Friday, Sept. 6, 2013 | 2 a.m.
WASHINGTON -- Cathy Lanier’s early life plays like a season of MTV’s “Teen Mom.”
Skipping school at 13. Pregnant at 14. Married at 15. Separated at 17, on food stamps and back with her mother on a working-class block by a railroad in suburban Maryland; her mother had also relied on welfare and donated food to feed Cathy and her brothers after her husband split when Lanier was a toddler.
“I didn’t even know how to write a check, much less pay the bills,” said the attractive and nearly 6-foot-tall blonde, now 46.
Her mother and grandmother cared for the baby while Lanier sold awnings and hair products, and worked as a waitress at a barbecue joint at night and a secretary for a real estate developer by day.
“When I took that job, I was 16,” she recalled. “Typing classes come in the 10th grade, and I didn’t make it to the 10th grade. I got my GED. So when they offered me the secretary job, they said, ‘Can you type?’ I said, ‘No, but I’ll learn if you let me take the typewriter home.’ So my mother taught me how to type at the kitchen table.”
Eventually, Lanier traded the typewriter for a gun. She joined the D.C. police force at 23, attracted by a program that offered to cover her tuition to go to college by day while she worked the late shift as a beat officer; she went on to get two master’s degrees.
Now, remarkably, she is the very popular police chief of the nation’s capital, a white woman in charge of law enforcement in a city with a black majority; a watchdog for a city — with its monuments, mandarins and diplomats — that is a maze of different security forces and a target for terrorists, hackers and retaliatory strikes.
She’s tough on crime — she shared an award for most arrests soon after becoming a cop — but also wanted her officers to be compassionate, to interact with D.C. residents, develop sources, use new media to connect with the community, consider arrest a failure. She issued a directive on how to talk to transgender people, ignoring those who complained she was too touchy-feely. She started an anonymous text tip line and got in-car computers and BlackBerrys for officers.
She made it clear, she told Governing magazine, that she expected officers to “give their cellphone number to the old lady sitting on her porch drinking her beer at 9 o’clock in the morning instead of making her dump her beer.”
She hugs the down-and-out and gives out her cellphone number. “If they call me in the middle of the night,” she said, in her offhanded manner, “they’ve got something I want to hear.”
She says she tells graduates of the police academy: “Look, this uniform does not automatically give you respect. People will either view that uniform as a symbol of hope and honesty or they will view it with fear.”
As Lanier travels around gritty neighborhoods in D.C., swaths invisible to many of the high and mighty here, residents call out to greet her.
“Some people will yell ‘Cathy,’ some will yell ‘Chief’ and some will yell ‘Blondie,’” she said, sitting in her office, dressed in a police uniform, a 9 mm Glock on her hip. Two teddy bears are incongruously perched on the couch with her. The chief, who has a goldendoodle named Po-Po and an affinity for disabled dogs, toys with pieces of a chess set where firefighters and arson dogs face off against police officers and their canines.
She is excited about the department’s newest rookie: a bloodhound named Sam who has already tracked two missing persons.
Being called “Blondie” doesn’t offend her?
“No, that’s an affectionate nickname,” she smiles, leaning back and putting arms that rival Michelle Obama’s behind her head.
When she started in 1990, she was an upright rookie on an undisciplined force. She had to endure sexual harassment from a lieutenant supervising her; she sued the city and won a $75,000 settlement. Back then, D.C. was nicknamed “the murder capital of America.” Once, as a sergeant, Lanier waved at an elderly black woman sitting on her porch “and she flips me the bird, and I’m like, ‘What?’ I was shocked, but people really didn’t think a whole lot of the police back then, and that was during the height of violence in the city.”
She says that, personally, “in 24 years here, I’ve never had an issue with race — ever. I think people in general don’t really care what your race or gender is if they feel like you are legitimate.”
Last year, D.C. had the lowest number of homicides on record since 1961; juvenile victims of homicides decreased by 85 percent in the past four years, according to the chief’s office. She presides over about 4,000 officers and 450 civilians.
“She’s done a phenomenal job,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.
Lanier has never shot a person, just a rampaging pit bull. She says she “can take a punch,” and did so once from someone she was busting for drugs.
She affectionately recalls being taught how to by her two older brothers, who she says were “bullies” and “still are.” One is a Maryland police officer, the other a retired firefighter, like her dad.
“I think that the physical demands of firefighting are much greater than the physical demands of policing,” she said. “A lot of police work does not require brute strength. In fact, I’d say, really good communications skills are probably every bit, if not more, important as brute strength.”
Maureen Dowd is a columnist for The New York Times.