Columnist

Cathy L. Lanier busted down walls and attitudes and obstacles and stereotypes by doing one thing — her job.

The police chief of the nation’s capital, who announced her retirement this week to take a job with the National Football League, didn’t give soaring lectures or eloquent speeches. She didn’t inspire with feminist rhetoric or scripted oratory.

Did she ever even use the word “feminist”? I don’t think so.

But Lanier showed the world that a woman — a teen mom, a high school dropout, a survivor of abuse and on-the-job sexual harassment, a 6-foot-something blonde who earned two master’s degrees and still got her nails done — could strap on a gun every day and do the work once reserved for men.

She came. She worked. She made a difference. The ultimate mic drop.

The District’s residents got so used to her that she wasn’t a novelty anymore. The city’s children can’t remember a time when a woman wasn’t their police chief. That’s feminism right there, whether anyone likes it or not.

I first met Lanier 16 years ago when she was head of the narcotics branch in a city that was still majority black.

I’d covered police departments in several American cities by then, but it was still a bit of a surprise to see someone so tan and French-manicured get out of her truck and take charge.

Residents who lived not far from Capitol Hill in Near Northeast, now a forest of high-end condos, tiny dogs and Korean tacos, had enough with the drug corners that were the main feature of the neighborhood back then and were holding a rally to bring attention to the fever of that summer’s violence.

It was Lanier’s day off on that hot day in August, but she put on her uniform and came out to the neighborhood. She listened to the moms and the grandmas.

And then she surprised me some more.

She spoke. Not in official police jargon, not in the cold, guarded way I’ve heard cops speak for more than 20 years when they are faced with civilians or journalists. She talked like everyone was on the front porch together.

“I don’t think this part of the District is that much worse than other parts. But I think you have more loitering here, and I think marijuana has become more popular here,” Lanier said then.

“That means the sellers are younger. And there’s more of them. And they’re more dangerous. They have quicker tempers. They feel they need to carry guns.”

The protesters nodded.

So what was she doing about Seventh and I, one of that summer’s worst drug corners, the neighbors demanded.

“We know about Seventh and I!” Lanier said. “See, I wish I could tell you what we have planned there. We know about it. But that’s the problem. So much of what we do is undercover, and we can’t tell you, so you don’t know we’re working on it.”

By the end of the rally, the residents were all thanking Lanier after she listened to every story, from tire slashings to gunfire.

And then we chatted.

“I think one thing I learned here is that I’m not communicating enough,” she told me. “I don’t tell them about the progress we’re making.”

Watching her that day, her charisma was undeniable. She had a unique combination of empathy, authority and tenacious work ethic. How many police commanders would use a precious day off to visit a forgotten pocket of rowhouses and listen to a couple dozen fed-up folks?

Her openness, I thought that day, would either get her canned or promoted. It turned out to be the latter.

We don’t always stop to talk about it, but Lanier is part of a sisterhood of female leaders in the nation’s capital.

At one point, Lanier was the city’s police chief, Teresa Chambers was head of the U.S. Park Police, and Polly Hanson was head of Metro Transit Police. (Hanson is now Amtrak’s police chief and under investigation for fraud and conflict of interest.) Lanier served under D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and alongside D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson.

Lanier’s tenure as chief hasn’t been without blemish. Although residents give her resounding approval ratings, she never won over all the rank-and-file officers who patrol D.C.’s streets. For a while, she embraced jump-out squads and erected roadblocks in high-crime areas that made some residents feel like they were under siege. For the past two years, she’s been dogged by a spike in homicides.

But she is a survivor, serving under three mayors in one of the most treacherous jobs in public life — heading an urban police department. Police chiefs lead men and women who have both a license to kill and a target on their backs every day. They deal with blood and tears and justice and bullets before they even get to lunch. The past few years have been especially stressful as police have endured protests for shooting black men under questionable circumstances.

Officers have been ambushed in New York City, Dallas, Baton Rouge and other places, adding to the fears, burdens and emotional toll of the job.

Lanier’s job as the head of security for the NFL may sound cushy. And there were a few eye rolls when she said she was leaving the District to help keep “America’s favorite sport” safe.

But given that the last guy who held her job had to confront the devastating video of former Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice knocking his wife out in an elevator, maybe a cop like Lanier can help make the NFL safer.

She’ll do the work. It’s what she does.

Twitter: @petulad