She's the Chief

Jan. 29, 2007 — -- 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.

'I Don't Think I'm Chief of Police Material'

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."

A Change of Course

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.

'You Gotta Be a Little Thick-Skinned'

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."

"It was done very out in the open," she continued. "I hate to say I was fortunate, but most sexual harassment goes on behind closed doors, but the culture of the department at the time was that it wasn't even hidden. It was done out in the open. And there were a lot of witnesses."

But the force did not seriously attack the problem, so in 1995 Lanier and another female officer sued the D.C. metropolitan police department, and won.

"I quickly became afraid for my job," she said, "because I was still working in the same district with the same lieutenant, and I got an attorney and filed a suit."

. Ironically, Lanier is now in charge of that department, but she said, "It's not the same department. It was a very different department back then."

Not that anyone would confuse today's metropolitan police department with the National Organization for Women.

"There's always small factions of people in the police department that still don't think this is something women should be doing," Lanier conceded.

Asked about the comment she made to the ABC station almost 10 years ago about not having the political savvy for the police chief's job, Lanier said, "That was a pretty goofy thing to say."

Life Outside the Force

Having worked her way through the ranks and built a reputation for a tireless work ethic, Lanier, by 2005, was in charge of security for President Bush's second inauguration.

Despite the responsibilities that go with being in charge of the capital's police force, Lanier has managed to have something of a personal life. She has a boyfriend, and said he doesn't find it intimidating to date the chief of police.

"I think he's pretty comfortable with it," she said, adding that "he doesn't have much of a choice."

Lanier gets up at 3:30 a.m. each day to work out. "I've got the dogs to take care of," she said. "I make sure my mom's taken care of before I leave."

The dogs -- there are five of them -- are strays she's picked up throughout her life, "because they're defenseless." Three of them are disabled. "Stevie No Eyes" is blind, "Special Ed" is blind and deaf, "Misfit" has seizures.

"I don't think there's any room for throwaway people or animals," she explained.

That's a feeling, she said, that she has kept with her. Having been a teenage single mother gives her a perspective on some of the problems in this city that another chief might not have

"I guess I just feel like everybody and everything deserves a chance," she said.

Lanier shows off an old police recruiting poster that reads "For Men Only: A Job For Men If You Can Qualify." "Isn't that something?" she said.

Lanier Looks after a mom, a son, five dogs and the safety and security of the residents of the nation's capital -- it's tough to think of very many people, male or female, who would qualify for all those challenges.