Standing Up

02.28.15 4:28 PM ET

DC Police Chief Stands Up To Congress Over Pot

After the District passed a referendum legalizing weed, Police Chief Cathy Lanier was faced with upholding the law in the face of Congressional opposition.

Congress threatening city officials with arrest if they implement a lawfully passed citizen initiative to legalize marijuana is “a little bit of a problem for a police chief,” observed DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier with a wry laugh. She had spent the afternoon doing what she called “breaking news press conferences,” standing stoically beside District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser as DC officials held their ground to defy the GOP Congress’ attempt to override the will of the people. 

Nearly six feet tall and in a police uniform with her gun holstered, Lanier conveys a don’t-mess-with-DC attitude as she jauntily dismisses the dual challenge of enforcing the District’s new marijuana law while holding Republican lawmakers at bay. “No big deal,” she tells a small group of mostly women at the American News Women’s Club Wednesday evening, just hours before the law was scheduled to go into effect at 12:01 Thursday.

The District already de-criminalized possession of an ounce or less of marijuana last summer, she explained, which meant violators incur a civil fine of just $25, a third of the $75 imposed for littering.. The new law permits two ounces, and allows residents to grow up to six marijuana plants in the privacy of their home. “It’s a small change,” she said. “We’ve embraced it.” 

Her enthusiasm seemed a little forced, so she explained that for all the fuss about marijuana, alcohol is the greater threat to public safety and to her police officers. “Marijuana smokers are not going to attack and kill a cop,” she said. “They just want to get a bag of chips and relax. Alcohol is a much bigger problem.” Still, it’s not healthy, she said, speaking as a former smoker, and leaving it up to listeners’ imagination whether she meant tobacco or marijuana. “But I’m not policing the city as a mom, I’m policing it as the police chief—and 70 percent of the public supported this.”

The push to pass Initiative 71 didn’t come from the African-American community, she said, it came from Georgetown and the more elite parts of DC. Parents in the poorer and blacker wards of 7 and 8 tell her they don’t want their kids walking to school through a fog of marijuana smoke; they know the city wouldn’t tolerate that in Georgetown. “The African-American community is not the ones that fought for this,” she says. 

The police hate marijuana possession arrests, Lanier said, they’d just as soon dump the stuff down the sewer than handle all the paperwork and the court appearance, knowing it won’t stop anyone from smoking marijuana. “All those arrests do is make people hate us,” she said. After last year’s relaxing of the law, marijuana arrests are way down, and according to a study by The Washington Times, 70 percent of those slapped with the $25 fine for public smoking or possession ignore the citation. 

Lanier doesn’t hide her amazement that it’s far more expensive to litter than to get caught with an illegal amount of marijuana. “I can’t afford to make jokes about it, but in 24 years of policing, it’s a little bit of a shift,” she said.

Lanier joined the police force in 1990 when the District of Columbia was known as the murder capital of the U.S. Women were not very present in policing, she says. Corruption, sexual harassment, alcoholism were all prevalent. “It wasn’t a few bad apples, we had a bad barrel,” she said. “The whole system was bad.” A hard worker and fearless, Lanier was named Cop of the Year five years in a row, and quickly rose through the ranks. In her eight years as chief, serving with three very different mayors, the city’s murder rate has come down substantially.

“Women do certain things very different from men,” she said, talking about her efforts to change policing in the city, and to make more compassion and empathy part of the job. At the scene of a homicide, Lanier will hang around outside the police tape, talking to people and giving out her cell phone number. She is against the so-called “broken windows” style of policing because it arrests too many people on minor infractions of the law, poisoning a community’s relationship with the police while major crimes of unlawful entry and carjacking go unchallenged.

After events in Ferguson put police tactics in the spotlight, Lanier joined a protest march led by the Reverend Al Sharpton. Her staff shadowed her as she walked through the crowd, worried for her safety. “People were hugging me,” she said. “I had no worries at all that I was going to get heckled or beaten up.”

Lanier grew up in neighboring Prince Georges County, Maryland with a mostly single mother in a household with not much money. Pregnant at age 14, she dropped out of school after ninth grade, struggling to raise her son, get an education and find her way.  She has two older brothers, one a cop, the other a fire fighter.  Empathy for the community she serves grows out of her own experience, and the history preceding her. She points out that the first woman allowed to ride along in a DC patrol car did so in 1972. “I was born in 1967, and to be named chief in my lifetime is a pretty amazing thing.”