About 45 minutes into the meeting, Cathy Lanier, D.C.’s chief of police, seizes the room.
Metropolitan Police Department officials and neighbors have been chatting over the details of police staffing organization on folding chairs in a Sixth District conference room when she arrives, shoulders forward, all blond hair and suntan and pearly white orthodontics in a room that’s mostly African American.
An underling introduces Lanier, Johnny Carson-style. The civilians swivel in their chairs. “Hey Chief!” comes the avalanche of greetings.
And as Lanier takes to the front, there’s actual applause. It’s a part of town, just off Benning Road NE, where locals don’t feel any particular love for white appointees of the Adrian Fenty administration. And it’s a subject—police district realignment!—that’s easier to demagogue than to cheer. But Lanier, appraising the group with root-beer brown eyes, has a sales pitch, and she’s sticking to it. “You all are probably going to be the ones who benefit the most from this,” she says.
Before she gets to just why, the top cop—9mm Glock and eye-scorching OC spray affixed to her belt—throws her arms around Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander, who’s there to stick up for her constituents. Alexander hugs back. It’s likely she’s been through the routine before: Lanier may be in charge of a law-enforcement organization, but out in the community, she’s visiting-aunt affectionate. On the job, she squeezes politicians and citizens alike.
She also hugs her fellow cops. One retired cop who regularly worked with her on countering terrorist threats to the city complains of being hugged at least twice a month. It’s safe to assume that lawmen like William Bratton or Frank Rizzo or Maurice Turner never heard that kind of gripe.
Not that the chief is complaining. “She has like celebrity status in D.C.,” says Assistant Chief Diane Groomes, one of Lanier’s close confidantes and the current boss of D.C.’s patrol cops. “She loves being out in front of people,” adds a command official who works closely with her. “She’s a ham.”
Today, though, performing means showing that you’ve done your homework. PowerPointing through an presentation titled “2011 Boundary Realignment Plan: A Plan to Improve the Delivery of Police Services in the District of Columbia,” Lanier walks her audience through tables and graphs detailing the way her 3,800 officers are spread around the city, and explaining the intricacies of a new strategy that’s supposed to ease the complex work of shifting them from place to place. As she talks, she shifts from wonk—there’s a riff about policing amidst “downtown-area population density”—to small-town sheriff. Hitting her heavy Maryland accent hard, she works the common touch: “Have you been to Chinatown lately?” she says with a sweep of manicured hand and a crescent grin. “It’s like Manhattan down there!”
Throaty affirmations follow. “Can’t even walk,” chimes one resident.
Plenty of people criticize aspects of Lanier’s tenure—including the realignment efforts. But even where she fails to sell a plan, Lanier succeeds in selling herself. A poll released by Clarus Research Group in March puts her approval rating at a cosmic 84 percent. Her boss, Mayor Vince Gray, is hobbled at 41 percent, according to a poll released in June by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation. The D.C. Council is at 54 percent, according to the Clarus poll. The only public figure in D.C. who’s more popular than Lanier is President Barack Obama, who tops her by 4 percent. And it’s safe to say the president’s national numbers would trail the chief’s standing here.
These days, Lanier’s public image matters to folks beyond the community of pollsters. Her five-year contract expires Jan. 2. While Brian Flowers, the mayor’s general counsel, says Lanier doesn’t need a new one to stay on, the expiration means there’s the possibility of some wrangling on the horizon. Either the mayor could offer, or Lanier could ask for, a better contract. Her current deal delivers a $253,000 annual salary. At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who heads up the committee that oversees MPD, says the end of the contract also means the council could get in on the action, forcing Lanier to the negotiation table over her ample pay. Lanier is the fourth highest-paid police chief in the country; the council recently capped Lanier’s salary, which has increased 31 percent over her tenure and was slated to continue to climb by at least 3 percent a year.
The conventional wisdom, though, is that any pol who was seen as pushing Lanier out would be in deep trouble.
“Who else has an approval rating like that?” asks political consultant Chuck Thies. “Just the Dalai Lama.” Lanier’s image as St. Cathy the Beloved has survived controversial police tactics like neighborhood checkpoints, a rushed murder arrest outside DC9, and a cheating scandal involving a top deputy—not to mention lesser boo-boos like the controversial police escort that sped Charlie Sheen to a performance where he joked about Obama’s birth certificate.