Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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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!”

(Photo by Darrow Montgomery)

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.

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.”

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.

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.

If Lanier ever does fulfill the armchair strategists’ fantasies and run for office, she’ll find her professional career has at least one thing in common with her peers. All successful pols are lucky in their friends—and luckier in their enemies.

In Lanier’s case, an example of the former starts with Groomes, who she met at the academy. The two were fast friends as well as competitors. When they met in the parking lot during a shift change, they compared the quality and quantity of the arrests they’d made that day. “We got a gun, did you get a gun?” Groomes remembers the banter going. In 1992, Lanier, Groomes, and two other female officers awed the higher-ups by collectively making more arrests than several entire police districts. The two would move through the ranks together, and share an approach to grass-roots policing.

It wasn’t always good. In 1994, Lanier, then a sergeant, crossed paths with a sexually harassing lieutenant. She sued in 1995, along with another officer. They both pulled down $75,000 judgments.

By 2000, she was back in the Fourth District as a commander. There she made another ally: the local councilmember, Fenty. Nickles says Lanier made a “good impression.” It was so good that when Fenty became mayor in 2006, he made her his police chief. At 39, Lanier became the city’s first permanent female head cop.

Lanier’s also been lucky in some of her enemies. Most notable: Fraternal Order of Police head Kris Baumann, a regular fixture in D.C. politics, and a regular Lanier nemesis. No procedural quibble is too minor for Baumann to fire off an angry quote about.

When the department announced that it would be inviting university police to respond to “campus affiliated” 911 calls, Baumann couldn’t fathom it. “I can’t imagine trying to defend (or even explain) this policy in a civil suit before a jury,” he was quoted telling The Current newspapers. Baumann regularly inveighs against what he calls “the corruption of high-ranking officials” in the department.

Baumann says his animus dates to 2007, when negotiations for a police union contract broke down. “We took them to war,” he says, explaining that it’s his duty as a union leader.

Baumann’s broadsides make news, like when he criticized the department for sending officers who were new mothers into the field where the lactating cops had to wear “uncomfortable” flak jackets. The constant criticism might also explain why Lanier’s department is so focused on stamping out negative stories. But his gripes are also focused all too often on workplace process issues distracting attention from some of the more legit complaints about Lanier’s tenure.

For instance, American Civil Liberties Union leader Johnny Barnes pronounces himself troubled by the checkpoints MPD set up in the Trinidad neighborhood in 2008. Following a series of shootings, passersby were screened; those who couldn’t prove they were from the community were turned back. A colleague of Barnes’ dubbed the effort “Baghdad D.C.” In 2009, a federal court deemed the checkpoints unconstitutional.

Pols and civil libertarians also disliked the Safe Homes Initiative, in which police planned to go door to door asking District residents if they could search their homes for guns. Barnes said that although residents could have refused the search, the sight of police officers at their doors would have likely intimidated them into submitting. The D.C. Council jumped on it, and the controversial plan never got off the ground. Opposition also stymied a gang-injunction program, which would have sought civil injunctions against suspected gang members, making it automatically illegal for them to, say, congregate or dress in certain attire.

But despite the multiple instances of civil-liberties conflicts, Lanier never acquired the reputation for rights-trampling that haunts some other police chiefs. Barnes wonders whether she deserves one. “She’s the chief of police,” he says. “She could have said ‘no.’”

In a previous magazine interview, Lanier made it clear that she sees things differently. “The press portrayed this military-style checkpoint as if we were jerking people out of their cars, searching them,” she told More about the Trinidad checkpoint fiasco. All we asked was, ‘Where are you going?’”

But against a drumbeat of anonymous and not-so-anonymous complaints about how the police chief is dictatorial—as if any chief of a hierarchical paramilitary organization couldn’t be called that—it’s easy to dismiss even the fair quarrels with her leadership as motivated by the base sexism that lies behind some of the gripes. In a department that remains 77 percent male, subordinates who complain about her don’t usually disparage her for being a woman. But I’ve heard at least five officers refer to her as a “bitch.” (One of them, however, was a woman herself.)

Durham, an ex-marine who has been at Lanier’s side throughout her administration, believes she’s just defending herself. People gang up on his boss because she’s a woman. When he talks about it, his voice gets lower, as if he shouldn’t say such much about something so awful. “People just can’t stand a woman in power,” he says.

With January approaching, the mayor’s team says they want Lanier to stay. “The mayor is pleased with Chief Lanier,” Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Paul Quander says. “He’s pleased with the way she’s done her job and looks forward to working with her in the future. Crime is dropping in the District of Columbia… We feel good about where we are.”

D.C. might as well. In a city often overshadowed by an aloof federal Washington, a down-home cop who’s always willing to return an email, or a call, or a hug is a huge asset.

On a cool June evening in the Park View Elementary School on Warder Street NW, about 30 people sat in scratched wooden auditorium chairs. Lanier was on hand to describe her realignment plan again. The scene was a bit different from the one off Benning Road. Though Park View is still a predominantly black neighborhood, most of those gathered in the cavernous space, its seating sectioned by aisles of cherry red carpet, were white.

At the end of Lanier’s presentation, an older black woman who identified herself as Delores Tucker brought up the shoddy policing of the past. Things had gotten better, she said. But—unlike the newcomers in the room—she was afraid of things slipping back, especially if the neighborhood were shifted to a different district, as Lanier was proposing. “What do you know, you’ve been here all of 20 minutes,” Tucker said.

Lanier smiled. “Ma’am,” she said. “This is a very different police department.”