In 2007, Cathy Lanier became the first woman to be appointed chief of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) of the District of Columbia. And as Vincent Gray, mayor of the District of Columbia from 2011 to 2015, told CNN in 2013, Lanier’s early life experiences “really helped her grow into a mature leader.”
Lanier grew up in a solo-parent household in the working-class suburb of Tuxedo, Maryland. Raised by her mother, Helen, Lanier was 14 years old when she became pregnant herself. Helen was matter of fact when it came to her daughter’s decision as to whether to pursue an abortion or keep the baby. More magazine reported in a June 2009 article that Helen sat her daughter down and told her, “This decision is going to affect you for the rest of your life. You’re the only one who can make it.” Lanier said, “To this day I couldn’t tell you what my mom’s preference was . . . [H]er response, in my opinion, was the best a parent could do.”
Lanier decided to have her child, a son, whom she named Tony. She married the father and dropped out of school; for a time, she was on food stamps. Always, she worked hard, holding various jobs—selling awnings, waitressing, and performing clerical work—while earning her high school equivalency diploma and then pursuing classes at the community college. As she told Washington Family in 2000, “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.”
By the time she was 18, Lanier was divorced and working two jobs to support her son and put him through Catholic school. Education was of primary importance, both for Tony and for herself: “I was a single mom working as a secretary and taking courses at the community college,” she told Politico magazine in July 2015. “I answered an ad for the MPD in part because they paid for college courses.” Lanier got the job, passed the training academy, and discovered she loved police work.
While rising through the ranks at the police department, from patrol officer to district commander to chief, she earned undergraduate and master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins University, and a master’s degree in national security studies from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Tony is also a college graduate, and as Lanier described him to More magazine, “He’s laid-back. A very smart kid.”
Known for her down-to-earth demeanor, Lanier doesn’t travel with an entourage at work, and she has a habit of hugging. She’s remained chief through several mayoral changes of the guard, even though police chiefs generally change when the mayor does. In fact, Lanier is so well liked, best-selling thriller writer David Baldacci created a character based on her for his novel True Blue (2009, Grand Central Publishing). Lanier’s warm demeanor is also evident in her Chief’s Letter for the MPD website.
Lanier retired in September 2016. Throughout it all, Lanier’s family is a constant. When she was sworn in as chief in 2007, she thanked her mother and her son, who both attended the ceremony. Lanier’s appreciation was clear: as she joked to Helen from the stage, “You were the one person who never gave up on me or were embarrassed or ashamed of me, even when maybe you should have been.”
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