A Top Cop Who Gets It

Meet the woman trying to prevent D.C. crime.

Washington, D.C., police chief Cathy Lanier at her swearing-in ceremony, 2007.
Photograph: Photo courtesy of the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department

“People love us,” Lanier insists. “I looked at the cops when I was walking away—‘You don’t think community policing works? Is there any doubt in your mind?’ Then I told the women, ‘Now, I want you ladies to look out for these babies when they come out here.’ ” She says the women assured her they would.

Lanier has certainly won Sheila’s loyalty. And the chief speaks of her friend with frank admiration. “She’s been a caretaker her whole life,” Lanier says. “She took care of her father when he had a stroke; then her sister died and she took in her children, bringing them up along with her own.” Now there are grandkids, as well: Six children are living with her at present. Sheila’s only 42, a year older than the chief, who feels a special connection with women raising children on their own. She knows how that works.

“Policing has changed,” Durham, the assistant chief, comments. “We went from beating people up, wrestling them, handcuffing them, to ‘How do we prevent these things from happening?’ People in public housing—just because they’re surrounded by bad people doesn’t mean they are bad people themselves.” Durham has worked with the chief for most of her career; Ennis, the staff assistant, has been with her for 10 years.

Lanier is nursing a cold. She holds a cup of ice and chews the cubes. Occasionally she sneaks a cigarette—“It really helps the cough,” she jokes. She fields calls on her cell phone from various captains and assistant chiefs around the city, and one from her 69-year-old mother. Helen Lanier lives in a house her daughter owns in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County, not far from D.C., and suffers from diabetes and heart problems. “Did you take your pills yet, Ma?” Lanier asks. “Go take them now. I’ll stay on the phone while you do.”

We pull over to a group of shivering patrol cops. “How you doing, babe?” the chief calls out to one woman. “Looking good, looking good; stay warm.” She adds, “They’re the ones with the hardest job.”

Lanier may be chief, but her heart remains stubbornly with the foot soldiers, the beat cops who, she says, “can tell you exactly when certain crimes are going to pick up in certain neighborhoods.” And with the single mothers (and aunts and grandmothers) whose profound strength and influence she feels are vastly underestimated. Reaching, appreciating, serving and, ultimately, utilizing the underdogs, both within and outside the department, has been a hallmark of Lanier’s administration. Some might call it her obsession. She has created a Web site where cops can take their gripes and advice directly to her. She gives out her business card to everyone she meets, and often her private cell number as well. (She guesses at least a thousand D.C. citizens now have it.) She insists on being called every time there is a shooting in the city. “A lot of people have criticized me a little for being too far down in the weeds,” Lanier admits. “But if you separate yourself from the people involved in and impacted by crime, you’re going to fail.”

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