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.
On the street, circumstances were difficult too. As a rookie beat officer in the tough 4th District of northwest Washington, Lanier once was punched in the face by a heroin dealer during an arrest, she says. She laughs off the memory, noting that she grew up with two older brothers and knows how to take a punch.
Lanier turned down administrative assignments, such as overseeing youth programs or heading up communications units.
“That was a tendency when I came on, once management found out you could type 75 words per minute,” she recalled. “I didn’t want to sit at a desk. I loved being on the street.”
As she moved up through the ranks, she became head of the department’s special operations division and later its homeland security program.
She angered some when she took a tough stance on protesters at World Bank meetings, endorsing the practice of “hogtying” a detainee’s wrist and ankle together. After a lawsuit, the city apologized for police conduct during the protests and paid $425,000 in damages. “Times change and we learn from experiences,” she says now. “That was a tough time.”
In her new role, she must juggle protests, state funerals and inaugurations -- to say nothing of a full component of homicides and other crimes -- in managing her 3,800-member force.
“She handles complexity well. She has balanced being a single mom with her work and getting a master’s in a competitive program,” said former Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer, now the U.S. Senate’s sergeant at arms. Chuckling, he added, “She ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Lanier, who is 6 feet tall, begins her day with a 45-minute routine in her home gym and then walks her five Australian shepherds: Justice, Outlaw, Misfit, Stevie Wonder and Special Ed.
Her fiance, Sgt. James Schaefer, is an accident reconstructionist for the department.
The couple own a home on 6 acres in suburban Maryland and are now house-hunting in the city -- where she is required to live as one of the city’s top officials.
Lanier said she hoped to “move the department into a more progressive style of policing, more of a team approach.” She has called for sending “precision patrol teams” in cars and on foot into troubled areas. And she has talked about engaging “every member of this organization” to solve problems.
That is music to the ears of the city’s rank and file.
“Management is so top-heavy and such a bureaucracy that nothing can be done,” said Kristopher Baumann, head of the Fraternal Order of Police union. Morale is so bad, he said, that “we’re losing 20 to 30 officers every month.”
Baumann said of his early meetings with Lanier, “I’ve been extremely impressed. She’s walking into a daunting situation.”
If she’s daunted, Lanier isn’t showing it.
“This is a great opportunity,” she said. “I get a chance to come in and make a great difference, to show that women are every bit as good.”
And, she added, she can finally do something about those ill-fitting police uniforms.
“I’ve been wearing these uniforms for 16 years, and they do not fit women,” she said. “For years I’ve been trying to get them to do something about it. Now I can.”
Times staff writer Walter F. Roche Jr. contributed to this report.