Candidates, Don’t Be Afraid to Criticize Philly’s Sheriff Just Because She’s a Black Woman

OWENS: When the people running for mayor won't hold key officials accountable, it's a disservice to voters.

Sheriff Rochelle Bilal / Photograph courtesy of Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office

Picture this: You’re a Philly mayoral candidate, and one of the city’s top law enforcement officials has spent over $6,600 in taxpayer money for a private Chickie’s & Pete’s party, has a six-figure deputy who’s been fined by the Ethics Board for moonlighting as a criminal defense lawyer, and previously hired another six-figure employee who had been fired for alleged sexual assault.

I am, of course, talking about Philadelphia’s Sheriff, whose office is responsible for transporting defendants to and from Philly courts and overseeing property foreclosures in the city. The elected office has, going back decades and through numerous sheriffs, been a magnet for problematic behavior — so much so that there have been sustained efforts from good-government types to eliminate it and other perpetually problematic Philly “row offices.”

Yet, dear mayoral candidate, when asked by the city’s paper of record whether you support changing or outright abolishing the office, your response is either lackluster or absent.


To me, the answer is painfully clear: It’s because the law enforcement official in question is Rochelle Bilal, a Black woman Democrat serving in a majority Black and brown city who appears to be using that status to push back against criticism.

In politics, optics are everything. Which means the candidates are probably measuring how it would look to voters if they were highly critical of a Black woman in office — and one who was celebrated for being the first Black woman to win that office.

Throughout the primary cycle, and in several recent public safety platforms, I’ve noticed how passive most of the mayoral candidates have been when it comes to speaking about Black women in power, such as Sheriff Bilal and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw. In January, during a 6 ABC forum on gun violence, many of the candidates refused to answer yes or no when asked whether they would replace Outlaw if elected — despite her questionable performance on the job. Even in an Inquirer editorial this week, candidate reactions were still mixed on what to do with Outlaw. (For what it’s worth, candidates Derek Green and Warren Bloom said they’d replace her.)

Compare this to how candidates have criticized District Attorney Larry Krasner, a white Democrat who’s certainly not the only one to blame for our current public-safety problems. On the campaign trail, candidates Derek Green, Allan Domb and Jeff Brown have taken shots at Krasner’s approach to tackling crime. To Domb’s credit, he’s been consistent in calling everyone out — and was notably the only candidate to call for the Sheriff’s Office to be abolished when asked by the Inquirer‘s editorial board.

But again, check the optics: No one else is self-funded to the degree Domb is. From a fund-raising standpoint, he’s probably got less to lose from taking such a bold position. Many of the career politicians running can’t afford to say the same.

This hesitance to hold powerful officials accountable is disheartening. Amid growing criticism of the police department and the sheriff’s office (and even smaller row offices, such as the Office of the Register of Wills), voters shouldn’t be kept in the dark about what candidates would actually do. This is complicated by the fact that identity politics are being weaponized in the face of said criticism.

For example, when the Inquirer ran its editorial asking candidates their thoughts on the future of the Sheriff’s Office, Daniel Pearson, an editorial writer for the publication, posted on Twitter an email he had obtained that was sent from Sheriff Bilal to others saying that “these calls to to abolish this office and any other row office led by an African American person show we have not come far enough.”


For Bilal to frame the free press’s attempt to hold her office accountable as an attack on her racial identity was cheap and unfair. Wanna know how I know? Because when I, a Black journalist, called for the office to be abolished and for Bilal to resign in 2021, identity politics weren’t trotted out the way they were here.

Let’s focus on power and not personalities. Let’s discuss institutions without being fixated on individuals. Let’s put the people over politics.

The next Philadelphia mayor needs to be transparent, open and honest about how to hold people accountable. That starts right now, with the candidates having the courage to put optics aside and tell us how they really feel.