Tone wasn’t set for protests, Outlaw says

Ongoing George Floyd Protest in Philadelphia
Protesters react to tear gas during a march against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd in Philadelphia on June 1.
REUTERS/Bastiaan Slabbers

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw admitted Tuesday that her department was not prepared to deal with the unrest that accompanied protests in response to the death of George Floyd.

Outlaw said authorities had no forewarning of what would take place and did not expect the demonstrations to spread beyond Center City. Top brass also did not anticipate the frequency of marches and other protest activity, she said.

“The tone and tenor wasn’t set early on,” the commissioner said. “The level of planning that we know now should have taken place prior to this did not happen.”

She spoke during a City Council hearing where members pushed forward with a bill that would ban the use of tear gas and rubber bullets on people participating in “First Amendment activities,” such as demonstrations.

Councilwoman Helen Gym, who authored the legislation, said the use of the devices, known as less lethal munitions, “undid years of collaboration and trust between our activist communities and our institutions.”

The department has spent $65,000 over the past five years on less lethal munitions, which are normally used by SWAT officers and in training exercises.

Outlaw issued a moratorium in June on using tear gas and rubber bullets as crowd control techniques after the munitions were deployed on the Vine Street Expressway and in the area of 52nd and Market streets in West Philadelphia.

Gym said her bill, which could receive a final vote as early as Oct. 29, would make that change permanent.

Fifty use-of-force investigations are ongoing relating to the I-676 and West Philly incidents, Outlaw said, and two officers, Richard Nicoletti and Joseph Bologna, were fired and are now facing assault charges for their alleged conduct during the demonstrations.

Dennis Wilson, who, at the time was the deputy commissioner, approved the use of gas on the Vine Street Expressway and later took a voluntary demotion.

At least three entities are conducting reviews of how PPD responded to the protests, including a pair of firms hired by the city to produce an independent report.

Nicole Phillips, a partner at Montgomery McCracken, one of the firms, said that document is being produced and is expected to be released by the end of the year. It will include recommendations for how to better handle similar situations going forward.

Outlaw detailed a plethora of changes her department has made since May, including requiring that all uses of force be broadcast over police radio and banning officers from kneeling or sitting on the neck of a suspect.

In addition, PPD will begin a year-long process next month to conduct implicit bias training with all personnel, and Outlaw said she anticipates hiring a diversity and inclusion officer sometime in November.

Councilwoman Jamie Gauthier, whose district includes 52nd and Market, said officers need to understand their legacies in certain neighborhoods.

PPD has a “terrible and harsh history” in West Philadelphia, Gauthier said, and she contrasted the behavior of police there to how officers interacted with bat-wielding vigilantes in Fishtown and South Philadelphia.

Only one man was arrested and charged in connection with the vigilante incident June 1 in Fishtown, when men showed up to defend a local police station.

“Merely carrying a bat is not a crime,” Outlaw said. “There has to be brandishing or threatening.”

Officers were caught on camera high-fiving the men, and Gym said there was a sense that the vigilantes were almost deputized.

Councilman Derek Green suggested a different approach might have been taken if Black men gathered with bats.

“I, and I would think many others believe if that same type of dynamic occurred in another community with people of a different ethnic persuasion, I think there would have been a different perspective,” he said.