In fact, the pros wonder whether Lanier couldn’t ride that reputation even farther. Thies says if someone asked him to pick an “outsider” mayoral candidate for 2014, it’d be Lanier.
It’s a provocative notion. The District’s high-speed demographic change has lots of politics-watchers talking about the likelihood of a white mayor before too long. But the notable thing about Lanier is how different she seems from the other Great White Hopes. She’s no streetcar-hugging, bike-lane-frequenting habitué of D.C.’s gentrification zone. To the contrary, she’s a Ward 5 resident whose blue-collar affectations play best in the parts of town where her original patron, Fenty, got his butt kicked.
So how did Cathy Lanier get so popular? As it turns out, the answer is a lot more complicated than the politics of hugging or the nuances of crime stats.
In December 2009, a massive phalanx of patrol cars moved through Capitol Hill like an invading army. Screeching past garden-lined streets of brick row houses, they closed what Lanier dubbed “the ring of steel.” The community had seen a spate of seven carjackings within several months. “They were targeting moms with kids,” remembers Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells.
Wells appealed directly to Lanier. The head cop asked him to set up a meeting where she could speak to shell-shocked neighbors. There, Lanier assured citizens that MPD would take action. As it turned out, that meant surrounding the area with squad cars and then having them close in the moment a report of a carjacking crackled over the radio. By February, cops had made 11 arrests and the epidemic halted. “That was so cool,” Wells says.
The move was classic Lanier. Where there’s a high-profile enforcement problem, she gives assurances, then applies concentrated force to gain the upper hand. When Columbia Heights saw an increase in robberies, Lanier met with neighborhood activists, then dispatched 10-officer tactical teams to swarm the muggers. When she saw large, disorderly crowds gathering at Gallery Place, she met with city administrators and dispatched another 10-officer detail there.
Lanier’s career has benefited from combining successful policing with a knack for the theatrical. She joined MPD in 1990, making her first collars as a beat cop in the Fourth District, where she impressed superiors by warning drug dealers not to sell during her shift. She ascended quickly though the ranks of an organization that, in the words of her predecessor, Charles Ramsey, had lacked proper “leadership and management” for 20 years. Ramsey advanced young go-getters like Lanier past more senior cops in the name of reforming the department.
After Lanier replaced Ramsey in 2006, she continued the emphasis on the new, promising a more “holistic approach” to crime data. She told the D.C. Council that MPD would stop viewing crime stats in isolation, instead factoring in details like “population density, demographic trends, projected economic development, physical infrastructure” to create a broader picture. The rhetoric was pitch-perfect of a city that was suddenly aware of its own revival.
Like her most up-to-date colleagues atop other police departments, Lanier stresses the nerd stuff. She receives hourly crime updates over email, she says. She’s outfitted patrol cars with silver Panasonic Toughbooks, chunky silver laptops whose screens cast a glow over the interior of a Crown Vic. The computers allow cops to file reports and check databases in the field. She’s also spent millions on surveillance technology like ShotSpotter—audio technology that hones in on the location of gunshots—crime cameras and license plate readers.
Of course, none of this is unique to the District. But her aides say it’s made a difference. “Before the chief revamped internal communications, everybody operated in their own silos,” Assistant Chief Alfred Durham says.
And, as with so much about high-profile police work, the public image matters as much as the details. Lanier keeps communities in the loop with frequent meetings where police share their crime knowledge. She’s also helped residents reciprocate by tipping off cops to shady goings-on via text message. During her tenure, she’s dispatched 300 foot patrols onto the streets, fighting a war of perception by increasing the visibility of the force. She’s also dedicated more resources to cold cases, scoring big by closing the perplexing murders of Chandra Levy, Sharon Moskowitz, and Joyce Chiang.
“I don’t have a leadership style,” Lanier says outside the Wilson Building. “That’s for the politicians.”
All the same, she’s tipped her hand a bit over the years. Colleagues say she’s passed around Malcolm Gladwell’s books Tipping Point and Blink in order to get cops and citizens thinking in new directions. She wants her murder cops, for instance, to think of ways to “prevent homicides before they happen.”