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

As a city official, the chief must reside in D.C., so she bought a town house in the Northeast area, near Trinidad. She still owns the five-acre home she bought in Anne Arundel County with her boyfriend of 10 years, D.C. police sergeant James Michael Schaefer, who lives there full-time, helping to care for Lanier’s mother and the five dogs Lanier has taken in. He often drops by her town house if he’s working late, she says. “And some days I can get out at five or six o’clock, and we can go get dinner.” She says Schaefer has taken her appointment to top cop in stride. “We’ve been together so long, he’s not at all bothered . . . Actually, we’re doing really well,” she says, sounding a bit surprised.

What Will Be Lanier’s Second Act?
Police chiefs rarely serve longer than five years—three, in fact, is about the norm—because their term is usually linked to that of the mayor who appointed them. Fenty is up for reelection in 2010; if he loses, Lanier may be out soon after him. So Lanier has thought about what might come next. She wouldn’t mind working in animal rescue or having more time for gardening at her suburban home. But leaving the profession that has defined her adult life? “It’s a sad realization,” she says. “I remember when it dawned on me that I’ve lost control of when I will leave the department—someone else will make that decision. I probably would’ve stayed long past my 20 years, as long as I felt useful. Because I love it.”

But as we ride through the tough neighborhoods of D.C., retirement feels far away. We discuss an event I witnessed earlier in the week, a meeting of the Foggy Bottom Association, in a very different part of the city. The audience, all white, was polite and well-dressed; a table was laid with shrimp, Brie and crackers. Speaking to the group, Lanier was professional, but there were no hugs, none of the warmth I’ve seen her display out on the streets tonight. The group’s main concern seemed to be the loss of a well-liked officer, who had been transferred to another district. Lanier was a bit short. He was needed elsewhere, she said. Her unspoken message seemed clear: Get over it, folks.

“They deal mostly with property crime in that area,” she says. Car theft, the occasional break-in. Perhaps hearing how she sounds, she hastily adds, “But it’s still crime; it still feels like an invasion.”

“People who haven’t been [east of the park] are missing out,” she muses, staring out the car window at the cold, clear night. “I’ve been all over—Europe, Israel, New York—and this is one of the most historic cities in the world. And all of it’s beautiful, east of the park too. Just as beautiful, just as historic. With the nicest people.”

The kind she understands. 

Judy Oppenheimer is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

Originally published in the June 2009 issue of MORE magazine.

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