to the community first about why we are there, so we don't look like this occupying army," Outlaw says.
As for a program initiated under former Mayor Chief Hales, letting the bureau hire recent retirees to work patrols, she says officers need to know it's not cancelled, but it will be restricted to make sure only the right officers are brought back.
"There doesn't appear to have been much of a vetting process" in the past, she says.
A need to go to the council for approval of a donation of equipment to a nonprofit? Try to package that with other matters, Outlaw says, so the city council doesn't feel "nickeled and dimed."
Work on a strategic plan that a consultant is coordinating needs to be strictly messaged from the very beginning, Outlaw says, so officers and the community know that it's a real document that will guide the bureau's future direction, not something to be stored on a shelf.
The plan for the 49 new patrol cops approved by the council? Officers need to understand the goal is to give officers on patrol more time to do their job, not just use the new bodies to restock specialty units like the gang enforcement team, Outlaw says.
Outlaw asks about the scheduled release of videos of the fatal police shooting of John Andrew Elifritz at a downtown homeless shelter last month, after the former white supremacist gang member had stolen a car and begun cutting himself, then charged the police — apparently in the throes of a mental health crisis.
"We're making sure the family is reviewing the video before release, right?" she says.
Yes, comes the answer.
"OK, perfect," she says.
Smarts over seniority
Outlaw's announcement of her command team last month sent strong messages.
One change is the command structure. Having a deputy chief, a No. 2 to oversee the three assistant chiefs and help run the bureau day to day, is how Oakland and many other major cities structure their departments. It's also how the Portland bureau used to do it under former chief Tom Potter.
Rather than just pick Day, Outlaw used a selection process with a panel of citizens that included several African-American leaders, including one of the bureau's most vocal critics, Jo Ann Hardesty, a candidate for city council.
Her process has drawn praise. "She was definitely more thoughtful" in her selection process for top commanders than her predecessor, Marshman, said City Commissioner Amanda Fritz.
Her choice of assistant chiefs sent a strong message as well. Notably, she chose Ryan Lee, who just days before had been a lieutenant and acting captain, to be assistant chief in charge of operations.
Lee has a singular history within the bureau. In 2003, Lee was the straight-arrow rookie cop who responded to and documented a beating of a bar-goer by two off-duty Portland police officers downtown, which later became a major scandal. His efforts were nearly foiled by what appeared to be an attempted cover-up by a higher-up in the bureau, one that was only derailed by an anonymous letter sent by a Portland sergeant that forced an investigation. The two cops were convicted and are no longer poilce.
Perhaps more importantly to her staff was that Outlaw boosted Lee two ranks based primarily on his operations aptitude. For many, it showed that she wanted to inject new ideas into the chief's office and reward merit rather than seniority.
"It was a bold move," said Gorgone, the captain. "It goes against our culture. No one in the bureau would have ever done that."
Outlaw also promoted Resch, who is considered highly competent by line cops.
Outlaw, for her part, says that the hiring process went slower than she'd hoped. But now, with her team in place, line cops will have clarity — and no question that directions given are coming from leaders who are here to stay.
Later in the day, after the Rotary luncheon, she is swarmed by well-wishers wanting to say hi, including an elderly woman who becomes emotional while grasping Outlaw's hand.
"That's sweet," Outlaw says to some of them. "It's a pleasure to meet you," she says to others, sounding sincere every time.
This is typical for her. The bureau has received more invitations for her to speak than it has for any other chief, by far, officials say. People turn and gape at her on the street as she passes, and some ask for selfies. At TEDxPortland last month, 3,000 attendees greeted her like a rock star.
Whether it's because she's new, friendly, young, African-American or female, Portlanders like Outlaw and want to see more of her. And engaging with Portland has become a bigger part of her role than for any previous chief. It's one of the reasons she has been given a deputy chief to help oversee day to day operations, she says.
"The mayor made it clear," she said. "He said, 'I want you out in the community.' That's what I do anyway, but it allows me more time to do that."
Gorgone, on the brink of retirement, approves. "I think she has the potential to be the best diplomat for the Portland Police Bureau and for law enforcement that I've seen in my entire career. She projects sincerity. Having herself available to do all that stuff, if that's the plan, then it's a good one."
Later, during her weekly meeting with Wheeler, it's clear her focus is internal as well. They talk about plans to address the recent spate of shootings, street-racing, the new community service officer positions that will help respond to non-emergency calls, and the roll-out of new bodies just approved by the city
"It actually takes 18 to 24 months to get these folks hired" and trained, Outlaw says.
During the chief's meeting with her team, Lee, the assistant chief, addresses Outlaw as "ma'am."
This represents another change. Marshman, her predecessor, often encouraged officers to use his first name when talking one-on-one. It was part of an unpretentious style that helped fuel his popularity with the troops.
Outlaw, in contrast, wants employees to call her "chief" or "ma'am," a sign of professional distance between ranks in the bureau.
One mid-level manager who spoke on condition of anonymity said the change is a healthy one, showing how Outlaw is bringing needed change to a bureau that had become insular, excessively chummy and "loosey-goosey" over time.
Click to read: Outlaw here for long haul?
Outlaw says that while she's encouraging top-down accountability, she also is asking officers and sergeants to hold the higher-ups accountable — to "manage up," since it's the line officers who know the community situation best. "We need to know if it doesn't work," she says, regarding command initiatives.
She's also trying to foster a way of thinking that policing means more than just taking orders and responding to calls.
"Policing has changed," she says. "I need people to be able to problem-solve and critically think, as well as interact and have people skills, and empathize with people in the community."
She wants officers to build trust and relationships with people in the community so that they call the police without hesitation about problems in their neighborhood. She wants the bureau to use data to reduce crime with focused, surgical efforts rather than flooding a neighborhood with bodies.
Whatever her hopes, Outlaw faces a lot of challenges still — not the least of which is reaching compliance with a federal court settlement to address the bureau's problems with dealing with the mentally ill.
Many inside and outside the bureau note she really hasn't been tested by a major crisis yet — the sort of test that determines how a chief will be judged.
Gorgone, the captain, says there's continued drain of competent people from the bureau that a successful chief can help slow. Assuming she continues to prove herself, he hopes she will remain here long enough to give the bureau some needed stability — something that's difficult given Portland's form of government and recent succession of one-term mayors.
"I personally think having a chief come from the outside was smart," Gorgone said. "She's not beholden to our culture and she can see things differently."
But to make lasting improvements to the bureau and solidify its relationship with the public in Portland will take more than just changing policies, it will take continued effort, consistent leadership and time, in Gorgone's view.
"One of the sayings you hear, and it's not just with police, is culture eats policy for lunch every time," he said. "I would love for her to stay here for four years. It would be interesting."
However long she stays, Outlaw wants the legacy she leaves to be a lasting one. She said a lot of her contemplated changes — more advanced training that recognizes different needs between ranks, a strategic plan and more —are part of that.
"We want to make sure we have systems of accountability that in place that outlive all of us," she said.
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