When appointed Chief of Police in 2007, Cathy Lanier may have seemed an unconventional choice. A young, white, single mom probably wasn’t who we expected to see as Mayor Fenty’s ‘man’ for the job. Lanier is the first one to tell you she was shocked when the Mayor offered her the position. She hadn’t even applied. She admits, “in the back of my mind, it’s been a surprise for the last six years.”
Her time in office has proven Fenty’s bold choice to be a good one. As a working mom, Chief Lanier brings a unique perspective to the job. She makes a conscious effort not to focus on her gender in relation to her career, but she admits “there are things that I can do and get away with to change culture that a male leader couldn’t – at least not right away.”
Among those things is a decent amount of hugging – citizens, fellow officers, the occasional Council Member. She recognizes the importance of women’s influence in law enforcement leadership. Women bring a compassion that isn’t part of police training. Women “aren’t just protectors, we’re caretakers.”
Lanier is quick to point out she means no disrespect to the men on the force. She can’t say enough about her team and the job they do. At a crime scene, she trusts her uniformed officers and detectives to work the scene and ensure public safety. Their great work enables the Chief to focus her attention on the families impacted by the crime. She’s adamant about building a positive relationship between the force and the public. “If I can show some compassion to a parent, while in uniform, it shows the police department does care.”
While effective, all her reaching out isn’t just a tool, it’s a natural instinct. As a mother herself, she “can’t imagine what it’d be like to have someone call me to say my child’s been shot.” Chief Lanier is known for meeting families at the hospital to comfort them and taking a ride in the ambulance with an injured officer. She asks “wouldn’t I want someone to ride with me if I’d just been injured on the street?”
Lanier’s approach to her job is solidly influenced by her upbringing. She credits her mom for “giving me a really good foundation.” The family was on and off welfare when she was growing up, and a rebellious, teenaged Cathy ended up pregnant and dropped out of school. Yet, even during her turbulent teen years, Chief Lanier says she carried with her the values her mother had instilled from a young age. Those values enabled her to succeed personally and professionally once she was mature enough to act on them.
When asked how she managed to create such success from her unlikely history, she says “It’s simple. Once it dawned on me that my son was completely dependent upon me for his welfare – to determine the rest of his life – I realized I had to get off my butt and work hard.” Work hard is what she did and continues to do today.
The Chief believes the most important thing we parents can do is teach our kids good values. Her advice to families: “Stay actively involved in your child’s life – especially when they’re young.” The priority needs to be keeping kids in school full time and making sure they’re doing the work. Chief Lanier knows the value of a good education – it’s what got her where she is today.
She acknowledges how hard it can be for families. “I know it’s not easy for single moms, some who are working two jobs, to find the time to make sure they keep bad things from happening.” She’s optimistic about the city’s future however, specifically because of these hard working moms – and grandmothers. These women are not only holding their own families together, they’re making a real difference in their communities.
The Chief feels it’s important for all of us – the public as well as government entities – to recognize how women can make a difference. “Sometimes families who are struggling have the most potential, once things turn around, to be the best, strongest parts of a community.” The worst thing we can do is to write them off. It only compounds the problem.
Chief Lanier works unbelievable hours at her job working to do what she can for these families. She believes in open, and what for her must be constant communication. Lanier has set up myriad communication channels within the Department and with the public. She walks the streets and gets to know families in the community. She gives out her personal cell phone number, reads and returns hundreds of email messages every day, finds time to tutor local kids, and actively supports the Washington DC Police Foundation.
On the perennial working mother question of balance, she’s clear “No question work gets the bulk of the balance, but the job won’t come before critical things my family needs me to take care of.” It was harder when her son was young. The hours she spent working or studying, was time spent away from her son. But in Lanier’s mind, it was the only way forward for her family. Even given her impressive professional accomplishments, she’s most proud of making sure her son got a good education and had the opportunity to go to college. “I worked hard for it.”
Now her family focus has shifted to her mother who needs more care as time goes by. Chief Lanier is happy to be able to take care of her mother – it’s a bit of a role reversal, or even pay-backs. As a teenager, Lanier argued when her mom told her what to do – now her mom gets to argue when it’s the Chief’s turn to “make suggestions.”
No matter what, Chief Lanier’s mom is her biggest fan. “We’ll be in the mall, and she’ll blurt out ‘You know she’s the Chief of Police?’ to complete strangers.” In spite of the embarrassment, it’s apparent Lanier is happy to be able to give that moment to her mother.
The Chief’s mom is a worrier and keeps close tabs on her daughter. Mrs. Lanier watches the news each afternoon switching through all the networks. Chief Lanier laughs and says “She’ll call to tell me she saw me – as if I didn’t know I was on the news.” It’s hard for her mother when she sees the public challenges her daughter faces.
While Lanier may find herself on the news more often than her mother would like, it just shows the Chief is as dedicated as ever to her job. Her primary focus for the past six years has been reducing violent crime – especially homicide. Between 2008 and 2011, the homicide rate in DC dropped 42 percent. This year, it’s projected to drop another twenty percent. Lanier gives credit where due, “It really was a team effort that I’m extremely proud of.”
Even after more than twenty years as a police officer, Chief Lanier can still find herself surprised by what goes on in the city. The violence most of us just hear about on the news, she witnesses first hand. When she experiences how callous and cruel people can be to complete strangers, she just doesn’t get it. “In society today, we should be beyond that.”
As the Chief continues her hard work for another five year term under Mayor Gray, she provides a strong example of how a woman, a mom can bring her strengths to bear in what is generally a male dominated profession. She’s tough, she’s not afraid to make decisions, and she has her detractors, but she never takes her eye off the ball. Her work is about family. Hers, theirs, and ours. That’s what moms do.
Cynda Zurfluh is a mother of three. Her previous life was a corporate blur of meetings and marketing. Her current life, while still a blur, is all about family, writing, and small business consulting. Contact her at [email protected].
The Washington DC Police Foundation supports efforts to protect vulnerable children and neighborhoods.
Mayor Fenty’s Press Release introducing Lanier as Chief of Police.
For some inspiring reading: Breaking the Brass Ceiling: Women Police Chiefs and Their Paths to the Top.