And she does mention that she subscribes to the theories of Marc Kleiman, a University of California at Los Angeles criminologist who taught Lanier when she was at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in 2002 studying drug policy. One thing Kleiman liked about the then-lieutenant: “She wasn’t a true believer. She was practical. She didn’t believe in busting as many drug offenders as possible and giving them as long of a sentence as possible.”
That put her in a good position to absorb Kleiman’s approach to crime fighting: It’s impossible to stop all crimes, he says, so you pick your battles, and make sure you win them decisively. “Control what you can control,” Kleiman says.
It’s hard to argue with numbers: D.C.’s murder rate is on the decline. In 2008 there were 186 murders; in 2009, 144; in 2010, 131. That’s a 30 percent drop in bloodshed over three years in a city that had 500 killings in 1991. (So far this year, there have been 62.) According to MPD’s numbers, D.C.’s murder police are practically superheroes, apprehending killers more efficiently than ever. The case closure rate for homicides was 75 percent in 2008, 76 percent in 2009 and 77 percent in 2010.
At the end of each year, when D.C.’s crime stats predictably decline, Lanier gets lauded for her community-based, technology-driven, intelligence-led police force. And she deserves some of the credit. But it’s hard to cast her work as different from Police Commissioner Ray Kelly in New York City, or Police Chief Charlie Beck in Los Angeles, or Police Chief Ed Fynn in Milwaukee—all of whom are incorporating technology, intelligence, and community outreach. Lanier is a modern police chief, but she’s not really a professional outlier. Crime, after all, is down everywhere.
On the other hand, her ability to retain the confidence of people in a city where the definition of governmental professionalism itself has become a polarizing subject is a real accomplishment.
One clear night in 2010, a mother who’d gotten word from neighbors that her child had been shot dead couldn’t get past crime-scene police tape to confirm the tragedy.
The patrol cops wouldn’t give her much, says the mother, who asked not to have her name or neighborhood identified because she worried that talking to a reporter could hurt her case. After she attempted to cross the taut yellow tape several times, police threatened to arrest her. Minutes later, Lanier appeared in Cruiser 1, the chauffeured patrol car identifiable by its four stars. “I yelled for her and she came,” says the mother. “She said she’d find out what she could.” Lanier sought information. It turned out to be as bad as the mother had feared. Lanier broke the news, then held the sobbing woman.
Ask folks about Lanier’s standing in the city, and they’ll likely cite scenes like this one. In a city that last year showed off its wariness of overeducated types with no ties to actual communities, she wears her soul—or at least a soul—on her sleeve.
The folksiness helps Lanier navigate the tricky D.C. political conundrum of identity. Fenty lost an election because, among other things, he couldn’t connect with black voters. Lanier’s fellow Fenty appointee, former schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, suffered thanks to a similar dynamic. Fenty’s attorney general, Peter Nickles, says he immediately recognized the difference between Lanier and Rhee during their contract negotiations: Lanier could get along.
They’re both “intellectuals,” Nickles says, but “Michelle is like a laser, and Cathy is much more personable.”
Lanier also seems able to calibrate her approach depending on neighborhood. She rode in the Palisades Fourth of July parade carrying a dog—a symbol that might be polarizing in a neighborhood more anxious about gentrification. Constituents who want to see their police chief as more executive than empathetic take comfort in word that Lanier is a famous emailer: Armed with a BlackBerry and iPad, Lanier is always available. “I answer all my email,” she says via email, “300 or more a day.”
U.S. Attorney Ron Machen, who works closely with Lanier, has noticed how she makes “consistent efforts to be accessible to the public.”
But if getting an email from the chief is guaranteed, getting a substantive one isn’t. Lanier’s emails tend to be brief. When resident Joseph Martin wrote her about realignment plans, she merely responded “Excellent points. Thank u.” On the 9,000-subscriber police email lists Lanier stays active on, empty phrases like “thank u” and great work” dominate her interactions. But for many noise-complaint-submitting, bike-theft-discussing gentrifiers, a symbolic response is enough.
A close inspection shows off some of the hard work—and sharp elbows—that have gone into preserving Lanier’s image. Her emails to reporters certainly don’t display the graciousness of her message board missives. For instance, here was Lanier’s response to a request for more information after the Fraternal Order of Police accused the department of juking its crime stats: “U don’t have the correct information’s need to do some more fact finding.” Thanks.