On the 34th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, thousands of anti-abortion activists converged on the nation's capital. Tension was in the air as passionate supporters and opponents of legalized abortion confronted one another. And on hand to keep the peace was Cathy Lanier, Washington D.C.'s new chief of police.
Lanier was chosen by D.C'.s new mayor, Adrian Fenty, and the protest was one of her first major details as the city's first permanent female chief. The 6-foot chief walked through the crowds, sizing up her fellow officers with authority and aplomb.
She was an interesting choice for this job. Her resume is impeccable. Lanier holds several graduate degrees, and has worked her way up the ladder from uniformed patrol officer to district commander to commander of major narcotics … then to vehicular homicide, special ops, and the city's Office of Homeland Security and Counter-Terrorism.
But not that long ago, the idea that this particular woman would be in charge of law enforcement for the nation's capital would have been something of a stretch.
In 1996, during an interview with a local ABC station, Lanier said, "I don't think I'm chief of police material. You need a lot of political savvy for that, and I've got a little too much street cop in me … I think."
Just ask Lanier's mom. When asked if she ever thought her daughter would become chief of police, her mom answered, "no …, not then, no.
"[But] I've always been proud of her," her mother continued, "even when she was in trouble."
"In trouble" is a reference to Lanier's teenage years. Raised by a single mom in the working class town of Tuxedo, Md., Lanier dropped out of school in the ninth grade to have a baby. At age 15, she married the father of her son, but that marriage ended within a few years. Lanier said that at that time in her life, becoming D.C.'s chief of police "wasn't in my line of thought."
Many women in such circumstances would find it impossible to escape, but not Lanier.
"Once my son was born, a lot of what I did was driven by a desire to make sure my son had everything," Lanier explained, "everything he should have … good education, good opportunities."
So Lanier got her high school equivalency diploma, and enrolled in community college and then the elite Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore .. All the while, her mother and grandmother helped care for her son.
Two things made a difference for her, Lanier said. "One is attitude: As long as you don't become a victim, you won't be a victim … and … good support. Everybody needs somebody who cares, who stands by them, and for me it was my mom."
Lanier's mom said her daughter was "very determined" and "does whatever she sets her sights to." Lanier's career is evidence of that commitment.
Lanier entered the police force as a beat cop in 1990, but even for someone with two older brothers -- one of whom is now a cop, the other a firefighter -- being a female cop was not always easy.
"It's probably not that much different than being a female in any predominantly male profession," she said. "You gotta be confident, and you gotta be a little thick-skinned and be prepared to take on some of the hard times."
The D.C. police force in the 1990s was, after all, raw. Lanier said she experienced "severe harassment, physical contact."