D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier leaves her post in two weeks with high popularity and crime down over her tenure but frustrated by a system that she said allows repeat violent offenders back on the street time after time.
In a far-ranging interview, the chief of nearly 10 years unleashed a blunt rebuke of the myriad local and federal agencies responsible for keeping offenders in check, saying there are too many failures and too little accountability.
“The criminal justice system in this city is broken,” Lanier said, citing what she sees as the lack of outrage over repeat offenders as a key reason for her decision to take a job as head of security for the National Football League. “It is beyond broken.”
The chief talked about the arrest of a man last week who she said was on home detention when his GPS tracking device became inoperable. Police allege the man then went on a crime rampage that started in Maryland and ended in the District. They say it included a robbery, a shooting and a car theft that resulted in a crash that left a bystander critically injured.
“That person’s GPS went offline Aug. 12,” Lanier said. “We didn’t know it. The agency that supervises that person didn’t tell anybody or do anything with it. . . . That shouldn’t happen. And it’s happening over and over and over again. Where the hell is the outrage? . . . People are being victimized who shouldn’t be. You can’t police the city if the rest of the justice system is not accountable.”
People “want more police. They want more arrests,” she said. “But if we’re arresting the same people over and over again, there’s got to be some questions being asked.”
Lanier’s comments echo concerns both she and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) raised in the summer of 2015 when homicides spiked and authorities cited repeat offenders as one of the key reasons. The increase in killings heightened fear and led residents for the first time in a decade to list safety as their primary concern, ahead of even schools.
The numbers of repeat violent offenders are difficult to quantify, and the decisions made about any defendant’s release and supervision, either awaiting trial or after conviction, are complex. In the District, it often involves agencies that answer only to federal authorities, not to local leaders, on issues of bail, detention, the filing of charges and the monitoring of suspects under court supervision. In addition, police tend to use a broad definition of offender, often referring to those charged but not found guilty of crimes.
D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which has oversight of police, said that while he understands Lanier’s “frustration with [D.C. police] bearing the brunt of the public’s outrage over crime in the District, I wholeheartedly disagree with her characterization that our criminal justice system is broken beyond repair.”
McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who this year clashed with Lanier and Bowser over crime initiatives that he thought emphasized stiffer enforcement at the expense of community programs, said there are cases “where you wish there had been a different outcome. There are people on the street who don’t belong on the street.”
But he said residents “aren’t interested in hearing that one agency within the system of criminal justice didn’t do its part. They ultimately want the system to function.”
U.S. Attorney Channing D. Phillips, the top prosecutor in the District, said in a statement that, “unfortunately, no system is perfect, and in those isolated instances in which problems are identified, we work with our law enforcement partners to address them moving forward.”
Lanier’s staff frequently clashed with prosecutors over evidence and the filing of charges, but that reflects a common and often healthy tension between officers who seek charges and prosecutors who must prove the cases in court.
Ronald L. Machen Jr., who was U.S. attorney for the District for much of Lanier’s tenure but retired in April 2015, said “you cannot cut corners” in dealing with cases. “Although it may be frustrating at times to go through the process, it’s there for a reason,” he said.
The man who Lanier said went on the crime spree after his GPS device stopped working is Dacquan Gregory, 18, of Northwest, who faces charges that include robbery while armed and possessing an unlicensed gun. Court documents do not say why the GPS device went offline or whether the system responded to that, and court officials declined to discuss his case because he was a juvenile at the time the device was ordered.
In the interview, Lanier touched on many aspects of policing, including her community outreach that is credited with staving off anger and mistrust aimed by residents at police in cities such as Baltimore, New York, Milwaukee, Chicago and Baton Rouge.
She was regarded as an innovator, even if in some cases her initiatives drew criticism from the community and within police ranks. Two years ago, for instance, she disbanded the vice units made up of plainclothes officers who targeted drug corners but whose actions also drew complaints. The chief said she made the change because the department was seeing a shift from drug sales on street corners to Internet sales of synthetic drugs.
Police union leaders linked the removal of vice squads to the spike in homicides spike in the summer of 2015. But Lanier stood firm, saying that “we had to train our people to attack the drug problem that is connected to the violence happening today.”
The chief said that policing nationwide, which is at a critical juncture in its relationship with the community, will evolve “to be much more service-oriented and much more collaborative than it is now.”
But she said the community at large has to assume many of the tasks that over the years have become problems for police to resolve, such as responding to people with mental illness and minor violations of the rules. “A lot of the things we deal with right now, you don’t need a police officer,” she said. “And it is putting us in confrontational positions with people who are not criminals that are causing a lot of the turmoil we see right now.”
She cited the case of Eric Garner in New York. He died after officers subdued him with a neck hold when he was confronted for selling individual cigarettes outside some stores. Lanier noted that shopkeepers called police to complain.
“The pressure — police, police, police,” Lanier said. “Go do something about it. So they go do something about it and end up in this fight with this guy.”
“What if that was a [regulatory agency’s] job, and not the police department’s job?” she asked. Stepping in to situations like that “is destroying our relationship with the community.”