The city’s surge in violent crime has longtime D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier facing unprecedented scrutiny from residents, activists and her own officers.
On Monday, the police union released the results of an informal poll in which 1,100 officers gave the chief a vote of no confidence. Union leaders say Lanier has stifled the active policing needed to maintain control of the streets.
At the same time, activists focused on curbing police misconduct have rallied against a proposal by the mayor to expand the department’s powers. And families of recent homicide victims complain that police are absent when gunfire erupts.
“She’ s being tested in a way that she hasn’t before,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which guides departments on policies and practices. “She has to manage all these constituencies. She can’t ignore any of them.”
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has continued to offer her unqualified support for Lanier, who has led the 4,000-member department since 2007 and is serving under her third mayor. But the crime spike has worried residents and made groups with long-standing grievances more vocal and sensing that the chief, who had a 71 percent approval rating last fall, might suddenly be vulnerable.
“For a major city chief, she has had a remarkable run,” Wexler said. “Crime has steadily decreased. She stayed clear of major scandal.” He warned Lanier not to dismiss her critics, even the police union with whom she has battled for years. “She can’t lose the cops.”
Lanier said Monday she would not respond to the anonymous online union survey. But Assistant Police Chief Peter Newsham defended the chief, saying Lanier’s quarter-century on the force and long tenure in leadership positions qualified her to form policy to combat the crime spike. He said he thinks the homicide surge “will be short-lived and we’ll get this thing under control.”
The Fraternal Order of Police announced its survey results days after a double killing in Southeast Washington brought the city’s homicide count to 105 — the same number killed in all of 2014 and a 42 percent increase from this time last year.
More shootings occurred over the weekend, including one that wounded a 13-year-old who was struck as she stood on a neighbor’s porch near the Waterfront Metro station in Southwest. The seventh-grader had just returned from doing homework at the library.
An aunt said the girl had been hit by three bullets in her legs. The woman said two bullets had been removed. WTTG Channel 5 reported Monday night that the girl had been released from a hospital, and she spoke briefly on camera.
The victim’s 18-year-old sister said of police, “They appear to be trying, but they weren’t here when my sister got shot.” She said that the man the gunman was targeting also was struck and that he ran through a neighbor’s house and out the back door.
The police union held its confidence vote using an independent firm and allowing officers to register online. About one-third of the eligible officers, sergeants and detectives — 1,150 — cast ballots, and 1,122 voted no confidence in Lanier. The union said disbanding police-district-level drug units and putting them under one central command, along with recent endeavors of having officers in tents and guarding portable light towers in areas hit by violence, has rendered police impotent.
“Wave after wave of widespread violence has shaken this city, and time after time our officers have been told to stand fast,” the union said after the survey. The statement added that officers have been “forced into a corner of lackluster, feckless, inefficient enforcement” and that they have pleaded with leaders “to stop sacrificing the safety of our communities for what amounts to political correctness.”
Bowser countered with a statement backing the chief, saying that “after 25 years of policing these streets, deploying officers and strategies, building a force of highly qualified officers and police leaders, in the good times and the tough times, too, I have every confidence in Chief Lanier.”
D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who chairs the committee with oversight of the police department, said he is concerned about the poll but more worried about the violence.
“The poll is a gauge of how the rank-and-file feel about the leadership of the department, and their input and the morale of officers are essential to the District’s public safety,” McDuffie said. “But to be clear, residents aren’t interested in finger-pointing. They want solutions that are going to stop the violence.”
But the union is not alone. The mayor faced vocal opposition from Black Lives Matter activists Friday when she introduced a crime initiative that included a proposal to allow officers to make home visits to check on people recently released from prison and under court supervision. The group tried to shout Bowser down, arguing against more aggressive policing.
Lanier noted Friday that the union vote coincided with her mass weekend deployment called All Hands on Deck, in which every available officer is put on the street for 48 hours, saying it was timed to take advantage of officers already angry over the disruption to their schedules. The union has long deplored the initiative, disputing Lanier’s contention that it helps reduce crime.
Lanier’s office said that even with a spate of shootings Friday night into Saturday, crime overall dropped nearly 40 percent during the mass call-out, compared with the same period in 2014. Lanier said officers seized 34 guns, evidence her commanders say proves officers are aggressively going after the most dangerous criminals.
The chief remained unapologetic about the initiative, noting the “flood of police in the streets is something that is a visible deterrent” that residents demand and “makes people feel safe.” She added, “I think we owe that to them — especially right now.”
Newsham, the assistant chief, said “it’s very frustrating for anyone who is in this agency to see the uptick in homicides.” But he also said changes such as centralizing the district drug units has led to more professionalism and better arrests. Noting the nearly three dozen guns seized, Newsham said, “God only knows how many lives that saved.”