From food stamps to Washington DC police chief

Cathy Lanier rose from poverty to become a popular chief of police in the US capital


Cathy Lanier’s early life plays like a season of MTV’s Teen Mom. Skipping school at 13. Pregnant at 14. Married at 15. Separated at 17, on food stamps and back with her mother on a working-class block in suburban Maryland; her mother had also relied on welfare and donated food to feed Cathy and her brothers after her husband split when Lanier was a toddler.

“I didn’t even know how to write a cheque much less pay the bills,” says the attractive and nearly 6ft-tall blonde, now 46. Her mother and grandmother cared for the baby while Lanier sold awnings and hair products, worked as a waitress at a barbecue joint at night and a secretary for a real estate developer by day. “When I took that job, I was 16,” she recalls. “Typing classes come in the 10th grade, and I didn’t make it to the 10th grade. I got my GED. So when they offered me the secretary job, they said ‘Can you type?’ I said, ‘No, but I’ll learn if you let me take the typewriter home’. So my mother taught me how to type at the kitchen table.”

Eventually, Lanier traded the typewriter for a gun. She joined the DC police force at 23, attracted by a programme that offered to cover her tuition to go to college by day while she worked the late shift as a beat officer; she went on to get two master’s degrees.

Now, remarkably, she is the very popular police chief of the US capital, a white woman in charge of law enforcement in a city with a black majority; a watchdog for a city – with its monuments, mandarins and diplomats – that is a maze of different security forces and a target for terrorists, hackers and retaliatory strikes.

As tensions over aggressive stop-and-frisk tactics shake up the New York mayor’s race, Lanier has reviewed the DC version. Over the years, she has shifted her force from mirroring New York’s “zero tolerance” and “hot spot” policing, the “broken windows” theory that ignoring minor offences leads to major ones.

She’s tough on crime – she shared an award for most arrests soon after becoming a cop – but also wanted her officers to be compassionate, to interact with DC residents, develop sources, use new media to connect with the community, consider arrest a failure. She issued a directive on how to talk to transgender people, ignoring those who complained she was too touchy-feely. She started an anonymous text tip line and got in-car computers and BlackBerrys for officers.

She made it clear, she told Governing magazine, that she expected officers to “give their cell phone number to the old lady sitting on her porch drinking her beer at 9 o’clock in the morning instead of making her dump her beer”. She hugs the down-and-out and gives out her mobile phone number. “If they call me in the middle of the night,” she says, in her offhand manner, “they’ve got something I want to hear.” She says she tells graduates of the police academy: “Look, this uniform does not automatically give you respect. People will either view that uniform as a symbol of hope and honesty or they will view it with fear.” As Lanier travels around gritty neighbourhoods in DC, residents call out to greet her. “Some people will yell ‘Cathy,’ some will yell ‘Chief’ and some will yell ‘Blondie’,” she says, sitting in her office, dressed in a police uniform, a 9mm Glock on her hip. Two teddy bears are incongruously perched on the couch with her. The chief, who has a goldendoodle named Po-Po, toys with pieces of a chess set where firefighters and arson dogs face off against police officers and their canines.

She is excited about the department’s newest rookie: a bloodhound named Sam who has already tracked two missing persons. Being called “Blondie” doesn’t offend her? “No, that’s an affectionate nickname,” she smiles, leaning back and putting arms that rival Michelle Obama’s behind her head. When she started in 1990, she was an upright rookie on an undisciplined force. She had to endure sexual harassment from a lieutenant supervising her; she sued the city and won a $75,000 settlement. Back then, DC was nicknamed “the murder capital of America”. Once, as a sergeant, Lanier waved at an elderly African-American woman sitting on her porch “and she flips me the bird, and I’m like ‘What?’ I was shocked, but people really didn’t think a whole lot of the police back then and that was during the height of violence in the city.”

She says that, personally, “in 24 years here, I’ve never had an issue with race – ever. I think people in general don’t really care what your race or gender is if they feel like you are legitimate.” Last year, DC had the lowest number of homicides on record since 1961; juvenile victims of homicides decreased by 85 per cent in the last four years, according to the chief’s office. She presides over about 4,000 officers and 450 civilians.

“She’s done a phenomenal job,” says Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. Lanier has never shot a person, just a rampaging pit bull.

She says she “can take a punch”, and did so once from someone she was busting for drugs. She affectionately recalls being taught how to by her two older brothers, who she says were “bullies” and “still are”. One is a Maryland police officer, the other a retired firefighter, like her dad.

“I think that the physical demands of firefighting are much greater than the physical demands of policing,” she says. “A lot of police work does not require brute strength. In fact, I’d say, really good communications skills are probably every bit, if not more, important as brute strength.”

While “some women can meet the physical challenge” for superior upper-body strength, she is sceptical about having one carry her down a ladder out of a burning building, given that “I’m 6ft tall and I’m not petite.” The chief is a workaholic who rarely vacations, works out twice a day and sleeps “in short bursts”. Her friends have urged her to use concealer on the dark circles under her eyes and, she says, “my mother and grandmother both used to say when they saw me on TV, ‘Can you just put some lipstick on?’”
Asked what she does to relax, she replies, “the chores” and yardwork. She doesn’t watch cop shows and hasn’t seen the two recent movies about terrorists taking over the White House. She prefers animated films like The Croods and Despicable Me to blow-’em-ups.

The Washington Post’s Allison Klein checked out the chief’s closet in her townhouse and found 30 police uniforms. “That can be an issue sometimes,” the single Lanier tells me, grimacing, “when I want to go out and I don’t have anything to wear.” Where does she wear her gun when she gets dressed up for a dinner date with her boyfriend? “I find ways,” she says, smiling mischievously.

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