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Under Pressure

Cathy Lanier has broken the mold for a big-city police chief. But can her dedication -- and tendency to hug people -- help tame Washington's latest spike in homicides?

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

POLICE CHIEF CATHY LANIER CUTS A FORMIDABLE FIGURE as she strides, long-legged, in front of an outdoor lineup of 125 khaki-clad D.C. police recruits standing at attention on a closed-off street in the Langston Terrace neighborhood in Northeast Washington. Nearly 6 feet tall and a fit 160 pounds, Lanier is wearing a blue jacket with four gold stars on each shoulder and shiny black patent-leather boots. Her dyed blond hair spills out of her dark blue police cap. Along with the recruits and more than 150 blue-clad officers, she has mustered nearly 300 of her forces to this crime-ridden area for another All Hands on Deck, a controversial innovation that sends hundreds of cops walking around their beats to meet citizens informally. The goal is to talk about neighborhood problems and to show that the Metropolitan Police Department is out to serve people, not just make arrests -- although the weekend exercises usually yield at least a few busts.

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"It's good for the community to see this," Lanier shouts as she walks, gesturing at the long blue and khaki lines of cops. "We are fighting every day! We don't give up! We don't stop! And we do all that we can do!" She is barking above the street noise and needs no megaphone on this warm Friday afternoon in November.

"I'd like to introduce you to a lady from this community, Kathy Henderson," Lanier says, putting her arm around the shoulders of a middle-aged local activist. "She had tears in her eyes when she saw all the police officers out here. This community needs you! And there are a thousand Kathy Hendersons out there! You have to give them everything you have! You have to do 110 percent! You are gonna meet people who have suffered from extreme violence, and their kids can't go outside! And we put our lives on the line for them! And the law-abiding people appreciate this! You see what you can do? You put your lives on the line, and people like Kathy Henderson appreciate it!"

Mayor Adrian Fenty belatedly shows up for the event, drawing his usual gaggle of TV cameras. "I thought she'd be a great police chief," he says, standing beside Lanier, "and I think she has surpassed expectations." A radio reporter, quoting police union and community sources, asks whether the periodic All Hands events aren't "just a publicity stunt and a roundup of black males?"

Lanier responds to an accusation she's heard before. "We are not going to arrest our way out of this crime problem. This is not arrest-driven," she says, rather it is aimed at building street-level relationships. She cites a key law-enforcement roadblock: Witnesses to crimes usually don't trust police to protect them. So, prosecution becomes futile, and criminals walk free. But if people get to know and respect their neighborhood cops, they are much more likely to cooperate. Lanier acknowledges later to a reporter that All Hands is indeed primarily a PR tactic. "It's really a shame we have police officers who don't realize that public relations is a really important part of what we do. Absolutely, it's a public relations stunt -- and it works! People like it. So, if they like it, criticize me."

Fenty and Lanier enthusiastically lead a walking procession of cops and rookies along Benning Road, waving and giving out greetings and handshakes to neighbors sitting out on their front porches. On 19th Street, Lanier spots a skinny young woman with spiky hair and bluejeans watching from outside an old apartment house. The chief crosses the street and introduces herself. The woman is 29, with a 9-year-old son watching from a third-floor window. She came down from Boston, looking for work, she says, but ended up on welfare. Her boyfriend is abusing her, and she's called police, but he keeps coming back. Lanier, nodding her head empathetically and asking questions for five minutes, ends up handing the young woman her business card -- and her personal cellphone number, expanding a circle of new acquaintances who now have that number and don't hesitate to use it.

Then the chief wraps her arms around the frail young woman in a full hug. Moments later, Lanier runs into a woman named Mickey whom she's known from her past years working this beat. "It's getting really bad up in here," Mickey says, shaking her head, "too many funerals." Lanier nods and urges her to call, and then envelops Mickey in a warm embrace.

Hugging? A hugging big-city police chief? In the course of several weeks, Lanier is observed hugging ordinary citizens, retired officers, veteran officers and rookies -- male and female -- along with police department secretaries, a building janitor and a telephone repair guy, among others. Asked about this habit, Lanier smiles. "I've heard that a lot before," she shrugs, "I know all these people, and I like them.

"If you can reach just one person a day," Lanier says. "You've done your job."

But her job is far more than that. And, in the end, Lanier's tenure will be judged by a much higher standard: Did she reduce crime?

IN MAY 2007, Lanier stood on stage at the Tivoli Theatre in Columbia Heights, knees locked and shoulders back. Hundreds of family members, friends and the region's top law enforcement officials filled the grand room of the renovated theater to see her sworn in as Washington's first permanent female police chief. As she prepared to speak, Lanier, then 39, took a deep breath -- not only because of the gravity of the moment, but because she had decided not to talk about policing and instead to speak intimately about her family and about deep wounds from her past: her childhood spent on welfare and food stamps, her pregnancy at 14 and her horrible marriage that ended when she was 16.

After thanking people who helped her during her 17-year MPD career and family members who supported her, the new chief paused. "Most importantly, I want to thank my mother," Lanier said, her voice breaking, as she glanced at her mother, Helen, in the audience. "You are the one person in my life who never gave up on me, was never embarrassed or ashamed of me," she said, "even when you probably should have been."


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