In December, the Examiner ran a story alleging Lanier was having a private gym built next to her office. Lanier explained that the gym was for everyone who worked at headquarters. I published Lanier’s comments, but wanted to know more—like, how was the facility being funded? Lanier got spiky: “Quite frankly I think u have beat this horse to death. No smoking gun, no conspiracy, no bodies in the closet. Relax and find some NEWS. I have better things to do than waste my time answering 20 emails a day from u.”
Lanier refused to sit for a formal interview for this story, leaving me to try to corner her at events. Her staff were reluctant to provide even basic biographical information.
It’s not just me. A reporter from another news outlet, speaking on condition of anonymity to preserve relations with sources, says celebrity has made the chief harsh: “Lanier is one of the most difficult officials in this city to cover. Her high approval rating means most politicians are unwilling to attack her, even when they know she isn’t being fully transparent with them. The chief then uses her popularity to attack reporters, calling them liars when they publish information that’s counter to the perception she’s carefully crafting.”
Former Examiner reporter Bill Myers, who left his post last year, says he often found himself in that position—and came to doubt the chief’s intentions. “Eventually I got good enough watching Chief Lanier so that I thought I could tell when she was lying. The tip-off was that her lips would move.”
Another journalist sees a more vulnerable, if still problematic, Lanier: “As someone who has covered cops and courts in several different jurisdictions over the past years, I’m struck by how thin-skinned Chief Lanier is when it comes to negative coverage.”
Lanier plays favorites, exiles critics, and works the refs just like any effective political figure. And here’s the thing: It works! Her clips, at times, read like hagiography. In a June 2009 profile in More magazine, she comes off like the District’s version of Princess Diana. The magazine writes that “reaching, appreciating, serving and, ultimately, utilizing the underdogs, both within and outside the department, has been a hallmark of Lanier’s administration.” In an August profile that year, Parade magazine called her “one of the most successful big-city police chiefs in America.”
The funny thing is, Lanier has experienced much worse stuff than some negative press. Growing up in the Prince George’s County community of Tuxedo, Lanier had it rough. Her father left when she was a kid. Lanier and her two older brothers, Walter and Mike, barely saw him. Lanier was teased for being chunky. “She was a fat kid, she liked to eat,” laughs Mike Lanier, a detective in Greenbelt. Her brother says the three Lanier kids stuck together in a neighborhood that wasn’t completely safe. He remembers that their neighbors were weed-dealing bikers.
Lanier’s mom tried to make ends meet, but the family struggled on welfare for nine years. Lanier attended the nearby Cheverly-Tuxedo Elementary School and got good grades. But that changed when Lanier was 12 and she started getting bused to Bethune Junior High School in Fairmount Heights. When courts initially ordered Prince George’s County to stop dragging its feet over integration and to start busing, earlier Bethune students recall, there was racial violence and tension among the kids. Lanier doesn’t remember the racial part, but she says the violence persisted.
“We were all the same,” she says via email. “I was friends with the kids I grew up with like everybody else. You don’t think in terms of race when you’re a kid. You’re just kids. The fights at Bethune were not race-based. Most of the kids from my neighborhood were black, white, Hispanic. We looked out for each other. The cultural divide then and probably now is largely economic.” Sometimes, recalls Lanier, “it was Cheverly versus Fairmont, sometimes Greenbelt versus Cheverly….No different than today.”
Lanier scrapped, but, according to her brother, grew tired off the danger and started skipping school. At 14, she met a roofer named Ronald Hall, her brother says. Lanier became pregnant, and dropped out of Bethune.
The marriage, of course, didn’t last. As a teenage mom, Lanier moved back home and tried waitressing and sales, her brother says. She got a GED. She applied for MPD at the suggestion of a boyfriend. Out of the academy, she joined the Fourth District.