Lanier to Become First Female D.C. Police Chief

Cathy Lanier is about to become the first woman to serve as Washington, D.C.'s chief of police. While she enjoys the support of many of her colleagues, she may also face challenges related to her gender and race.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

The nation's capital has a new police chief, and for the first time it's a woman. She is Cathy Lanier. She's also a single mom. NPR's Allison Keyes spoke with Chief Lanier about her new job and the challenges she faces.

ALLISON KEYES: Cathy Lanier is six feet tall, blond, and has brown eyes with that piercing glint that seems reserved for those in law enforcement. She's been bombarded by a media fascinated with the phenomenon of a woman running the police department in a major American city. She says the gaggle of cameras that follow her everywhere is, well…

Chief CATHY LANIER (Police chief, Washington, D.C.): Really bizarre.

KEYES: Equally bizarre is the tenor of some of the coverage, like this star-struck host on Washington Post Radio.

Unidentified Man (Host, Washington Post Radio): You're the best looking police chief I've ever seen. Just unbelievable. You're going to do great.

Chief LANIER: Thank you.

KEYES: But make no mistake, this forceful, energetic woman is much more than a pretty face. Lanier is one of three children raised by her single mother. Lanier got pregnant at 14, dropped out of high school and married the father at 15. They divorced two years later. Lanier followed in the footsteps of the policemen and firemen in her family and joined the police academy at age 23. She moved up fast, taking her sergeant's exam after three years.

Chief LANIER: When I signed up to take the sergeant's test I heard you better not take that test. We don't have three year sergeants. It was just kind of an unwritten thing that you didn't take the sergeant's exam until you had about six years on, then you took it.

KEYES: Lanier passed, went on to become a captain, then was appointed to the higher echelons of command. She first worked with Mayor Fenty when she was commanding the city's forth district and he was the Ward 4 city councilman. Lanier says they worked closely together.

Chief LANIER: So I think there was this mutual respect for each other, because every time I went to a meeting and saw him there I thought, wow, this guy never misses a meeting. He probably thought the same thing about me. So I think that's where that mutual respect - but the energy is now the same way. It's the same all over again.

KEYES: Fenty, a triathlete with a formidable work ethic, has said he choose Lanier because she's tireless, will work all night, and will protect the interest of the city. Some officers have grumbled that her sixteen years on the force don't qualify her to be chief, despite her extensive command experience. But Lanier doesn't think someone's time grade should be the only factor for a promotion.

Chief LANIER: My heart is in this. My experience and my track record's in this. I love this job and everybody that knows me knows that I've - for 16 years this has been my life. And I think a lot of them are wiling to give me a chance and overlook the tradition that I didn't stay 10 years as a captain.

KEYES: That was pretty much the sentiment among the officers hanging out at the district's Fraternal Order of Police headquarters. Homicide detective Jeff Owens echoed several of his colleagues who are looking forward to Lanier's tenure.

Detective JEFF OWENS (Homicide detective, Washington, D.C.): I appreciate the fact they hired somebody from within the department, that came through the ranks and I've heard nothing but good things about her. So, you know, I think it's great.

KEYES: But even the officers who support Lanier admit she has some challenges. Homeland Security Sergeant J.C. Young worked with her when she commanded that department and thinks she'll do well, but he says it still matters to some cops that Lanier is a woman.

Sergeant J.C. YOUNG (Department of Homeland Security): I think it will always matter. I think - and nothing against women, but some people have the perception that women have something to prove. So they're going to go at a job with a different perception.

KEYES: Young agrees with Lanier's fans on the force and in the community who describe her as tenacious and caring. He says no one had a problem with her at Homeland Security and she took her job there seriously.

Sergeant YOUNG: All she wants you to do is do your job. You do your job, you're not going to have any problem with her. You don't do your job then you have an issue with her.

KEYES: None of the officers who spoke to NPR were willing to share personal stories, either positive or negative, about their new boss. But homicide detective Jeff Mayberry says Lanier will have to be able to walk this city's sometimes convoluted political tightrope.

Detective JEFF MAYBERRY (Homicide detective, Washington, D.C.): Brand new mayor with a brand new agenda. You've got to be able to deal with it. You're going to have to be able to appease everybody, and then sometimes that's hard.

KEYES: Over at the National Black Police Association, Executive Director Ronald Hampton wonders whether a white woman should be running a predominantly black department in a mostly African-American city.

Mr. RONALD HAMPTON (Executive Director, National Black Police Association): I think it's important to have black leadership in the police department, as well as black leadership to represent that component of the community.

KEYES: Lanier says people don't care about the race of public service representatives as long as they're honest, fair, and do their job. What people do care about is simple, says Washington neighborhood activist Andy Litsky(ph).

Mr. ANDY LITSKY (Washington neighborhood activist): We're concerned about is drug trafficking. We're concerned about juvenile crime, you know, which occurs. We're concerned about break-ins. But what we'd really like to see is we'd like to see more cops on the street.

KEYES: Lanier agrees. She's working on ways to increase the visibility of officers, increase efficiency, and improve morale. She says she'll make other changes once she finishes analyzing the department's resources. Lanier's confirmation hearing before the district's city council is set for March 16.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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