D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier announced Tuesday that she will retire next month to take over as head of security for the National Football League, ending her 26-year career on the force, the last decade as its first permanent female leader.
The 49-year-old, who rose from the patrol ranks, had an unusually long tenure heading a major police force. She said the unique job opportunity in professional sports prompted what she called a “bittersweet” decision. Her latest contract as chief would have lasted until January.
“She’s built a fantastic force, professionalized the force, built a force that the community trusts which is going to be a lasting legacy,” Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said in an interview with the Washington Post.
The mayor said she will name an interim chief in the coming days and then begin a search for a new leader of the 3,700-member department, which has shrunk in size over the past several years, even as the District continues to grow and gentrify.
Though Lanier’s announcement was unexpected, she led a big city police department far longer than most other chiefs, whose typically tenure is three to four years. She also worked for three mayors, and Bowser asked her to stay on before she was inaugurated last year.
“This is the nation’s capital,” Lanier said. “What’s more important than being responsible for public safety and security than the nation’s capital? Where do you go from here right? When I thought about the NFL, it’s America’s favorite sport and what’s more important than making sure America’s favorite sport is safe?”
Lanier said she always turned down overtures from other police departments and only made a final decision to step down on Monday afternoon when she informed the mayor.
“My loyalty is here,” she said. “I love my department, I love my city. I owe my life to this city and to MPD. They gave me opportunity when there was not a lot of opportunity for people in my position and that’s why I worked so hard here.”
Lanier will be based at the NFL’s New York City office and will begin work next month, according to the league.
In the District, Lanier oversaw policing in a city that is a prime target for terrorism and where crime can make the national news simply because of its proximity to the White House. She embraced the bully pulpit, often appearing in front of television cameras, mostly to sell a brand of community-style policing. The chief has been popular, embraced both in church basements in the city’s poorest communities and on the cover of national magazines.
She led the department through the September, 2013 mass shooting at the Navy Yard, in which a gunman fatally shot 12 people and wounded three others before he was killed by police. Lanier was also a public voice during the 2014 disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd, who went missing from a D.C. homeless shelter and is presumed to have been killed by a janitor who worked there.
She has announced arrests in many high-profile crimes, including the killing of federal intern Chandra Levy and the slayings of four people in a Northwest, D.C. home. But she also has appeared at countless crime scenes and vigils in the city’s more impoverished areas.
Lanier decried the cycle of retaliatory violence that led to the drive-by shooting on South Capitol Street, Southeast, in 2010, that left five people dead and nine injured, many of them teenagers.
The chief’s presence in the community has been ubiquitous. She spoke at community meetings, hugged grieving relatives of homicide victims and answered the most mundane questions posed by residents on Internet bulletin boards. Community leaders had her cell phone number, and she ordered her command staff to be just as available.
In doing so, the chief built up her own political base that helped her to stave off critics and remain a powerful force in the John A. Wilson Building. Despite a spike in homicides last year, her approval rating suffered only slightly. In a November Washington Post poll, 61 percent of residents said they approved of the chief’s performance, down from 71 percent the year before.
At a press conference Tuesday, Lanier said her most important legacy was changing the community’s perception of the police department as accessible and trustworthy. Residents often know the names of the officers in their neighborhoods and are willing to share information to help the department solve crimes, she said.
“Our patrol officers have demonstrated that they can take guns and violent offenders off the street daily and still make the time to play ball or dance with neighborhood kids looking for mentors,” Lanier wrote in a farewell letter to residents distributed on neighborhood list-serves. She also urged residents in her note to continue to support the department “especially in this time that is challenging for communities and police alike.”
Supporters say Lanier’s connection with the community helped the District avoid the turmoil that has embroiled American policing in the past few years, including in nearby Baltimore and most recently Milwaukee, where deaths in police custody and shootings by officers have led to unrest.
“She was willing to be part of the solution instead of slow-rolling or being obstructionist,” said Denise Rucker Krepp, the neighborhood activist from Hill East, where street robberies have been a problem. She said, ‘Talk to me. I want to talk to you,’” Krepp said. “Her honesty and willingness to talk was refreshing. For me, she’ll be sorely missed.”
Still, Lanier’s time as chief has not been without controversy.
Homicides dropped under Lanier’s tenure — in 2012 the number plummeted to 88, the lowest in a half-century — but spiked last summer, raising questions about some of the chief’s new initiatives, such as disbanding a squad of officers that targeted drug markets to address changes in the narcotic trade.
And throughout her time as chief, Lanier often clashed with the police union, which complained that her gentle public persona belied a harsh management style that drove off many rank-and-file officers angry over going years without raises. Last summer, the union held a no confidence vote amid the spike in homicides.
Ronald L. Moten, co-founder of the anti-violence youth group Peaceoholics, said Lanier’s leadership initially led to positive relationships with the community that helped reduce crime.
“I think we got away from that. As time went on some of them faded away,” Moten said. “When it becomes all about politics, you start looking at numbers not looking at people.”
Lanier joined the department in 1990, moved up the ranks and was named chief in January 2007 — a remarkable rise for a woman who grew up in Maryland, just outside the District, got pregnant at 14 and dropped out of high school. She sued her own police force for sexual harassment in 1995, and won.
Lanier said that she hoped her success story would inspire young girls who might be struggling as she did.
“There’s nothing that’s not possible with hard work,” she said at the press conference. “Your attitude, effort and hard work will get you where you want to go.”
In an interview, Lanier recalled beginning her job as a patrol officer at a time when the city was experiencing a crack cocaine epidemic and was known as the “Murder Capital of the Nation.”
“My goal coming through the ranks was to rid this city of two things most importantly: the image of being the murder capital of the world and the image of being the city of unsolved homicides,” Lanier said. “That was the image of this police department no matter where you went.”
She was unapologetic about her crime-fighting efforts, even those that sparked criticism. In 2009, Lanier lost a crime battle with a federal judge who ruled her efforts to erect roadblocks around a bullet-riddled neighborhood called Trinidad was unconstitutional. But the chief points to numbers to prove her success — a crime drop since she became chief.
In recent years, the chief has faced new challenges. Police say they are seeing more high-powered weapons on the streets, and that the use of synthetic drugs is contributing to crime. The D.C. force has begun using body cameras amid increased scrutiny on officers nationwide.
On the national stage, Lanier became a voice for gun control laws, complaining that crime in the District and other cities was driven up by repeat violent offenders with easy access to weapons. . During her tenure, the rules for gun ownership in the nation’s capital were revised and rewritten time and again in response to court decisions as the District has become a legal battleground for Second Amendment cases. Most notably, the Supreme Court in 2008 overturned the city’s long-standing firearms ban and upended one of the centerpiece of the chief’s crime-fighting strategy.
During the 2015, crime spike, Lanier often talked about more high-powered weapons capable of shooting dozens of bullets.
“I have always said I would like to push the profession of policing forward,” Lanier said. “I would like us to evolve and policing to change so we are a more engaged and compassionate police department that does our job in public safety but does it in a way that people trust us.”
Former Prince George’s County police chief Mark A. Magaw called Lanier a “strategic leader” who understands the value of relationships and became a law enforcement leader for the region. Magaw remembered Lanier offering to help when the county was slammed with 12 homicides in 13 days in 2010.
“You have to look at the whole region and know that every piece effects every other piece,” said Magaw, who now leads the county’s public safety agencies. “She understands that.”
Former D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said that any big city police chief can only hope to make some progress to make streets safer and “leave the job better than you found it.”
“I am very proud of Cathy, she did an excellent job as police chief in Washington. It’s a challenging job, but she did very, very well. The crime rate in D.C. remained relatively low, it was nothing next to what it was in the early 90s.
“These jobs are very stressful and very tough, the average job is 3 years and she did 10.”
From The Washington Post