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

On one of the coldest nights of the year, in one of the poorest sections of Washington, D.C.—the kind of area tourists never see— Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier walks quickly up a path over a scruffy patch of ground and knocks on the door of a low-rise building. Nearly six feet tall and in a full-length navy blue coat, she makes an imposing figure. Her assistant chief, Al Durham, and her staff assistant, Captain Ralph Ennis, both several inches shorter, stand back slightly. The door opens to reveal a compact, wiry, rather tired-looking black woman; behind her, children of various ages sit on two couches, watching, wide-eyed, as one of the most powerful bureaucrats in the nation’s capital proceeds to work the room.

“How are you, sweetheart?” Lanier says, hugging the woman. She turns toward the children, grinning—“Look at them . . . so nice and neat and quiet. How do you not love these babies!”

She says a few words to each child. “You behaving yourself?” she teases a five-year-old girl, who stares at her wonderingly. “I don’t want to get any calls, now, ‘Come get Lakeesha; she’s making trouble.’ ” The matriarch, Sheila (who asked that her last name not be used), shakes her head; she has, in fact, made a few calls like that in the year or so she’s known Lanier. The two met when Sheila’s niece was shot. The girl has since recovered, but Lanier has stayed in touch. At Christmas, she brought the kids gifts.

Sheila proudly shows off two framed pictures of herself and Lanier that she keeps on her side tables. “I tell people, ‘Chief Lanier’s my best friend,’ ” she says. She tosses her head, mock tough, one hip jutting out. “I say, ‘You got a problem with that?’ ”

The Personal Touch
The personal connection: Cathy Lanier believes in it and wants her cops to believe in it too. That’s why her whole department—detectives, administrators, seasoned beat cops, new recruits—are barreling through the streets tonight, flooding the city for an intensive, Lanier-instigated meet-and-greet known as All Hands On Deck. Out in her car, back on patrol, Lanier explains: “AHOD is about a lot of things—making arrests, improving community relations. It lets us be out there, interacting in a positive way, when no crisis is going on.” Outside the car, a messenger on a moped is bucking the darkness and fierce wind. As he catches her eye, Lanier lowers the window and calls to him.

“How you doing out there?”

“Just fine, Chief,” he says, beaming, clearly recognizing her. “You’re doing a great job!”

“You too,” she says. “Be safe on that bike, now. Have a good one.”

“That’s a dedicated, hardworking man,” Lanier says approvingly as she raises the window back up. “Freezing cold, but he’s out there, doing deliveries. Good work ethic.”

By the time I joined tonight’s caravan, Lanier had already been riding around the city for several hours. Turning around from the front seat to talk to me, she explains why she feels AHOD is such an important night for her troops. “I want them to go out, meet people, engage them. If you treat people respectfully, they’ll care about you. I want to get [recruits] out of that military, police academy training. Because the mentality has always been that in the roughest areas, people hate police. And that’s not true.”

Earlier, while visiting another of D.C.’s bleaker neighborhoods, Lanier witnessed a scene that in her view illustrates how people really feel about cops: “We got out of the car. I had a line of recruits behind me, and five women came out, screaming, ‘We love you, Chief.’ One started crying—‘You saved me! You locked me up, I got my life together, stopped using drugs.’ ”

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