An Interview with MPD Chief Cathy Lanier: Fighting Homicides in the District

Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier says things are turning around in the District.

Homicides, which numbered 479 when she joined the department in 1990, are on track for the lowest total since 1963.

Lanier credits the department’s strict enforcement of the city’s gun regulations and greater cooperation with communities affected by violence. She said the department received about 1,830 tips this year compared to just 292 in 2008, when the anonymous tip line first opened. Reward money paid for information about crimes has surged from about $200,000 per year in 2007 to more than $500,000 in 2012, Lanier said.

In an interview with Homicide Watch in her office at MPD headquarters, she said officers were making it harder for residents to carry illegal guns. That’s making it more likely that fights don’t end in fatalities, she said.

For video of the conversation, see our post: Lanier: “It’s not victory. But it feels like a good milestone for us.”

Homicide Watch: Can you talk about what strategies the department is using to get the homicide rate down?

Lanier: The focus on illegal guns has been huge. The gang intelligence unit, up through 2008 what drove most of our violent crimes, shootings and homicides was gangs. I’m sure you remember we would have spikes over a weekend where we would have 11 or 12 shootings and 7 or 8 homicides in a weekend, if you think back to Trinidad. It was really very specifically focused on gangs and retaliation, so we really had to put a lot of effort into that… We haven’t seen since 2008 those multiple shootings going back and forth in retaliation like that, because the gang intelligence unit, as soon as the shot’s fired in a neighborhood they know which validated gang members are beefing with who and they know what areas are in conflict at the time and most often they’re proactive enough to mediate before the violence starts… We diverted a lot of our budget in 2007 to technology, and bringing that technology to make us more efficient and to make the criminals less successful has been tremendous.

Homicide Watch: What does it mean to you to have the number so low and what do you think it means to people who are affected by these crimes?

Lanier: Eighty-two murders is still a lot of murders. When I think about the number, one from where I started from in 1990 when we had 479, it seems dramatic. I’ve been pushing, I’ve said since ’07 our tipping point is less than 100 and we can do it. But I still think about 82 families who’ve lost somebody. So it’s certainly not victory, but it feels like a good milestone for us… In 2008 we had 20 victims of homicide that were under the age of 18. This year there’s been three. So there are some important numbers inside of that number that mean a lot to me.

Homicide Watch: What were some of the most memorable crime scenes you were at this year?

Lanier: Well the most memorable this year was just a couple of weeks ago. A young mother, 19 years old, holding a toddler, her baby, in her arms, and the toddler she’s holding is holding a baby doll on a Metro bus. And having the father of the child open fire almost at point-blank range and shooting to kill the mother while she’s holding the baby – horrible, horrible crime scene… The suspect in that case later committed suicide, but that child for the rest of her life witnessed the murder of her mother by her father and will be permanently disfigured. How do you forget something like that?

Homicide Watch: What are you seeing in terms of gang related homicides this year?

Lanier: I think gang activity is down significantly… I don’t believe in just tagging neighborhoods and people in neighborhoods as gangs, like we used to do a few years ago. I believe that there should be a real validation process to validate whether somebody truly is a gang member or not, not just based on one or two criteria but a whole host of criteria… Five years ago I’d tell you we probably had a good 70 validated gangs around the city where you had five or more validated gang members. The number of gangs that are active I’d say of concern for us – and theres some slight variations too in there – is significantly less. Maybe 10 across the city that I think still pose a threat to violent crime. There’s also been a shift in the type of activity that gang members are engaging in. A lot less gun crimes, a lot less violence against each other, and just more criminal activity. The more criminal activity’s not good, but the less violence is. So we’re seeing less of the gang members carrying firearms, which means when there is a tension between gangs we see fights and maybe some stabbings, but a lot less shooting. So the lethality of those… is not where we want to be, but it’s a significant milestone. Again, it’s better than the shootouts.

Homicide Watch: What are some of the criteria to identify whether someone is in a gang?

Lanier: Well, gang members first and foremost, they have to be involved in some kind of criminal enterprise. So there’s got to be crime. You can wear colors and have your name of your gang tattooed to your face but if you’re not committing crime you’re not in a gang… What I hear from the parents of those gang members is that it starts with a marked shift in friends that they hang out with, a marked shift in behavior and secrecy and patterns of what your child normally does. Often times there is clothing that they identify by, whether it be colors or names, and tattoos are also – not all gang members have tattoos, but a lot of them do. So I think those are the things that most parents while paying attention are the things they pick up on right off the bat. One other thing I would add, because I’m hoping there are family members and parents who will see this, if your kids are coming home with expensive clothing and shoes and electronics that you’re not sure how they’re getting the money for those things, that’s another sign that you should be checking into what they’re up to.

Homicide Watch: We noticed that no teens between the ages of 13 and 17 were killed in homicides this year. Why do you think that is?

Lanier: We’ve put an awful lot of effort and an awful lot of focus on keeping our kids under the age of 18 out of trouble and certainly out of harm’s way… Over the summer, we have a lot of support from the D.C. Police Foundation. We go to them and say there’s a lot of programs, positive programs, that we would like to focus on over the summer. That’s when kids are most vulnerable, because they’re out of school, you know they’re out later in the evenings, so that’s when they’re most vulnerable. So over the summer, we engage about 6,000 kids and through the D.C. Police Foundation we have very positive mentoring programs.

Homicide Watch: What are some specific ways that you work against illegal guns?

Lanier: We’ve done two major operations in the past three years and both of the operations lasted almost a year, one a little over a year, where we did a yearlong investigation with multiple undercover officers that went out there and posed as people who were looking to buy illegal firearms, and we were able to confiscate over 100 firearms in each operation. But the key to those operations is we got the source. We went for the source. We didn’t just stop for the guy that was making the sale; we went for the source of those guns. And I think that has sent a tremendous message to people who are willing to bring guns here and sell them, is that you never know when you are dealing with a police officer. All of those people that we arrested in those cases are looking at serious federal crimes for selling firearms here in the District.

Homicide Watch: Are there any factors when you try to reduce homicides that are beyond your control as a police officer?

Lanier: Well, for many many years I’ve heard police officers make excuses. More often than not I’ve heard police officers say, “Well, we can’t stop homicides.” I’m adamant that we’re not going to have that mentality. To answer your question, my gut instinct is no, there’s nothing that is beyond our control. People say, “Well, you know, if a homicide occurs in a domestic violence incident beyond closed doors in somebody’s home, how can you stop that?” I’m not saying I can stop every one. But I’d be willing to bet in that domestic violence homicide, that there were several interventions with the police prior to that homicide. We’ve been to that residence before, we’ve had contact with that victim before, we know that that suspect has exhibited violence before. Did we do everything we could do to try and prevent it from getting to that point? … I want my police officers to always have a mentality that we can prevent homicides, so I don’t make excuses for any of them.

Homicide Watch: Why does the problem of homicides disproportionately affect younger, African-American men in the District? What are your thoughts why that is?

Lanier: You know, I wish I knew. I think when you talk about the biggest impact you have to look at the density of violent crimes are going to be in your urban areas, your densely populated areas. I think lack of solid families regardless of what your race, puts families at risk for violence. So whether it’s victim or suspect, I think the loss of family structure, period, has been part of the problem. It’s just more pronounced in major cities because of the density of the population. So disproportionately the race that’s impacted is African-American, but its not like the same thing doesn’t happen in rural areas in white families where the family structure isn’t there either. Its just there’s not as dense a population so the numbers aren’t as great. But really, I think really it goes back to just the breakdown of the family structure and having that solid family there to try to give young men, period, some direction. There’s something to be said – I was raised by a single parent – God gives us two parents for a reason. Maternal and paternal instincts are very different, and I think the loss of one of those two makes a challenge.

Homicide Watch: What are your key goals for next year?

Lanier: I’m pretty happy with the drop in the number of juveniles, both victims and suspects in homicides. I’d like to see that zero. In 2008, the total was 36 people under the age of 18 involved either as a suspect or victim and this year it’s nine. So, big drop, but it should be zero. That’s a biggie. And I keep thinking back to what happened in Connecticut [at Sandy Hook Elementary School]. Our number one priority really has to be the kids, period. Lets make sure the kids are safe; then we go from there… Washington, D.C. is a world class city and a city that I am so proud to live in and be a police officer in; it always hasn’t been that way. I think the whole world needs to recognize that this is world class city and it is one of the safest cities in America and I want to make sure that we keep it that way and people start to recognize that. So these petty street robberies and the willingness of a group of people to assault somebody or beat somebody up to take their phone or to pull a knife or gun on somebody to take property, that’s the next big challenge.

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