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A teen mom, dropout turned D.C. police chief

Cathy Lanier's rough beginnings have drawn wide notice. She hopes her story will help girls facing similar troubles.

January 07, 2007|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — She grew up in a single-parent home in the working-class suburb of Tuxedo, Md. She got pregnant at age 14, dropped out of high school, and at 15 married the father. By 18 she was divorced and working two jobs -- secretary by day, waitress at night.

Now 39, Cathy L. Lanier began her new job last week as acting police chief of Washington, one of a handful of women to head large-city departments in the U.S. and one of only a few white officers to lead forces in largely black cities. She is awaiting confirmation from the City Council.

But what's drawing notice -- officials say they've received 250 media interview requests -- is that as far as anybody knows, Lanier is the first onetime teenage mom and high school dropout to lead a major city police department.

"I'm really quite surprised by all the attention," Lanier said in a 7 a.m. interview, squeezed in after her 3:30 a.m. exercise regime and before her first command meeting of the day. "It's been a little tough."

Lanier's appointment was a bombshell from Washington's new mayor, Adrian Fenty, a 36-year-old African American with a devotion to jogging -- his parents run a well-known running store in the district -- and to his BlackBerry.

He offered the post to Lanier, a 16-year career officer, three days after he was elected, consulting only his city administrator -- and ruffling a few feathers in the process. Many senior officers were passed over, and some threatened to leave.

Fenty said he was looking for new ideas and youthful energy. A councilman since 2001, he had had the opportunity to watch Lanier in action as head of special operations and later as head of homeland security.

After considering his offer for two days, Lanier called the mayor-elect to accept. "I do have my running shoes and my BlackBerry ready, sir," she said.

Lanier said she had sworn off doing interviews about her personal life. "I don't want to turn into 'The Jerry Springer Show,' " she said. But she agreed to share her story on the chance it could inspire other teenage girls who get derailed from their life's dream.

Almost half of all teenage mothers in the U.S. apply for welfare benefits within five years of their child's birth, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a nonprofit group. Asked how she avoided doing so, Lanier said she didn't realize at the time that her future could be at risk. She was just a normal kid, she said, too dumb to think about consequences.

"The good part and bad part about being a teenager is you're stupid," Lanier said. "I realized after I dropped out of school and got married that things were different. I didn't go to proms, high school games. But I never thought of it that way before."

Lanier also had family support: After she separated from her husband, Lanier moved in with her mother and grandmother. She worked various jobs -- selling awnings and canopies and construction supplies -- while earning her high school equivalency diploma. Her grandmother, retired from the Government Printing Office, cared for Lanier's son.

At age 23, Lanier enrolled in the Police Academy. It wasn't a completely surprising choice -- she comes from a long line of police officers and firefighters. Plus, she said, it was "a great job" and offered tuition reimbursement, allowing her to nurture her passion for school.

"Nobody in my family had the money to go to college," said Lanier, who worked two jobs in part to afford Catholic schooling for her son. He's now 24 and a college graduate.

While working as a beat officer, Lanier earned two bachelor's and two master's degrees, one through the national security studies program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

Public safety is practically a Lanier family business. Her father, Walter Sr., was a deputy fire chief for Prince George's County, Md. Her brother Walt Jr. is now a captain in the same department. Her brother Michael is a police detective in Greenbelt, Md. Her uncle was a battalion chief.

"She never planned to be chief of police; that wasn't her goal," said Michael Lanier. But his sister has always reached for bigger things, he said. "Good is never good enough for her. One degree is not enough. She applied for a PhD program before they announced her position."

Lanier, one of the first female officers on the force, says she was sexually harassed early in her career. One officer exposed himself while they were driving around in a patrol car. A lieutenant pulled her ponytail, turned to a male colleague and asked, "Bill, have you ever grabbed a woman's hair like that when you're having sex?"

Lanier and another female officer filed a harassment complaint against the lieutenant, who was eventually demoted.

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