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

When Mayor Adrian Fenty named Cathy Lanier chief of police shortly after his inauguration in January 2007, the surprise resonated through the city. She was young (then only 39) and she was a woman, only the third ever picked to serve as top cop of a major U.S. city. She was white, in a majority black force in a predominantly black city. And she was also quite possibly the first police chief in the country to have been a 14-year-old pregnant high school dropout.
 
Surprising Personal History
Lanier talks openly about her background, answering questions in a rapid-fire staccato. This is not a woman who relaxes easily: Sitting on the edge of a couch in her office, her body is tense and her hand remains curled around her BlackBerry. Her fingernails are French-manicured acrylics. “Nails and hair are the only things that allow me to keep my femininity in a job that’s very unfeminine,” she says. Shortly after her appointment the Washington Post’s Style section remarked on her hair—in a ponytail—not something her immediate predecessor had to deal with, she notes. “I mean, I love Chief Ramsey to death, but no one ever accused him of being a looker,” she says.

Growing up in the blue-collar suburb of Tuxedo, Maryland, in Prince Georges County, Lanier played soccer, softball and basketball, and later joined the majorettes; her mother had also been a twirler. “She was a beauty queen,” Lanier says. “She had one boyfriend, married the jerk, and that was it.” Lanier’s father, Walter, a deputy fire chief who died in 1984, moved out when she was two. “I wanted to be like my mom, a secretary,” Lanier says, recalling how Helen would practice shorthand by taking dictation from TV shows and pop songs like “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ .” Helen worked two jobs while raising Lanier and her two older brothers. “We lived on welfare for nine years,” Lanier says. “My mother had nothing, but we kids had everything we needed.” (Lanier’s oldest brother, Walter Jr., recently retired as a fire captain in Prince Georges County; Mike is a police detective in Greenbelt, Maryland.) “My mother had a hell of a time raising me,” Lanier admits. “If she said, ‘You can’t go out the door,’ I’d go out the window.” 

At 14, Lanier became pregnant by a 24-year-old man, and her mother took an unusual approach to the question of abortion. First, she sat the girl down with a cousin who was a nurse and had her explain the options. Then Helen told her daughter, “This decision is going to affect you for the rest of your life. You’re the only one who can make it.” Now Lanier says, “To this day I couldn’t tell you what my mom’s preference was. If she’d said, ‘Have an abortion,’ or ‘Put it up for adoption’—or had even let me see that was what she wanted—and I had [done that], it always would have been her fault. So her response, in my opinion, was the best a parent could do.”

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