It makes perfect sense that arguably the first member of the law-enforcement community to implement any serious maneuvers to offset the spike in violent crime on the streets of this beleaguered country is a woman. Cathy Lanier, age 40, is Chief of the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia. She dropped out of ninth grade to have a baby, worked two jobs and got her GED, joined the department at 23 and has since held command of Major Narcotics, Vehicular Homicide, the Special Operations Division, the (incredibly shady-sounding) Special Threat Action Team and the Office of Homeland Security and Counter-Terrorism—all while earning a BA and MA at Johns Hopkins and a second Master’s from the Naval Postgraduate School.
Yeah. She’s a serious figure, with serious problems. Her 3,800 officers—of whom 25% are also female—are now pressed for a response to an already hot, bloody summer in Washington DC. It’s hard to tell from all the hype, but homicides are actually on pace to decline from 2007’s total of 181. The district made incremental gains over the years; homicide totals have been under 200 per annum since ’04, after holding in the mid-200s from 1998-2003. Not even the most cynical observers expect anything like a return to the early-‘90s, when 400-500 people were killed there yearly.
After seven people were shot dead a few weekends ago, Lanier and DC mayor Adrian Fenty announced a plan for “Neighborhood Safety Zones,” where police would restrict access to certain areas on a supposedly limited basis. Of course, they know no limits in Washington, so the project has been tarred with brushes labeled “racial profiling” and “martial law.” Local pols, who misappropriate police resources with one hand while begging for more with the other, should scrutinize it themselves, since they will be adapting the policy to our city soon enough.
There are obvious and substantive questions worth asking, in terms ranging from the individual to the collective. The project will certainly inconvenience some residents, though hardly any more than twice-weekly funeral processions, and many will feel more threatened by the police than by the criminals. It is unclear how any police force could do such things under their current (i.e. shrinking) budgets without revising their mandates—which they would do if the civilian pols allowed them to. The potential for abuses is hard to discredit, as well. Lanier’s critics at the ACLU, the NAACP and other organizations that once mattered, make more useful points than their gangsta mascots can count. One might even be sympathetic if their childish infatuation with the criminal class didn’t put them in direct conflict with their clients’ many victims.
The worst-case scenario, unfortunately, is probably unavoidable: a major shoot-out between police and criminals that leaves people on all sides dead and civilians caught in between. We all hope nothing like that ever happens, but it’s been common in places like Italy, Mexico and Colombia for 30 years. Domestic cases have been so far limited to small groups of individuals who engage the cops only as a means to escape, and who rarely do so with the kind of deliberation they might apply to planning their crimes. It is the lingering nightmare in the heart of many cops: the moment when they cease to be mere obstacles to their adversaries and become the primary target. The public reaction would be volcanic, and careers would be ruined.
Lanier’s initiative (defined however you like) presents a difficult set of choices for law-enforcement officers and the politicians, led by Fenty, who must try to maintain at least the appearance of oversight. Fenty, 37, is a rising young star of the Democratic Party who could become a national name if he is able to escape his current job without heavy scandal. His first year in office included a battle with federal courts over revisions to the district’s gun laws and a fire chief who was trading lucrative overtime assignments for sexual favors from his male underlings—allegedly. Fenty chose Lanier for police chief, and if all goes well she will succeed him. But if the crime thing gets out of their control, a factional split could occur. They aren’t like our local Johns, Peyton and Rutherford, whose public personas are equally powerless and thus equally secure. It is far too rare that we are presented with opportunities to look at the policies coming out of our nation’s capital with anything other than flat contempt or, increasingly, fear. Cathy Lanier has stepped up on behalf of the common people, and put her own ass on the line in what may be an ill-fated effort to save some lives. Let’s give her some credit now, while she’s still around!
June 10, 2008
Update: The debut of “Neighborhood Safety Zones” in Washington DC had results that can be interpreted in multiple ways. There was no serious violence in the Trinidad neighborhood where Cathy Lanier’s crew had posted up. There were eight people shot in adjacent areas, which opponents of the project can attribute to crime being pushed out of one region into another. However, on the crucial point Lanier can claim success: no one died there. That might count, in some metric or another.