PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw apologized for the use of tear gas on protesters on June 1, who poured onto the Vine Street Expressway amid demonstrations over the death of Minneapolis Black man George Floyd.
In the immediate aftermath of the protest, Outlaw and Kenney said the use of tear gas was meant to “safely diffuse a volatile and dangerous situation,” and officers deployed it “only when it became evident that other options were not effective.”
However, they have since turned course, after Outlaw said she watched a video that “largely contradicts” their statements.
Video shows one officer pulling down a protester’s mask — while already down on her knees — and spraying her in the face with pepper spray. That officer, who was not named, is now suspended.
“In making those statements, I relied on information which was relayed to me after the initial deployment of the described munitions, and for that, I humbly apologize to those who were directly impacted, as well as to our communities at large,” said Outlaw on Thursday.
Kenney echoed the commissioner, saying he is “disturbed” by the video of the now-suspended officer and the events that transpired that day.
“There will be accountability for all of this, and I’m confident in the commissioner’s ability to carry this out,” he said, “but I want to make it abundantly clear that even though I did not authorize the use of tear gas specifically for I-676, I should also be held accountable.”
The officer is being charged departmentally “with unbecoming an officer, unauthorized and/or excessive use of force while in an official capacity,” Outlaw said. “In addition, the investigative packet has been submitted to the district attorney’s office for review.”
Outlaw also announced on Thursday that she is instituting a moratorium on the use of tear gas and other non-lethal methods for the dispersal of crowds.
Dennis Wilson, deputy commissioner of special operations, was the commander onsite of the June 1 protest. He said he, and he alone, approved the use of tear gas.
“I did this based on what I could see from my position, and also what I had been hearing on the radio,” he said.
He said Outlaw wanted him to call him prior to any decision, but “things happened quickly” and he did not call the commissioner.
“I gave the approval, and it was me, and me alone,” he said emotionally. As such, Wilson is taking a voluntary demotion to his previous role as chief inspector, effective immediately.
Outlaw said she is making other personnel changes as well.
The city is still seeking proposals for an independent consultant to further review the department’s response that day. City Council members want to hold investigative hearings to understand the breakdown and find solutions for the future.
On the day of the protest, thousands of protesters flooded the highway at rush hour — and they were quickly met by tear gas from above, as police tried to disperse the crowd. Police initially acted following aerial reports of a trooper trapped on the Vine Street Expressway with the crowd.
Outlaw said during the response, SWAT personnel deployed “OC spray, also known as pepper spray; CS gas, also known as tear gas; white smoke, which is used to dilute chemicals; bean bag rounds; and plastic pellets containing OC spray.”
Kenney said he regrets giving consent to use tear gas the day prior, on May 31, in West Philadelphia, where businesses were looted and protests were rampant. He also regrets his statements immediately following the I-676 situation.
“I now know that my statements were based on inaccurate information being relayed from the scene,” he added. “I have never believed tear gas was an effective tool when I have seen other cities use it in protest. It always seemed to me to make situations worse. And it has.
“I apologize sincerely to the peaceful protesters out there on that highway on June 1 who were simply choosing to exercise their right to speak out against injustice and institutional racism.”
KYW Newsradio's Rachel Kurland contributed to this report.