Public Safety & Justice

Cathy Lanier Changes Policing in D.C. and Maybe Nation

The police chief's rejection of zero-tolerance policing that’s driven urban crime fighting for a generation may change the future of public safety in America.
by | July 2012
 

It’s Saturday night, and Washington, D.C., Police Chief Cathy Lanier is in her cruiser, rolling through Barry Farm at 20 miles per hour. Barry Farm is a public housing development east of the Anacostia River that’s known for its high crime rate. But Lanier has the windows of her car down and she is waving cheerfully to a group of residents who’ve gathered for a roadside cookout.

Most big city police chiefs ride in unmarked cars or SUVs. Not Lanier. Her vehicle of choice is an ordinary police cruiser distinguished only by four stars stenciled below the front windows and a set of custom rims, a gift from a fellow officer. Still, residents seem to have no trouble recognizing her.

“What y’all cooking?” Lanier calls out to a group of people gathered just off Sumner Road.

“Hey, it’s the chief,” one of the men replies. “Would you like some fish?” a woman asks. “We got fish, baby.”

Chief Lanier waves a friendly no thanks from the front seat and rolls on.

For years, Washington had a reputation as the murder capital of the nation. In 1990, the year Cathy Lanier joined the department, D.C. experienced 474 murders -- a stunning figure for a city with a population of 578,000 residents. Only 40 percent of the killings were ever solved, a clearance rate far below the national average of 60 percent. As in most cities, a small number of neighborhoods accounted for most of the crime. In D.C., 60 percent of the city’s violence took place in Anacostia. Barry Farm was the epicenter.

“This used to be murder central,” Lanier says.

This particular Saturday evening marks the kickoff of “All Hands on Deck,” Lanier’s annual early summer effort to deploy her 4,500-member police force in high-crime areas across the city. But the goal isn’t to make arrests; it’s to make connections. As Lanier waves from her cruiser, she isn’t just being friendly -- though she is unfailingly that. She’s modeling how she wants her force to interact with the citizenry. It’s an approach that has made her the most popular public official in Washington and endeared her to residents across the city.

When Lanier steps out of the squad car a few blocks over, a family gathered in its backyard immediately recognizes her.

“That’s Chief Lanier!” someone shouts. Spotting Lanier isn’t hard. She’s the nearly 6-foot-tall, white, blond woman in uniform in the middle of a housing project that is almost 100 percent African-American. A woman hustles over, pushing a shy teenage boy in front of her.

“My nephew is visiting from Florida,” the woman says. “Can we get your photo?” Lanier poses for a photo and some chitchat before strolling back to her car. It happens everywhere, all evening long.

It wasn’t always this way. Five years ago, when then-Mayor Adrian Fenty unexpectedly selected her to lead the department, police in D.C. patrolled areas such as Barry Farm in a very different fashion. Instead of engaging community members, the force emphasized “zero tolerance” and “hot spot” policing. The inspiration came from New York City’s approach to fighting crime. The ideas were based on the “broken windows” theory of policing developed by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in the 1980s, which held that minor disorder left unattended can give rise to more serious crimes.

“We had always done the same thing” as New York, says Lanier. “Flood the neighborhood with a lot of cops, zero tolerance. If you’re outside drinking a beer on your front stoop, you got an open container, you’re going to jail.”

Beginning in the early 1990s, New York had reduced its violent crime rate by more than 80 percent. As a copycat, D.C.’s violent crime rate fell too, by more than 50 percent. But absolute levels of crime were still high, and an unfortunate fallout was building. Police tactics seemed to be turning high-crime neighborhoods against the cops. The way Lanier saw it, zero tolerance-hot spot policing wasn’t driving crime down; it was making it harder to solve crimes.

“When you’re doing zero-tolerance policing,” she says, “who are you picking up and who are you alienating? Your residents, your victims and your witnesses. Now they have no respect for the police. They have no reason to speak to the police.”

Lanier changed course. Instead of cracking down on minor disorder in high-crime neighborhoods, she encouraged patrol officers to develop sources. At the same time, the department embraced social media and encouraged a savvy population to engage with police in new ways.

Five years later, Lanier says the results vindicate her change of strategies. At the January meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors earlier this year, she presented her stats to an attentive audience of mayors: homicide, down 42 percent over the past three years; this year’s homicide clearance rate, above 90 percent; anonymous tips to the police, up sixfold.

Lanier dislikes the way police departments chase trends; she thinks specific problems demand customized solutions. Nevertheless, Lanier’s claims raise a provocative question: Is everything we know about effective policing wrong? At a time when crime reductions have stalled in most cities and resistance to tactics such as “stop-and-frisk” is rising, the idea that police departments can reduce crime by increasing cooperation with high-crime communities is an appealing proposition. Has Washington, D.C., developed a new, more effective form of community policing, or are Lanier’s achievements -- in the words of D.C. police union head Kris Baumann, an outspoken critic of the chief -- “all smoke and mirrors?” The future of American policing may well turn on the answer.

It’s fitting that Cathy Lanier should emerge as a critic of policing orthodoxy: No big city police chief has had a more unorthodox path to the top.

Lanier joined the D.C. police force in 1990. Her path to policing was a difficult one. Lanier grew up across the D.C.-Maryland border in Tuxedo, Md. When she was 14, she got pregnant. She married the child’s father and dropped out of high school. The marriage didn’t last, and a year later she was back at home -- a welfare mom with a baby boy. She earned a GED, worked as a waitress, sold awnings, sold make-up and hair products, and worked as a secretary. Then a boyfriend told her about a job opening at the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) that would provide tuition reimbursement for college.

“I knew that if I was going to be able to take care of my son, I needed some college education,” says Lanier. So she signed up to take the test, scored well and entered the academy. She was 21.

After six months in the academy, Lanier was assigned to walk the beat in Mount Pleasant, a mixed neighborhood of Central American immigrants and gentrifiers in Northwest Washington, D.C. The night before her first day on the job, a rookie patrolman shot and killed a Latino immigrant. Rumors spread that the killing had been an execution. The following day, her first on the job, a riot broke out. It took the police five days to restore order.

“I went to work for my first day, and I was at work for a week,” she says wryly.

Lanier took courses at the University of the District of Columbia during the day and walked the beat at night. Walking a beat is usually a feature of community policing, but in this case, Lanier says, the beat walking was “not because we believed in community policing. It was because we didn’t have [money] for cars.”

The district did have 16 community policing officers, paid for with federal money, but they were roundly disliked by the rank and file, including Lanier. “They got day work with weekends off, and they walked foot beats along the business corridors, right, so we hated those guys,” Lanier says. “We’re like, ‘This is the grin-and-wave squad. They don’t do no police work.’” By separating the 16 community policing officers from the 4,500 rank-and-file police, what the department was essentially saying to the rest of the police department was, Lanier says, “We don’t expect any of the rest of you to talk to the community. These 16 guys will do it for the city.”

Instead, the department was imbibing the lessons of New York: instituting CompStat, the computerized crime-mapping and tracking system developed by the New York Police Department in the early 1990s, and beginning to experiment with zero-tolerance policing. Although community policing was an annoying sideshow for beat officers like Lanier, even then she recognized that police-community relations in D.C. were bad. She remembers an incident that occurred in 1994 just a few days after she made sergeant. Lanier had stopped at a rush-hour traffic accident off Benning Road near the Maryland-D.C. border. Across the way, she spotted an older African-American woman, perhaps 80 years old, sitting by herself on her porch and gesturing toward the police officers at the scene. At first, Lanier thought she was waving. Then she realized the woman was doing something else: giving them the finger.

“They just hated us,” says Lanier of the residents in many of the neighborhoods she patrolled. “We would go places and people would throw stuff at us, and they’d curse at us -- it was awful.”

There was plenty to dislike. The culture of the MPD was, in Lanier’s words, “just bad from the top on down.” Drinking, misconduct and sexual harassment were common. After making sergeant, a superior officer harassed Lanier to such an extent that she decided to sue the department. She won and continued her rise through the ranks, making lieutenant in 1996. While working with the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton on a reorganization of the police department, she met Chicago Deputy Police Superintendent Charles Ramsey, who’d been called in as a consultant. The two hit it off, and when Ramsey became chief of the D.C. police in 1996, he tapped Lanier to lead the narcotics division, which was on the front lines of the city’s battle against crack cocaine. Ramsey moved her into command positions throughout the organization, pushing her to finish her bachelor’s degree and earn a master’s degree in the process. (She would eventually get two.)

As a commander, Lanier began to grapple with an issue that had troubled her since her earliest days on the force -- a significant portion of the population really disliked the police. She realized that the problem that had sparked the riots in Mount Pleasant on her first day on the job was not so much the shooting; it was the lack of information and connection with the community. That void was what allowed rumors to spread, ultimately sparking a riot. She created an advisory council to help build bridges. She also began to experiment with different types of deployments, drawing on her academic studies.

Her interest in innovating and her success with reaching out to residents soon caught the attention of an ambitious young councilman, Adrian Fenty. When Fenty became mayor in 2006, he surprised everyone by choosing Lanier to be chief.

At first, Lanier was worried about the prospect of an inexperienced, young, white woman leading the police force of a high-crime, majority-black city. But during her confirmation hearings, she was pleasantly surprised by the community support she commanded -- support that was strongest in the areas of the city that she had once worked as a beat officer. The experience confirmed a goal she and the mayor-elect had already formulated for the police department -- expanding beat patrols.

Lanier wasn’t afraid of tough tactics. In 2008, she cracked down on a gun-blazing gang war in the Trinidad neighborhood (a beef that occasioned 11 shootings and seven homicides in a single weekend) by essentially blockading the neighborhood and forcing everyone entering it to submit to police checkpoints. But she was also developing a style for interacting with the city’s residents in a very different way, one at odds with what she understood to be broken windows policing.

It is, without doubt, the most influential idea in the history of policing.

In 1982, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling published Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety in The Atlantic Monthly. The article’s central metaphor came from a famous experiment conducted in the late 1960s by Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo. Zimbardo had arranged to have two automobiles without license plates parked with their hoods up. One was on a street in the Bronx; the other on a street in Palo Alto, Calif. The car in the Bronx was attacked by “vandals” within 10 minutes of its “abandonment.” The car in Palo Alto sat untouched for a week -- until Zimbardo smashed part of it with a sledgehammer. Within a few hours, it too had been turned upside down and utterly destroyed. In both instances, the vandals were primarily well-dressed whites.

From such experiments and from fieldwork conducted by Kelling on the role of the beat patrol in Newark, the authors drew several striking conclusions. One was that police didn’t just make arrests; they engaged in order maintenance. The other was that untended problems such as broken windows send a signal that no one is in control and lead to the breakdown of community controls, increasing fear and inviting other more serious crimes.

Wilson and Kelling weren’t the first researchers to posit a link between disorder and crime. Two years earlier, Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer had written about how rampant graffiti sent the message that the New York subway was a world “of uncontrollable predators.” Meanwhile, New York City Deputy Mayor Herb Sturz had begun to urge police to restore order in Midtown Manhattan. Wilson and Kelling provided a philosophical underpinning for such thinking. In the mid-1980s, New York City Transit Authority President David Gunn announced a “zero tolerance” policy toward graffiti on subway cars. Cars that were “tagged” were immediately pulled and cleaned. As taggers began to realize that their artistic endeavors would be immediately effaced, the practice ebbed.

Kelling never saw broken windows as something synonymous with zero tolerance. “There are circumstances in which we would want to think about zero tolerance,” he says, “that is where we don’t allow certain behavior and take very strong actions against that behavior.” Graffiti on subway cars was one.

For him, zero tolerance was a tactic, suitable under certain limited circumstances for a very particular problem. Broken windows was a broader theory of disorder. “Broken windows has always been a negotiated sense of order in a community, in which you negotiate with residents about what is appropriate behavior in an area,” he says. “But if you tell your cops we are going to go in and practice zero tolerance for all minor crimes, you are inviting a mess of trouble.”

Much of the public, however, failed to make the distinction. When in 1989 the New York City transit police, led by a brash young chief named Bill Bratton, cracked down on farebeaters (many of whom turned out to be carrying handguns or were wanted on outstanding warrants) and embraced broken windows as the linchpin of his philosophy, the two concepts were further intermingled. Bratton’s crackdown as police commissioner on the so-called “squeegee men” who harassed motorists further strengthened the connection between broken windows and zero tolerance in the mind of the public. However, Bratton himself avoided the latter term.

“The only place we used the term ‘zero tolerance’ was in regard to police corruption,” says Bratton. For both Bratton and Kelling, the idea that police should not exercise discretion was absurd. Bratton wanted the most aggressive policing to be conducted not by regular patrol cops but by well trained, specialized units. In short, even the people credited with creating zero-tolerance policing rejected it as a panacea.

With 23 years of experience backing her up, Lanier knew she couldn’t instruct her officers to go out and do community policing. “I know what that is going to be: negative, negative, negative.” So instead, Lanier went to her patrol officers with a different directive: develop sources.

“And how do you develop sources?” she asks. “You get to know people. You treat people with respect. You establish relationships. You know who knows what, and you have to know everybody to get information.”

It was a big change. Previously, cultivating sources had been something detectives did. Designating someone as a “confidential informant” involved paperwork and payments. However, patrol officers walking the beat responded enthusiastically to the challenge. At the end of last year, 85 percent of all active informants originated with beat officers.

Lanier also embraced technology. She worked to get in-car computers and BlackBerrys to her officers. She made it clear that she expected them 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 also looked for new ways to connect the community to the police. One initiative was the creation of an anonymous text tip line, cleverly named “50 411” (“50” being slang for the police). In 2008, it received 292 tips. By the end of 2011, that number had jumped to 1,200.

“The type of tips we get in is just simply unbelievable,” Lanier says. “As soon as a shooting happens, or if there’s a beef that wells up in the schools and my school resource officers don’t already have it, we’re getting names, addresses, descriptions on cars, everything before the violence even starts.”

Jim Bunn, a retired African-American businessman who chairs the seventh district neighborhood advisory panel in Anacostia, agrees that the department has changed for the better. “I have seen the time when the lieutenant and the captain didn’t talk to you, much less the police chief,” Bunn says. In contrast, Lanier “is prepared to sit down anytime, anywhere and talk.”

That has spread into the department as a whole: “It doesn’t matter who you are now,” Bunn says. “If you are [a member of] the Metropolitan Police Department, it is drilled into your head every day that you are here to serve the community.” Out on the streets, Bunn sees fewer young African-American men “proned out” by police, more officers patrolling neighborhoods and more information sharing.

Departmental statistics seem to bear out the change. Rewards paid for information leading to arrests have jumped sharply, from roughly $200,000 a year when Lanier took office to more than $400,000 today. As the city’s homicide rate fell -- down 40 per-cent over the past three years -- the homicide clearance rate soared. In the process, Cathy Lanier’s approval ratings started hovering around 80 percent. When Councilman Vincent Gray defeated incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty in November 2010, he quickly announced that he was retaining Lanier as chief. Last month, she inked a new five-year contract that could pay her up to $250,000 a year, which would make her the fourth-highest paid police chief in the country.

Not everyone shares an enthusi- asm for Lanier. Kris Baumann, who heads D.C.’s police union, has clashed repeatedly with the chief. Asked about Lanier’s achievements, he notes that while homicides have fallen significantly over the past five years, between 2006 and 2010, other types of crime such as rape, robbery burglary and theft actually increased slightly. The claim that MPD ended zero-tolerance policing? He simply doesn’t see it.

“I work in the seventh district,” says Baumann. “We didn’t do zero tolerance. We didn’t have enough police officers to do zero tolerance. I don’t know where this is coming from.”

To Baumann, initiatives like All Hands on Deck capture the essence of Lanierism: public relations masquerading as policing strategy.

There’s at least some truth to Baumann’s charges. Washington, D.C., under Chief Lanier hasn’t experienced the broad crime declines of New York City or Los Angeles. The fact that the D.C. police department previously deployed zero tolerance in an indiscriminating form (if, indeed it deployed zero tolerance) speaks poorly of the department’s understanding of police strategy. But in writing off operations such as All Hands on Deck as mere P.R., Baumann is dismissing something important, something that Washingtonians, particularly in the highest-crime sections of the city, seem to crave. It’s a police department that cares for the communities it serves -- that cares and consoles them.

“She gives and she gets in return what she gives to others,” says Tijwanna Phillips, a community activist in Ward 8.

That’s what’s made Cathy Lanier a beloved public official in Washington, D.C., and community policing’s most compelling proponent.

*This article was updated on July 9, 2012. An earlier version stated that Barry Farm, a Washington, D.C., public housing development, had just one homicide in the past four years. Because of an editing error, that statistic was not updated as requested by the Metropolitan Police Department. In actuality, 10 homicides have been reported in Barry Farm since July 2008.

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