Beyond the Badge
At the Portland Police Bureau, Chief Danielle Outlaw (MBA ’12) is changing perceptions of policing nationwide
It’s 9:30 AM on a Tuesday, and Danielle Outlaw has just returned from a community meeting. In her nine months as chief of police of the Portland Police Bureau, the Northern California native has spent countless hours showing the citizens of Stumptown the human being behind the badge, a person she describes as a values-driven bridge builder.
“We have to build trust not only in the external community, but also internally,” she says. “I can talk about best practices in the policing profession all day, but what the public really wants to know is that we’ll keep our promise to hold ourselves accountable. The challenge is that I’m one person and there are thousands of people here that want to see me. Today.”
The Oakland, California, native is not only the first outsider hired by the bureau since the 1990s, but she’s also the first African American woman to lead it. This is all the more significant given the Pacific Northwest’s second largest urban center’s reputation as the “Whitest City in America.”
“While the minority population here is very small, it’s also very vocal,” Outlaw contends. “But that’s where the trust building has to take place because of the history between the black community, other underrepresented communities, and the police bureau. I would like to be able to say I’ve brought people together that would have never otherwise sat down at the same table.”
Outlaw’s own history, with roots in a hometown with its own well-known efforts toward social justice, has uniquely prepared her to address the city’s internal turmoil as well as to respond to and help redefine changing perceptions of policing.
“I want to make sure we frame our own narrative, to tell our own story,” she says of the growing, often one-sided media coverage of police activity. “The challenge is that people want to hear how we’ve messed up or what the latest scandal is. And that’s not just here in Portland, that’s everywhere.”
As a high school sophomore, Outlaw attended a career exploration program that introduced students to local businesses and the different professions available to them. With some apprehension, she signed up to visit the Oakland Police Department.
“At that point, I hadn’t had any positive interactions with the police, so I went in with a pretty negative perception of who the police were and what they did,” she admits.
Spending entire shifts in patrol cars alongside the officers gave Outlaw a chance to discover that they were human beings just like her. They liked the same movies that she did and even exposed her to hidden gems in the city.
She was then invited to join the Oakland Police Explorers Program, a volunteer position that involved learning the ins and outs of law enforcement. Through the program she saw the inner workings of the department in a new way, and when she graduated from high school, she was asked to become a police cadet, a role she dutifully filled until her graduation from the University of San Francisco with a degree in sociology.
While perceptions of policing have changed since her days with Oakland PD, much of the public’s attitude about law enforcement has not. Outlaw suggests that an emphasis on the value of soft skills—those typically possessed by women—can help officers better communicate with different communities, as well as help to de-escalate potentially critical situations.
“Many years ago, officers were instructed to get out, make arrests, and get people off the streets,” she says. “We weren’t being taught about doing it in a compassionate way or making sure that the person you’re addressing is given a voice and is respected. What we know for a fact is that interpersonal skills are at the forefront of what we need in any profession today.”
While Outlaw laments that not many young girls aspire to become police officers, she is hopeful that her appointment and work can make an impact on a new generation of leaders.
“Society has long told us, particularly in this profession, that [soft skills] aren’t high on the value list,” she says. “To see someone [like me] in the police chief position, someone who was actually hired and valued for all the qualities that make me who I am, helps to change aspirations of our young people. The fact that we value and embrace these soft skills needs to be reinforced throughout the entire organization. Whether it’s a male or female that displays these qualities, we need to reward them.”
When it came time to determine the next step in her academic journey, Outlaw, who had originally planned to become a social psychologist, knew that her lifelong commitment to social justice would play a significant role. She wanted to pursue a challenge that would push her out of her comfort zone and away from public administration and criminal justice. She also wanted to differentiate herself from the rest of the professionals in her field and broaden her experience. Enrolling at the Graziadio Business School was, she enthuses, “one of the best things I could have ever done.”
“Even though we’re a police department, we’re still a business,” Outlaw says. “But our bottom line isn’t dollars and cents. It’s the trust—and the authority we get through trust—from our community. We nonetheless need to have the same type of performance measures in place.”
While her colleagues at Graziadio didn’t initially have a clear understanding of how business tied into policing, Outlaw explains that the conversations that resulted led to another opportunity in her education. “I learned how to be quiet and listen to others’ perspectives, and that helps me in accomplishing what I have to get done [at the bureau and in the community],” she says.
An officer’s time is limited, and moments of deep reflection and strategic thought often arise in the most unexpected ways—like scribbling notes on a napkin while sitting in a police car. Outlaw says a significant highlight of her time at the Graziadio School was the curriculum’s focus on strategy that is applicable to many professions.
“When you’re hired as a police officer, you’re not thinking big picture,” she says. “You’re not thinking about your role in the system or how your actions might impact it. But the higher up you go, the more people you’re responsible for. When I ask the public for more money for my budget, taxpayers want to know about my plans and what I’m doing with their money. The ability to think strategically has been invaluable.
Sometimes Outlaw enjoys taking a break from leading and appreciates just being a regular community member. Her greatest joy by far is being around her two sons. She loves to cook and admits she wishes she had more time to explore the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest. But above all, she hopes to make a difference in the great city of Portland however she can.
“Whether I’m involved in a community cleanup or volunteering at a senior center, I appreciate being able to have that outlet and the ability to provide a service that’s not seen as being part of the police bureau,” she says. “It’s just Danielle.”