It’s not unheard of for new mayors to fire the police chief that served the previous administration. So, though she’s got an 80 percent approval rating, after this year’s general election and transfer of  administration, Metropolitan Police Department boss Cathy Lanier could be out. But don’t feel sorry for her yet.

Following her unconventional rise to power in 2007 (she was bumped straight  from commander to chief by a reform-touting mayor) the District’s first female police chief  signed a winsome contract.

The five-year agreement allowed Lanier to start at $175,000 a year, with yearly pay increases of 3 percent. New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly makes $205,000, but he oversees 50,000 officers and staff compared to Washington’s 4,400, so it would seem Lanier got a decent deal.

Her contract also made her eligible for an annual performance bonus doled out by the mayor, and included  standard perks like a take-home vehicle, a cell phone, and moving expenses.

But there was one particularly sweet provision. One that would allow Lanier, in the event the crime fighter was asked to leave, not to  freak out about her financial future.

“Lanier’s retirement pension shall be fully vested and fully payable and vested at the maximum level allowable by law, notwithstanding Lanier’s age or term of service,” her contract reads. That means if presumptive Mayor to-be Vince Gray decides to let her go, Lanier will be able to retire at the ripe-old-age of 43.

Under the agreement, she’s entitled to either 71.5 percent of her average highest base pay over the last three years, or “the maximum retirement pension otherwise allowable to members of MPD.”  That would leave her (a veteran of 18 years) with the sort of retirement benefits it normally takes at least a 25-year career in law enforcement to earn; 71.5 percent of $175,000, for instance, is $125,000, and since her base pay increased by 3 percent annually, her pension will be even higher. Adding a little cherry on top, if she’s fired, she also gets the typical three months of severance pay.

Though that will cost the District a good sum, if anyone deserves a retirement package, it’s a hard working police chief who’s credited with getting the crime stats down. But is Lanier trying to get similar terms for her top aides?

Almost a year after  she succeeded outgoing Chief Charles Ramsey, Lanier shook things up. Calling it “restructuring,” she changed the way the top of the department worked, and also infused it with new blood, rocketing cops she thought talented to high-ranking jobs.

“Over the past nine months as Chief of Police, I have carefully reviewed the way the Department operates,” Lanier said at the time, “always with an eye toward improving our efficiency and bettering the way we protect residents.” This meant, for instance, installing six new assistant chiefs.

But for some of the chosen, their quick ascendancy came at a cost. They hadn’t moved through the ranks in the standard way, so their positions weren’t protected by civil service regulations. They were considered “excepted service,” meaning they served at the pleasure of the chief. An incoming chief could bust them down to their previous rank the moment he or she came to power.

Now a new bill Lanier asked At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson to introduce seems aimed at protecting those who got streamlined into top positions. Exactly how is still up in the air. Some say it’s a golden parachute for the favored cops; others contend it’s merely a way to keep things fair.

While Mendelson introduced the most recent version of the emergency bill in September, Gray (who, after all, is still the D.C. Council chairman) submitted another version at the request of Mayor Adrian Fenty.

The proposed amendment: “The ‘Public Safety Retirement Limit Amendment Act of 2010’ seeks to declare the existence of an emergency with respect to the need to authorize a sworn member of the Metropolitan Police Department or the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department to receive an annuity of no more than eighty percent of his or her average pay, or eighty percent of his or her basic salary at the time of retirement, whichever is higher.”

The bill explains:

“In the past, sworn public safety members have typically retired at the highest rank achieved during their career, meaning members could accept promotions with some certainty as to the level of compensation they would receive upon retirement.

In recent years, there has been a shift from appointing officials to command staff positions based on tenure and more of a focus on appointing the most talented and qualified individuals to these positions, regardless of whether or not those officials are retirement-eligible.”

If the inclusion of the fire department seems to make things blurry, the bill goes on to home in on Lanier’s command structure.

“Under the current retirement statute, all sworn members are limited to receiving no more than 80% of their basic salary at the time of retirement. However, in several possible scenarios, this provision would essentially nullify years of good service at an elevated rank and position for non-retirement eligible members of the command staff who hold those positions at the discretion of the Chief of Police.”

Sent a copy of the legislation, Fraternal Order of Police (FOP)Chairman  Kristopher Baumann is bowled over. He says it’s a give-away. Baumann—who’s butted heads with Lanier over many issues in the past—contends the wording of the bill would allow Lanier’s brass to walk away with a huge chunk of their yearly salaries by locking down an 80 percent annuity.

“This is just plain plundering,” says Baumann. “This could end up costing the District millions of dollars per individual.” He says the high cost wouldn’t just be because of the sweet percentage the officers would get. As the cops involved are younger, like Lanier, they’ll collect retirement for a longer period.

Mendelson says there’s no give-away involved. He says the bill may not be worded “accurately”, but that it’s really about making sure that Lanier’s current brass can factor their current pay into an average when they retire—which won’t be now, as there will still be an age requirement.

He does admit the legislation is meant to protect those officers in the event that a new police chief is installed. “They shouldn’t be penalized because of a change in government,” he says.

Ed Lazere, of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, says he can’t tell whose interpretation of the legislation is correct at this point: “I’m not even sure why this is emergency legislation.” Lazere finds it suspicious that the council isn’t going through the typical legislative process, which isn’t as accelerated. He also thinks legislators should be careful about changing police retirement plans at a time when the city is already in trouble fiscally. “You have to be setting aside the money,” he says.

Hopefully, all this will be cleared up on Oct. 15, at which point there will be a hearing about the bill. Considering the city is looking at a hiring freeze, things could get complicated. In the meantime, whatever happens going forward, Lanier  herself is likely to do just fine.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery