Sizing up Mr. Fenty: What his choice of police chief revealed

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

WITHIN DAYS of his election as D.C. mayor, Adrian M. Fenty picked Cathy L. Lanier to be his police chief. There was no national search, no input from a team of public safety experts, no consultation with the D.C. Council. Her selection raised immediate concerns about the judgment of the fledgling mayor and what that portended for public safety. Three years later, crime has dramatically decreased, and the police force inspires greater confidence. Chief Lanier's appointment is emblematic of Mr. Fenty's approach to governing and is a fitting start for an examination of his time in office. In the weeks before the Sept. 14 Democratic primary, we will examine that record along with that of his main challenger, Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, along with the two candidates' promises for the next four years.

Public safety, along with education, has been a top priority for Mr. Fenty. Announcing Chief Lanier's selection in November 2006, he acknowledged the progress made by his predecessor as mayor, Anthony A. Williams, but declared his interest in a police chief "who has a new set of eyes and brings new ways to attack problems." Chief Lanier rose quickly after joining the force in 1990 and was a protégée of outgoing Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, but as a white woman tapped to lead a majority-black-male department, she was an unorthodox, even controversial, selection. Today, some who questioned her nomination admit they were wrong. "She wasn't my choice, but she was the right choice," says former D.C. police chief Isaac Fulwood Jr.

Her first year was rocky, with a sharp rise in gun violence and an increase in homicides after several years of decline. But in three years under Mr. Fenty and Chief Lanier, there has been a 17 percent reduction in the homicide rate per 100,000 residents, city officials say. There were fewer homicides in 2009 than in any year since 1966. Though residents in far too many neighborhoods still live in fear of violence, serious violent crime is down, as are auto thefts and burglaries. At the same time, the homicide closure rate is up, with detectives closing new cases more quickly and reaching back further to close cold cases.

Chief Lanier is the first to admit that there are probably a dozen factors that affect crime; the drop, rather than being unique to the District, is being played out in cities across the country. But changes introduced by Chief Lanier and backed by the mayor -- a streamlined police bureaucracy, emphasis on community policing, improved technology -- are having an impact. The city has gone from almost no officers assigned to regular foot patrol to more than 300. E-mail groups, anonymous text messaging and the phone tip line have resulted in improved community relations and more cooperation from the public in solving crimes. There has been progress in reducing the department's use of force, with the U.S. Justice Department in 2008 ending seven years of special monitoring. Major events, such as the inauguration of Barack Obama and a papal visit, were handled deftly.

A hallmark of the Fenty-Lanier approach to crime has been an aggressive willingness by the mayor and the chief to use new tactics, even at the risk of being slapped down, such as checkpoints in the Trinidad neighborhood in Northeast. The mayor was unabashed about the need to "go beyond the normal methods of policing" to quell a rash of violence in the neighborhood, but even as police judged the checkpoints to be effective, they were criticized as an infringement on civil liberties and later ruled unconstitutional. Likewise, the chief's signature "all hands on deck" deployments were deemed illegal by a federal arbitrator but continue as the city appeals the ruling. Mr. Fenty pushed to use injunctions to make it easier to arrest and detain suspected gang members, but the council refused to go along, citing civil liberties concerns.

Mr. Fenty's reliance on news conferences to announce new police strategies or update crime situations has come under criticism, for ostensibly interfering with police management. It's a charge denied by the chief, who told us that the mayor, while interested and involved, doesn't tell her how to run the department and that the news conferences -- which she initially disliked -- have been valuable in raising her profile with the public.

There has been improvement in other areas of public safety with histories of dysfunction. Both the Office of Chief Medical Examiner and the Department of Corrections get good grades from D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), chair of the committee on public safety, who is often critical of Mr. Fenty. In the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, Mr. Fenty continued reforms started by Mr. Williams and backed its controversial head at the time, Vincent N. Schiraldi. The notorious Oak Hill detention center was replaced with a new facility that emphasized rehabilitation of youthful offenders, and the department received national recognition as a model program. But instances of youths under DYRS supervision absconding from custody and being killed or committing murders have raised concerns about the department's ability to safeguard the public. Similarly, the David Rosenbaum case during the Williams administration spotlighted problems with Fire and Emergency Services. At Mr. Fenty's insistence, important changes were made, but reforms in updating a culture that values firefighting over emergency care have stalled. Moreover, out-of-control spending and the failure to suppress the fire that destroyed the mansion of Peggy Cooper Cafritz raised questions about the department's management.

Apparent in the mayor's handling of public safety issues are certain traits. He favors action over dialogue, results over process. He's not afraid to take risks, sticks by the people he trusts and rarely looks back. And he thinks there are limits to consultation and collaboration. "Do you really think Cathy Lanier would be police chief today if he had put it up for a vote?" is how one of his advisers put it. This is the conundrum facing Washington voters, who undoubtedly welcome the drop in crime Mr. Fenty has overseen, but may perceive arrogance and aloofness in the way he has overseen it.

This is the first in a series of editorials examining the records of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, his main opponent in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary.

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