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.’ ”

“People love us,” Lanier insists. “I looked at the cops when I was walking away—‘You don’t think community policing works? Is there any doubt in your mind?’ Then I told the women, ‘Now, I want you ladies to look out for these babies when they come out here.’ ” She says the women assured her they would.

Lanier has certainly won Sheila’s loyalty. And the chief speaks of her friend with frank admiration. “She’s been a caretaker her whole life,” Lanier says. “She took care of her father when he had a stroke; then her sister died and she took in her children, bringing them up along with her own.” Now there are grandkids, as well: Six children are living with her at present. Sheila’s only 42, a year older than the chief, who feels a special connection with women raising children on their own. She knows how that works.

“Policing has changed,” Durham, the assistant chief, comments. “We went from beating people up, wrestling them, handcuffing them, to ‘How do we prevent these things from happening?’ People in public housing—just because they’re surrounded by bad people doesn’t mean they are bad people themselves.” Durham has worked with the chief for most of her career; Ennis, the staff assistant, has been with her for 10 years.

Lanier is nursing a cold. She holds a cup of ice and chews the cubes. Occasionally she sneaks a cigarette—“It really helps the cough,” she jokes. She fields calls on her cell phone from various captains and assistant chiefs around the city, and one from her 69-year-old mother. Helen Lanier lives in a house her daughter owns in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County, not far from D.C., and suffers from diabetes and heart problems. “Did you take your pills yet, Ma?” Lanier asks. “Go take them now. I’ll stay on the phone while you do.”

We pull over to a group of shivering patrol cops. “How you doing, babe?” the chief calls out to one woman. “Looking good, looking good; stay warm.” She adds, “They’re the ones with the hardest job.”

Lanier may be chief, but her heart remains stubbornly with the foot soldiers, the beat cops who, she says, “can tell you exactly when certain crimes are going to pick up in certain neighborhoods.” And with the single mothers (and aunts and grandmothers) whose profound strength and influence she feels are vastly underestimated. Reaching, appreciating, serving and, ultimately, utilizing the underdogs, both within and outside the department, has been a hallmark of Lanier’s administration. Some might call it her obsession. She has created a Web site where cops can take their gripes and advice directly to her. She gives out her business card to everyone she meets, and often her private cell number as well. (She guesses at least a thousand D.C. citizens now have it.) She insists on being called every time there is a shooting in the city. “A lot of people have criticized me a little for being too far down in the weeds,” Lanier admits. “But if you separate yourself from the people involved in and impacted by crime, you’re going to fail.”

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.”

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.

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.”

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.

First Published Fri, 2009-05-15 16:16

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