MPD Chief Cathy Lanier: Homicide Prevention Is Every Agency’s Responsibility

MPD Chief Cathy Lanier speaks to Homicide Watch DC on Dec. 9, 2014.

MPD Chief Cathy Lanier speaks to Homicide Watch DC on Dec. 9, 2014.

Five children were killed in the District this year. Three were infants. One, Xavier Lyles, was a toddler. Jonathon Adams was 17 when he was stabbed to death. All died inside of a home or apartment building.

That’s a challenge for police, but it speaks volumes for everybody else,” Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said. “The home is where you’re supposed to be safe, especially if you’re a child.”

In an interview with Homicide Watch in her office at MPD headquarters, Lanier said that communication between partnering agencies is an increasingly vital tactic in preventing homicide.

I would like the city to have every single agency in D.C. government have one of their performance measures be homicide prevention,” the police chief said. “Every single one. Everybody can do something.”

Lanier spoke to reporters Imari Williams and Amelia Rufer on December 9. The full interview, with video, is below:

Homicide Watch: What’s the most memorable homicide of 2014?

Lanier: You know all of them have different things that make them stand out.

For police officers that respond to them, there’s something about every one of them that stands out but typically the ones for me that stand out are the kids. The younger the kids, the more it stands out and I would say probably Xavier Lyles this year.

Three years old, big chubby cheeks, big smile, happy. A little kid killed in his own home. A place where the kids are supposed to be safe, so that’s probably the big one for me this year.

Homicide Watch: What were the most successful tactics this year for reducing the rate of homicide?

Lanier: The tactics change not only year to year, but sometimes within the year, and they all kind of rely on the same thing in order to be successful, and that is constant information sharing, not just here inside the police department but with the community and with other agencies.

We see a lot of homicides that are families in crisis, so domestic violence and babies and children. So that requires this constant communication with all of those agencies that interact with families to make sure that we’re communicating if we believe there are families at risk and that they’re communicating with us.

So really that information sharing, same thing with persons who are in mental health crises. Typically, they have been in contact with the police or with the system somewhere, so making sure that there’s constant communication inside the agency and outside the agency.

It’s relentless. You can never give up, never stop. It shifts sometimes from year to year and through the course of the year.

This year we’ve had a lot of domestic violence cases so trying to reach out to all of our external partners has been huge. The child cases played a big role in domestic violence this year and working with our advocates.

We have fantastic advocates that will do lethality assessments and try and encourage victims of domestic violence to seek help and get out before it becomes lethal. So that’s been really helpful to us. The strategies change but the priority is always the same, communication. Just relentless communication.

Homicide Watch: Getting under 100 homicides a year was a department goal for a long time. In the last few years, the District has hovered around that number each year. What will it take to drive the homicide rate down further?

Lanier: Well we got below [100], we hit 88 in 2012. So I’ve been saying it for eight years and it took the first little over five to hit 88 in 2012.

We had the Washington Navy Yard in 2013, which was a mass shooting — there were 12 murders in that one single day.

Right now, we’re still under 100 and we’re going into the second week in December. I would love to say we think we’ll be under 100 this year, I hope we are. But I was hoping that each year it’d be lower and lower and lower, so I was hoping 2013 would be less than 88 and 2014 would be less than whatever that number was in 2013.

So while I’m happy that we’re still way lower than we have been, I’m not happy that it’s not lower every single year, so that’s the goal now I have to push.

I think we are really reliant now on some of those partner agencies to be more and more involved.

You have the vast majority of the homicides this year occurring inside of homes or inside of a house. All of the juvenile cases, every person under the age of 18 that was murdered this year, was murdered inside of a home.

That’s a challenge for police, but it speaks volumes for everybody else. The home is where you’re supposed to be safe, especially if you’re a child.

I think [that’s] what it’s really going to take now to keep driving this number lower is — because we do a good job on arresting people responsible for homicides, so it’s not like you have the same people committing multiple murders anymore. But now what it’s going to take police is focus.

The community is focused on helping us get those people off the streets when homicides have occurred.

For all the other partners who may not necessarily think their primary goal is homicide prevention, it’s homicide prevention. So you know, family services, health and human services, mental health, I need all of those people to all think that one of their primary performance measures is homicide prevention.

Homicide Watch: D.C. will have a new mayor next year. What advice do you have for Mayor Bowser, and what would you like to see the city do to reduce violent crime?

Lanier: She’s been around a while, she’s not new kid on the block. She’s going to be new mayor on the block but she’s been around as a council member for a long time, and my sense is she’s not going to need a whole lot of advice when it comes to policing and what to do for public safety because she’s always been very involved in that.

I think, do what she has been doing. She’s been very supportive of public safety. She’s very engaged and involved.

When Jaydan Stancil was shot in Northeast several months ago, she was at the service they had in the community thanking the police officers. She comes to recruit graduations.

So I think she knows what the priorities are, and she’s committed to reducing what violence is left out there. So I’m not going to presume to be so presumptuous to give the mayor advice.

I would like the city to have every single agency in D.C. government have one of their performance measures be homicide prevention. Every single one. Everybody can do something.

Homicide Watch: According to Pros Office Spokesman Bill Miller, case in which witnesses and victims are harmed for their assistance with law enforcement is extremely rare. When they are injured or killed because of their cooperation, what went wrong in whatever protection was offered?

Lanier: We do track that as a motive. It is extremely rare that we see that these days compared to years ago.

The important thing I’d say about that is: We never have witnesses that are killed … I mean we offer witness protection, and we offer some means to protect people, and if they take that protection and follow the rules, they’re never killed.

I say that knowing that it’s not easy to relocate from where you’re from. It’s not easy to stay away if you have family or friends in the area.

But making a decision as to whether you’re going to help take a murderer off the street is not a decision to be taken lightly. I get that, I mean I do get that.

And I think about, I remember hearing a speaker that was talking about things that happened during the course of the uptick to the Holocaust, and his point in reciting some portions of someone else’s writings was, you know, I remember they came for these folks and I didn’t say anything and then eventually they came for me.

I think about that all the time. It’s a tough decision. But if you can stop somebody else from being murdered, and you can do it and be safe, it’s what we want people to do.

Sooner or later, people who are committing murders in our community, there is a likelihood of them committing another one, and whose child is next and whose child is next and whose child is next? That’s what I try and think in the back of my mind. But I do realize that it’s not easy.

Homicide Watch: Approximately how often are witnesses harmed?

Lanier: I can think of maybe five or six since I’ve been the chief, and that’s in eight years, maybe five that were killed after testifying. I can’t think of any that were in witness protection and compliant with not coming back to the area.

I’m not going to talk about specific cases, but here’s your other dilemma as a witness: If you are a witness, and you don’t cooperate and don’t help take that person off the street, they may assume you are a witness and are cooperating.

And we have seen cases — I can think of two or three cases right now — where people were either attacked or shot or killed because they were believed to have been a witness, and they didn’t tell us anything. I mean they weren’t cooperating.

So that’s the other dilemma. If you cooperate and we can provide you protection, let us provide you protection. Because if you are a witness, who else knows you’re a witness? And whether you cooperate with us or not, will somebody else make the assumption that you did? That does happen.

There’s nothing easy about relocating. There just isn’t. But there’s also nothing easy about being the witness to a murder.

Your life is forever changed when you witness a murder. Whether you cooperate with police or prosecutors, your life is never going to be the same.

And it is how safe you feel or want to feel and believe in the process, but I can tell you if you are in a protection program and you follow the rules, we’re running at about 100 percent.

I wish there were ways to make it easier, but how do you make it easier to take somebody out of the neighborhood they grew up in, where their family is, and move them somewhere else to keep them safe? That’s going to be hard no matter what. I just don’t know that there’s any substantial thing that we can do that would make that easier on people.

Homicide Watch: According to Crime Scene Sciences Director Randall Wampler, there are some firearms with matching serial numbers tied to multiple charges. Do these guns ever make it back onto the street?

Lanier: I’ve never seen that happen. Once it’s recovered by police it’s held as evidence and after a case is disposed of, it’s destroyed.

It is the case that we see the same firearm used in multiple cases. We do see that, and that’s why I say it’s so important to try and take shooters off the street as quickly as possible, because they’re not going to stop shooting, and where that gun goes from victim to victim is sometimes multiple people.

Homicide Watch: What is MPD doing to reduce the number of guns that are traded and sold illegally in D.C., and how are you working to improve this?

Lanier: Believe it or not, the number of homicides that are the result of gunshots has dropped and continuing to drop every year.

So far this year I think 67 percent of our homicides were with a firearm. The first 15 or 16 years of my career, 97 to 99 percent of all homicides were gun homicides. So 67 percent is a pretty dramatic drop in gun-related homicides overall.

We have a gun interdiction unit that is relentless about pursuing illegal firearms. Frankly, legal firearms aren’t the problem. It’s the illegal firearms that are the problem. So we do have a gun interdiction unit that tries to weed out the illegal firearms. Officers doing their job everyday recovering firearms. And then in the case of firearms used in homicides, we have teams of officers that are designated just for that. They get one task force that goes out and looks specifically for those people and those firearms.

Homicide Watch: What were most successful tactics for keeping firearms off the street this year?

Lanier: It’s way better than it used to be. There’s always going to be an illegal market.

The fact you can legally register firearms, the fact that there’s a process for legal carry of firearms, none of that is going to change the criminal element. We just have to have a system that is a deterrent. So the risk of carrying a firearm has to outweigh the illegal possession. So that’s the goal.

With the gun interdiction unit, and then with the rest of the justice system, there should be a sufficient deterrent that if you’re caught with an illegal firearm, you know there’s a penalty that’s significant enough to deter you.

Certainly if you’re caught more than once with a firearm or have used a firearm in a crime of violence, the penalty should be significant enough that if you’re weighing your choices, you choose not to.

I think we’ve swayed that pendulum some. because we went from 97 percent of our homicides being gun related to 67 percent. But we’re not there yet, and there are always going to be people that are going to take their risk and those are the people that we have to focus our efforts on.

It’s a small number of people that commit an awful lot of crime.

Homicide Watch: How has the Digital Training Center/Simulator changed the way cops act in split-second decisions?

Lanier: It’s actually pretty amazing.

There’s a lot of ways to train your brain. Split-second decisions are something that you can prepare for to a certain extent. What you see when you’re under stress and what you hear when you’re under stress is very different than what you see and hear when you’re not under stress. But the simulator gives us an opportunity to try and simulate that as much as possible.

It’s not real world. You know when you walk into the simulation that you’re not going to get shot, and you know that the person you’re going to see on that simulation is not going to take your life. So you can’t simulate that. But you can simulate instant decision making absent the stress of your life being on the line at the time.

There’s only one thing that can replicate what an officer has to do when they feel like their life is in danger, and that’s the real thing.

Simulators are good for tactical movements. They’re good for the ability to quickly recognize a knife in somebody’s hand or quickly recognize that while you’re focusing on one person with a gun on you that there’s another person with a gun on you. So that’s what the simulator is really good for.

What it cannot simulate is, once your body is under stress and you feel like your life is in jeopardy, your vision changes, your hearing changes, your perception and all these things change. There’s really no way to simulate that.

So while I love our FATS (Firearms Training Simulator) — we call it FATS machine — and our simulation, it can only do so much.

What it really is, is we can program it and we can take real world scenarios. If we have a situation that an officer is involved in a shooting, or an officer is killed in the line of duty, we can recreate that scenario using video simulation.

The officer is given the equivalent of a toy gun — a laser gun. So it’s very much like what you would see in some of the video games. It’s very accurate and similar to the gun that we carry. And they walk into the room, and they have a video scenario that’s playing and they have to interact. And each decision the officer makes will change the action of the suspect.

The officer is given a scenario that’s very similar to a real scenario, but again, we know when we walk out of that room we’re going to be alive.

In real life scenarios, when you are confronted with somebody who’s pointing a gun at you or somebody who’s just murdered somebody else and you’re now confronting that person, the whole stress response in the brain is completely different. So we tell recruits that, while this simulation machine will help you get muscle memory on how to quickly draw your gun and how to recognize a knife versus a camera, it’s not going to ever prepare you for what the real-life scenario is.

That’s how you’re brain responds when you feel that your life is in danger.

Watch the full interview below:

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