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

A Crime Spike, a Controversial Call
Washington, D.C., is bisected by Rock Creek Park. Several of the city’s pockets of wealth and power—such as Georgetown—lie on one side (“west of the park,” in local parlance). To the east is a much larger area with many less affluent neighborhoods. Lanier’s handling of a crisis in Trinidad, a run-down neighborhood in that part ofthe city, proved to be one of her most controversial actions to date, a move that exemplifies what her critics have called a penchant for heavy-handed tactics that smack of publicity stunt. In spring 2008, D.C. erupted into the kind of violence rarely seen there since the crack wars of the early 1990s. Over a nine-hour period on the night of May 30, seven men were fatally gunned down and three more wounded. Lanier reacted swiftly, setting up a street-corner checkpoint in Trinidad. For five days, officers stopped every car driving in; residents were allowed to proceed, nonresidents were questioned.

“My reaction is, welcome to Baghdad, D.C.,” Arthur Spitzer, legal director for the ACLU’s Washington office, told the Washington Post. “In this country, you don’t have to show identification or explain to the police why you want to travel down a public street.” City Council member Mary Cheh, a law professor at George Washington University (who did not represent Trinidad’s ward), told the Post Lanier’s tactics were “outrageous.”

“God, if someone drove in and plowed down your neighbors, wouldn’t you want me to do something?” Lanier says. To her, the only important question was whether the checkpoint worked. And Trinidad remained virtually violence-free for several weeks after the checkpoint was withdrawn.

The mayor, at least, was totally behind her. “It’s a real window into Lanier, that decision,” he says. “The number of homicides there is staggering, but instead of going with an antiquated policy, she sat in the room with a bunch of people, including myself, and said, ‘Well, let’s figure out something new’ . . . She took a lot of heat for it, but she stood firm. And her officers executed it exceptionally well.”

The residents “loved it,” Lanier insists. “The people in Trinidad never complained. It was the lawyers. The press portrayed this military-style checkpoint as if we were jerking people out of their cars, searching them. All we asked was, ‘Where are you going?’ ” Violence broke out in Trinidad once more on July 19, leaving two dead (including a 13-year-old boy) and 11 wounded. The police used multiple checkpoints this time. “We were passing out flyers and asking for information,” Lanier says. “We got the shooters, including the one who shot the boy. It worked.

“Public opinion is formed by the press,” she adds. “If I had it to do over again, I would not have announced it publicly. I’d have just done it.”

Overall, Lanier is proud of her accomplishments so far. “I put in 286 foot beats since I became chief. We’ve added 150 additional patrol car officers.” Last year saw double-digit reductions in assaults with a deadly weapon and robberies with guns, she notes. Under her watch, suspects have finally been charged in two of the city’s most notorious cold cases, the 2001 murder of 24-year-old government intern Chandra Levy and the 1996 killing of 23-year-old bakery worker Shaquita Bell. And in January, Lanier helped orchestrate a peaceful, historic transfer of presidential power to another up-from-the-bootstraps child of a single parent.

Lanier’s son, Tony, 26, a college graduate, works in an office supply store and left home two years ago to move in with his girlfriend. “I said to him, ‘Aren’t you embarrassed to live with Mom?’ Nope. He’s laid-back. A very smart kid. [But] he doesn’t have my work ethic,” Lanier says. Few do: Lanier often returns home at 9:30 pm, only to spend two hours answering e-mail and returning calls. Then there is the self-imposed homework: “I spend hours reading, staying up, looking over talking points. If I say one thing wrong, if I don’t have an answer to a question, I’ll look like an idiot.”

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