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D.C. police chief transcends race and gender in serving the city

By Courtland Milloy
Sunday, July 18, 2010; C01

D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier had taken a dinner break Friday while checking up on officers deployed for All Hands on Deck, her controversial crime-stopping tactic, which saturates the city with a highly visible police presence.

"I didn't see any cruisers out there -- where are they?" she asked an assistant chief who was monitoring police activity on an Apple iPad next to his dinner plate. I chimed in that two cop cars with lights flashing and sirens blaring had zoomed past the restaurant just before she arrived.

"Then we've failed," Lanier replied.

What?

"If you hear sirens, it means we have failed to prevent the crime," she explained. "If we have to make an arrest, then we've failed." Last year, D.C. police made about 48,000 arrests -- just the kind of "failure" that I imagine crime victims want to see.

Very impressive: Push the troops, wow the public. And after less than four years on the job, Lanier is basking in the glow of being one of the city's most effective, and popular, public officials.

Her homicide squad has the highest closure rate in three years and, so far this year, homicides are on track to drop below 100 for the first time in decades.

According to polls taken earlier this year, she has a 71 percent approval rating among D.C. residents -- compared with 47 percent for Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and 43 percent for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who appointed them both.

No small feat.

Back in 2006, when she was nominated for the job, Lanier got mad at me -- "frustrated," as she put it -- for asking whether it mattered that the top cop in a mostly black city was a white woman. "I thought more people would be interested in the new police chief's policies and crime-fighting strategies than in her race and hairstyle," she said at the time, sounding exasperated.

But let's face it: Race and gender matter. Only 1 percent of the nation's police chiefs are women, and Lanier is just the third white chief in the District's modern era. (Before that, Congress had put only white men in charge of law enforcement.)

"The high approval rating is not for me, it's for the department," Lanier said while we dined at Ray's the Steaks, her favorite restaurant, in Northeast. "Nobody likes the chief when the officers aren't doing their jobs."

Of course, not everybody likes the chief even when the department is on the case. Some worry, for instance, that Lanier is turning the police force into something akin to a high-tech, military covert-ops unit, lacking only a Predator drone, so far.

"Look here," she said, taking her iPad and touching a special Google Earth icon on the screen. An aerial view of the Washington metropolitan area came into view, with the names of every neighborhood clearly labeled. She zoomed in to rooftop level and said softly, "I can take a camera from here and look up and down a street."

As to complaints that she plays fast and loose with civil rights, Lanier is unfazed.

"We've got the kind of community cooperation going where people are starting to believe that we can get under a hundred homicides this year," she said. "It's a symbolic number, but it's important because it represents the realization of a belief that we can make this a safe city for everybody."

Asked last week by Kojo Nnamdi, talk show host on WAMU radio (88.5 FM), whether she would stay on the job if Fenty were to lose his bid for reelection in the fall, Lanier said, "The people determine whether I stay or go. That's who I work for."

Throughout the dinner, the people kept waving and stopping by the table to express their appreciation. Outside the restaurant, you'd have thought she was a rock star.

"Chief Lanier, may I take a picture with you?" a man asked as he handed a cellphone camera to one of her assistant chiefs. From across the street, a woman who appeared to be in her late teens swooned: "Chief Lanier! I'm so proud of you."

So, I mused, that she, of all people, appeared to have overcome the burden of race and gender in a city frequently divided by both.

"When I put on this uniform, I am not white, nor am I a woman," Lanier replied. Then, after smoothing a swath of blond hair beneath her chief's hat, she added with a streetwise twang, "I am the po-lice."

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