Police Chief Cathy Lanier
Police Chief Cathy Lanier Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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As Police Chief Cathy Lanier stood beside Mayor Muriel Bowser at police headquarters last week to announce her retirement from the force, the mayor rattled off familiar accolades: a 23 percent drop in violent crime since 2007, deep community ties, a feeling of safety among D.C. residents and tourists. “One thing I don’t think Cathy gets enough credit for is developing talent,” Bowser added, eschewing formality and foreshadowing the next chief. (Bowser this week named Assistant Chief Peter Newsham as interim chief.)

Then Lanier, who is masterful at working a room, fielded questions from the media. “What was your low point?” a television reporter asked. “When children or the elderly are victims of crime,” she replied. “What’s been your biggest challenge?” another asked. “My biggest challenge has been the press,” she said to mawkish laughter. Asked about reports of officers expressing joy at her departure, and claims by Black Lives Matter activists of inadequate policing in troubled neighborhoods, she ignored the latter and dismissed the former with a boast of receiving hundreds of laudatory texts.

Such disarming responses, Lanier’s critics say, have allowed her to obscure the state of the department she leaves behind. Now, as Bowser selects a successor, the mayor has to decide: Does she want the rigid, top-down bureaucracy that Lanier’s detractors decry, or an engaged, proactive police force that citizens want.

Lanier is credited with continuing reforms—initiated by her predecessor Charles Ramsey—of a department known for excessive force. She has avoided major scandal, and integrated the Metropolitan Police Department with federal agencies. It is a professional, big-city police force. That’s the view from on high. On the ground, the story is different.

In July, City Paper reported that more than 800 officers have left MPD since 2014, many via resignation after less than five years. Currently, MPD is approved for 4,300 officers, but there are only about 3,750. Fewer than 3,500 sworn members have the rank of sergeant or below, according to Gregg Pemberton, treasurer of the Fraternal Order of Police. Of the FOP’s members, Pemberton estimates that fewer than 3,000 patrol the city’s streets, and that the department is having trouble covering shifts.

Although Lanier has cited a retirement bubble due to a late 1980s hiring push, officer morale has become a problem. A Bowser administration official says the department is expanding a senior officer program that brings detectives and investigators back from retirement, and a cadet program that offers educational incentives to District high school students and pays for their associate degrees. The official says competition in the labor market is a significant hurdle. According to news reports, Bowser’s people are also concerned that high-ranking officers will depart.

Whatever the causes of attrition, manpower is at the nexus of an issue that concerns everyone from the D.C. Council, to rank-and-file officers, to D.C. residents: community relations.

Lanier is known for showing up at community meetings, emoting and reassuring concerned citizens. Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, sees much that Lanier has done right but is concerned about a lack of meaningful officer visibility. “We talk a lot about community policing, but real community policing involves officers on the beat who are known in the neighborhood,” Cheh says. “That means getting out of police cars and deployed on the street.”

Community policing is a nebulous concept, Pemberton says, but by whatever definition, Lanier’s policies have served to maintain visibility at the expense of allowing officers to go out and prevent crimes. He points to Lanier’s reliance on “fixed post” details, which require officers to remain in designated areas—either on foot or in their cars—and go into service only upon a call or approval from a dispatcher. “Acting as a security guard or a scarecrow, that’s not community policing, and we’ve been saying it for the last three years,” he says.

Teri Janine Quinn, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in Ward 5, says she’d like to see Lanier’s policies “tweaked not scrapped.” She doesn’t want a “feel-good approach” that just pushes crime to another area. “If you’ve got big white vans everywhere, you’re not doing anything you might be doing somewhere else,” she says.

Lanier addressed the issue of visibility recently at the scene of the July shooting death of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. She told DCist that a police car posted near the scene of the crime was for purposes of visibility, but that she had no plans to maintain around-the-clock “stationary posts.” Said Lanier,  “Stationary posts are not that effective, honestly. The criminals know where you are.” 

Asked to clarify Lanier’s remarks, a spokesman says that “stationary posts” are prohibited, but he did not respond to requests to delineate such assignments from “fixed post” assignments. Former MPD Det. Joe Belfiore, a 13-year veteran, says there’s no meaningful distinction for purposes of making the public safe, and that Lanier was simply caught in an unguarded moment. But if she really believes such practices are not effective, she should own it, he says. “I think the public would respect her honesty about that and I know that officers would. “

Pemberton says there are disciplinary consequences for leaving either a fixed or stationary post, and that Lanier has adopted a “finger-in-the-dike” approach that prevents real police work and hinders recruitment and retention. He says MPD has painted itself into a corner where it cannot keep the officers it has trained or compete for new talent. He points to job satisfaction and salary. MPD offers a relatively high starting salary of $55,000 a year, he says. “But when you get to your five-year step increase, we’re behind Montgomery County and Fairfax County. It’s a bait and switch. Recruits are getting paid, getting trained, then their dream job comes along and they’re out of here.” 

At that point, Pemberton says, the department must lower its standards to replenish the workforce, which hearkens to the hiring glut of the late 1980s. “That’s not how to run a department,” he says.   

Such differences feed the narrative that Lanier is simply at odds with a recalcitrant union. Unresolved grievances, pending arbitrations, and a court appeal over retroactive salary increases suggest both sides have dug in their heels. Lanier appeared to seize the upper hand in January when FOP members elected a new chairman, Sgt. Matthew Mahl, who has struck a conciliatory tone. But the transition resulted in bad optics and a fractured union: City Paper reported last month that Lanier gave Mahl a $40,000, fully equipped scout car—after the union already bought him an unmarked vehicle—and Mahl has been reticent to challenge the department. (Mahl’s members forced him to return the vehicle.) He didn’t respond to calls for comment. 

Last Saturday, City Paper visited the Northeast neighborhood where police recently shot and killed 63-year-old Sherman Evans after he refused to drop what appeared to be a rifle but ended up being a BB gun. Police cars and news trucks swarmed the pocket of brick apartments in Pleasant Hill the night of the shooting, but they haven’t been around since then, residents say.

In the building across from where Evans lived, 62-year-old The Nguyen says that in five years he has never seen police in the neighborhood, which he describes as robbery-free but frequented by “people who run by and shoot but who are not from here.” He laughs at one exception: “They come by every night to write parking tickets.”  

A young woman named Jackie says as she gets into her car that she doesn’t feel safe, not because of the Evans shooting but because of random gunfire. “You could be out anytime and get shot,” she says. Asked about police presence since Evans died, she replies, “No, I don’t see them anymore.”

In the alley, 20-year-old Herbert says he only sees police when they drive through the neighborhood every so often. “They’ll come if someone calls,” he says, confirming Jackie’s account of frequent gunfire. His friend Justin, who is 18, shakes his head vigorously when asked if he ever sees police in the neighborhood interacting with the community.

Lanier has faced the harshest criticism east of the Anacostia River. Ronald Williams Jr., 35, a sixth-generation Washingtonian who is trying to establish a seafood business in Ward 8, rates MPD a “one” for community engagement, on a scale of zero-to-10. “[Police] need to meet people where they are,” Williams says.  

Longtime residents have seen chiefs come and go. Benjamin Thomas, 93, has lived in the same house in Ward 7’s Benning Ridge since 1958. “I don’t think we’ve seen a police officer around here for months,” says Thomas, a regular at ANC and Sixth Police District Advisory Council meetings. “Even when they do come past, they don’t interact with the community without getting approval first.” Which is a shame, because Thomas is observant and engaged. “I like to know what’s going on in the ward because I don’t get any information from the newspaper.”