One of the first things Vincent C. Gray did when he was elected mayor in 2010 was decide to keep Cathy L. Lanier as police chief. By nearly all accounts, it was also one of the smartest things he’s done.
Crime has continued to fall, and Lanier’s popularity has remained remarkably high. District residents think the city and by extension the current mayor are doing an excellent job keeping them safe.
All of which has made it difficult if not impossible for Gray’s opponents in the April 1 Democratic primary to criticize him on crime.
Some candidates don’t even mention the topic in their platforms, and those who do find themselves walking a rhetorical tightrope, trying to challenge Gray’s record without blaming Lanier. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), one of Gray’s seven opponents, found one way to do it by accusing the mayor of not going far enough to implement some of Lanier’s proposals.
“It’s a third rail to criticize the chief,” said John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute who follows D.C. politics and studies law enforcement. “She’s been as effective as any big city chief can be and is a leader among chiefs around the country. . . . He made a wise decision to keep her.”
Yet both leaders have experienced setbacks, and both have attracted critics — even if the criticism has not been on the campaign trail.
Both Gray and Lanier have enjoyed the good fortune of a national decline in violent crime. Lanier, a teen-mom-turnedpolice-chief, has also parlayed a compelling personal story into a national profile. And her star power has served as a welcome distraction for a mayor mired in a federal investigation into his 2010 campaign.
Since then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) appointed Lanier to be his police chief seven years ago, overall crime has dropped in the District, notably in killings.
The District’s homicide numbers — a benchmark for any big city — fell from 181 in 2007, Lanier’s first year as chief, to 88 in 2012, a half-century low. They totaled 104 last year, including the dozen people killed at the Washington Navy Yard.
The numbers are just as strong when viewed through the prism of Gray’s tenure. Total crime has dropped from 35,416 incidents the year before he took office to 35,070 at the end of 2013. Homicides, aggravated assaults, burglaries and car thefts have gone down, although sexual assaults, robberies and thefts have gone up.
According to data provided by the mayor’s office, violent crime dropped over the past four years as the District’s population rose by about 60,000 people. Charts show even larger crime drops in high-crime areas singled out for saturated police coverage.
At least partly as a result of such data, 70 percent of District residents say Gray is doing a good to excellent job reducing crime, according to a Washington Post poll conducted last month.
And at least two of Gray’s opponents — council members Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) — have effectively taken crime off the table as a campaign issue by saying they would keep Lanier as police chief.
“You can’t be politically popular and criticize the chief,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D).
Still, there have been setbacks. Last year, a number of officers were arrested in connection with serious crimes — including attempted murder and underage prostitution. A rights group alleged that police were covering up rapes. And homicides edged up in 2013, even without the Navy Yard shooting.
In the first six weeks of 2014, overall crime is down, but assaults with weapons and sex offenses are up. So are homicides, which spiked at the beginning of this year with 15 through Wednesday, nearly double last year’s pace. Meanwhile, rank-and-file officers who went six years without raises are seething over the District’s recent victory at arbitration awarding the ranks far less money than they had hoped.
Gray’s staff highlights public safety initiatives: completion of a new forensic lab, allowing the District to handle its own drug and evidence testing; a new medical examiner scheduled to start soon; and finishing a new indoor police training center.
But other agencies have had troubles. While the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services recently hailed a 25 percent drop in rearrests of young offenders, the District’s inspector general issued a scathing report in December saying the agency has failed to monitor many of the youths in its custody.
And Gray’s fire chief has been embroiled in repeated problems with the department’s union and with slow or delayed responses to emergencies, the latest when firefighters refused to help a dying man outside a station in January. Gray has stood by his pick for fire chief even as pressure has mounted to fire him.
“I think Mayor Gray kept Chief Lanier and didn’t do much more than that,” said Wells, who chairs the council’s public safety committee.
Wells — finding the words to criticize Gray and at the same time praise Lanier — said the mayor hasn’t adequately backed the chief’s agenda and made other agencies help her, which has complicated the efforts to fight crime. He said a study Lanier ordered on how the number of bars on a city block hurts police service has not been used by the liquor and planning boards as they contemplate new licenses and create and expand some of the District’s newest entertainment zones
Bowser, who is among the front-runners in the race for mayor, said she is most troubled by the officers who were arrested and the number of street robberies, which she said is a concern across the District. She supports Lanier but said the mayor has failed to lead in the fight against crime and has failed to innovate as the city has grown and changed.
“There is gun violence in parts of our city, and there’s no outrage,” Bowser said. “There’s no heat and light from the mayor focusing on that. Is Lanier a good chief? Yes. But she could be better if she was held accountable by a mayor who didn’t tolerate some of the levels of violence we’re experiencing in some of our communities.”
Gray and Lanier’s most vocal critic is the chairman of the police union, Kristopher Baumann, who along with his counterpart in the fire department supported Gray four years ago. But both labor groups withdrew their support when Gray announced the hiring of Kenneth B. Ellerbe for fire chief and the retention of Lanier. Baumann said his group of 3,500 officers has not endorsed any candidate yet. “It will not be Gray,” he said, adding that his group might not back anyone. “We will probably be focusing our energy on making sure the public is aware of certain candidates’ records.”
Baumann thinks that Gray and Lanier have been disastrous for the District, and he targets them through lawsuits and a bitter public relations campaign focusing on crime strategies, policies and personnel moves.
The union’s Web site features a “Vincent Gray Daily Job Watch” and summary of what it mockingly calls his accomplishments.
Lanier’s contract runs through 2017, ending halfway through either Gray’s second term or the first term of his successor, who would be her third mayor. Through a spokesman, Gray said he, too, would retain Lanier as chief. She has the third-longest tenure of the nine chiefs since the District achieved home rule.
Mendelson, the council chairman, said the District needs Lanier to stay no matter who wins the election.
“I think it would be a setback to start over with a new chief,” he said. “We want to encourage citizens to feel safe about the city. Do they feel completely safe? No. Is crime too high? Yes. But generally speaking, the feeling among the citizenry is that we’re stable and moving in the right direction. When we’re elected, we inherit a government, and it’s our responsibility to make sure it works well.”
Gray’s critics have used the controversies to accuse him of being absent from the discussion on crime — and of ceding his mandate to lead to his police chief.
But Lanier’s ability to quickly defuse growing scandals and reassure residents has largely insulated the mayor from problems that might otherwise have been distracting or even disastrous.
And Gray has proved astute in occasionally using Lanier’s influence to his advantage.
The most recent example was Gray’s recent about-face on a measure to decriminalize marijuana possession in the District.
Gray managed to avoid displeasing the majority of District residents, who support the measure, while not alienating more conservative voters, who were concerned about the prospect of public smoking in the city. He couldn’t have done it without Lanier.
After signaling his support for the bill, Gray reversed himself by signing a letter with Lanier urging the council to reconsider. Lanier was concerned, they said, that removing the threat of jail time could lead to widespread public smoking in the District.
Two officials with knowledge of the behind-the-scenes discussions said there was growing concern about the marijuana bill among council members — including Mendelson — even as recent polling showed the measure was widely popular among residents.
Gray’s decision to join with Lanier provided political cover for Mendelson and others. It gave the mayor cover, too. By standing with a popular public safety official, he may have avoided alienating the voters who simply want possession to be legal.
As the primary approaches, Gray and Lanier share a singular challenge: to keep crime rates down — and to keep the topic out of the mayoral race.
Gray scheduled, then canceled, an interview with The Post. The mayor initially agreed to discuss his public safety record with Lanier by his side, a signal of her importance to him not just as a key cabinet member, but also as a political ally, that his record on crime is her record on crime.
Roman, from the Urban Institute, said he wishes crime was a bigger part of the mayoral debate. He thinks that Lanier’s approach is “cutting edge” but that crime is still too high in Washington when compared with the rates in other cities of similar size.
“We should be thinking why that is,” he said. “The trick is to think about the city holistically. . . . Law enforcement can only do so much to fix problems that other systems haven’t addressed.”
“Now that crime has died down a bit, people don’t want to talk about it,” said Mary Cuthbert, an ardent supporter of Gray and Lanier who is a longtime community leader in Southeast Washington. Cuthbert walks and takes the bus to get around and said she has never felt unsafe or afraid. But, she warned, “it has not reached a point where the crime rate is acceptable. We still have a lot of work to do.”