Last fall, an African American woman took charge of Portland’s police bureau for the first time in its 148 years of existence. Danielle Outlaw—a 41-year-old former deputy police chief from Oakland, California—greets a number of challenges, including historical tensions between our city’s police force and the black community, and a 2014 settlement with the US Justice Department on excessive use of force. With equal parts charm, grit, and shrewd perception, she leads the bureau into a new era.
Why did you become a police officer?
I didn’t have a favorable perception of the police growing up. My experiences were people close to me being arrested or taken away. I actually got snagged into law enforcement during high school. I was part of a career exploration program when I was 14, and during that two weeks I spent time with police officers all day every day. I went on ride-alongs, I met people, I got a chance to learn some of the inner workings of the department. But the biggest takeaway was that I learned police officers were like me. They liked to go to the same places for lunch that I did. They laughed at a lot of the same jokes.
Why did you apply for the Portland position?
I knew the Portland Police Bureau had been dealing with a lot of crowd control and crowd management situations. I knew there were tensions between the community and the bureau stemming back years. Then there’s the settlement agreement. I come from an organization that had been under a settlement agreement since the early 2000s. So I already had hands-on experience [with] these things.
Did it give you pause, moving to what has been called the whitest city in America?
It gave me pause, yes. But at the same time, I like to push outside of my comfort zone. If I’m in this profession to be a part of how this industry transforms, in alignment with 21st-century policing principles, what good am I doing it from a place of comfort? That’s the lens I looked through when I said, “Hoo! Portland, Oregon, huh?” Am I really being true to what I say I value if I’m not willing to put myself out there to make the change?
What’s your plan to address tensions between police and the community?
I need the community to see us for who we are outside of this uniform. There’s more that connects us than separates us. The more opportunities the community has to see us in regular situations of fellowship, the better.
How do you create those opportunities?
How do we reach the people who don’t watch the news, don’t read the paper? Well, we know everybody gets their hair cut. You gotta go to a barbershop, or you gotta go to a grocery store. I envision us creating opportunities, whether it’s on the basketball court or in a hair salon, where people can interact, have a Q&A-type dialogue if they want.
As a police officer who is also mother to two African American teen boys, how do you feel about the Black Lives Matter movement?
I am a mother first, but I do wear both hats, and my kids have grown up with cops as parents. We gave them the “This is what you do if you’re ever stopped by the police” speech. Is it always realistic to think that just because your son walks out of the house with a hoodie on and some Jordans, he’s gonna get stopped or profiled because he’s in a neighborhood where folks think he shouldn’t be? I don’t know. But the mom in me does that. And at times that will conflict with the fact that I know how we train, I know that cops are good people, we have good hearts. So when you ask me about Black Lives Matter, I say I understand, because I know where people are coming from. And I would be remiss not to say that I at some point didn’t share some of the same concerns as a mother. But that’s balanced by the work that I have been doing for the last 20 years. I understand both sides.
So ... what’s your local doughnut of choice?
I tried Voodoo when I first got here—meh. I was like, that’s overrated, I was biting into pure sugar! Then I had Blue Star—and I was like, ooh! Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! Hands down! Then they brought doughnuts in at a meeting at city hall, and I saw the box said “Coco.” I slipped a doughnut—man! That might have changed my entire doughnut opinion. I only had that one, but I think I’m Team Coco now.