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

Lanier married her boyfriend. When she left the hospital with their son, Tony, she says, “I’d never babysat, never held a baby.” The marriage did not last. At 17 she moved back home with her child, earned a high school equivalency diploma and began a series of jobs—waitressing, clerical work, selling awnings—while taking classes at the community college. By then Lanier’s grandmother, Mary Dawson, also divorced, had moved in. “Nanny was always there to help Mom,” Lanier recalls.
Battling Sexual Harassment
In 1990, at age 23, Lanier became a police officer. Her brother Mike had taken her out on a few ride-alongs, sparking her interest; the department’s tuition reimbursement program sealed the deal. But she quickly realized this was exactly the right place for her: “Even as a patrol cop, if you work hard, if you focus, you can make major changes in people’s lives every single day.” She has fired her gun only once—at two charging pit bulls. But the early years were not without challenges. Today’s force is close to 25 percent female, but when Lanier joined up, it was strictly an old boy network, she says, and sexual harassment was a given. As she puts it: “It wasn’t a few bad apples in the barrel, it was a bad barrel.” One lieutenant in particular, she says—“a real pig”—drew a bead on her, pressing up against her, making inappropriate comments. Finally, she filed a complaint. The department sustained the complaint but chose not to take disciplinary action because the cutoff time had passed. Furious, she and another female cop filed a civil suit. The case was settled in 1997, with each woman receiving $75,000. The lieutenant was demoted and eventually fired.

After two years on foot patrol, Lanier moved to a motorcycle, then to a permanent beat-car assignment. She began a meteoric rise—from sergeant to lieutenant to captain. Meanwhile, she continued her studies, earning advanced degrees in management and national security. After Charles Ramsey was appointed chief in 1998, he put Lanier in charge of the narcotics and vehicular homicide units, then named her commander of the Fourth District. She became the first woman appointed commander of the special operations division and, in 2006, created the MDPC’s Office of Homeland Security and Counter-Terrorism.

“Back in 2001, when I was a first-year council member [Chief Ramsey] told me, ‘One day she’s going to be the chief of police,’ ” Mayor Fenty says. “So he gets the credit for planting the first seed.” After his election, Fenty says, he wanted someone who “first and foremost” understood beat policing. He wanted someone who “knew the demands, the uniqueness, of the federal sector”—experience Lanier had gained in her special ops period—and someone with homeland security expertise. That description led him to Lanier.

Not long after taking office, she says she had the same “crushing feeling” of responsibility that had motivated her to get her life in gear back when her baby was born: “I sat at my desk and thought, for the mayor to name a white woman, the first female ever, to put his faith in me—no way I’m gonna let him down. The people in the city are counting on me to do the right thing.” Which meant, more than anything else, doing what she could to stop crime.

“That’s why I was so frustrated at the attacks on me for what I did in Trinidad,” she says.

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