D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier, who announced last week she is retiring after nearly 10 years as chief, has been praised by most LGBT activists who know her as someone deeply committed to equal rights and public safety for the LGBT community.
But many of the same activists say that while they have never doubted her personal support for the LGBT community, they disagreed with some of her policies and actions addressing LGBT issues, especially the changes she made to the department’s LGBT Liaison Unit since taking office in 2007.
“Thank you so much, Chief Lanier!” said longtime D.C. gay activist John Klenert in an email to the Washington Blade. “Our community may have had its disagreements with you but your commitment to the safety and wellbeing of all the citizens of our nation’s capital was never in doubt,” Klenert said.
With D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser standing at her side, Lanier announced on Aug. 16 that she would be retiring from the department effective Sept. 17 to become Senior Vice President of Security Operations for the National Football League.
On Aug. 23, Bowser announced she had named Deputy D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham as the interim chief effective Sept. 17 while she conducts a search for a permanent police chief.
Rick Rosendall, president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, said GLAA maintained a cordial relationship with Lanier even though GLAA and other local LGBT organizations sometimes clashed with her over specific issues such as the LGBT Liaison Unit.
Rosendall noted that one of Lanier’s first actions after being named as chief by former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty was to announce plans to close the Dupont Circle headquarters office of the then-Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit and replace it with GLLU affiliate officers in each of the department’s seven police districts.
Lanier said at the time that the GLLU’s good work and resources should be spread throughout the city and not be confined to one area like Dupont Circle. She said she planned to put in place LGBT-related training for all officers on the force so that every officer could provide the same top-notch services to LGBT citizens that the GLLU was providing.
GLAA and other LGBT groups quickly pointed out that the highly trained and mostly gay and lesbian officers assigned to the GLLU worked on cases throughout the city and were highly knowledgeable on LGBT issues that often came up when LGBT people were targeted for crime, including hate crimes.
They noted that while Lanier’s plans to have all officers provide the same services for LGBT people as the GLLU was a commendable goal that would not likely be achieved any time soon.
“One point of contention was when she used to claim that LGBT advocates’ defense of the central GLLU amounted to wanting it only to serve Dupont Circle and environs, but that was never true,” Rosendall said. “Nobody I know and any local group was ever clueless enough to pretend that our community only lived in one neighborhood,” he said.
“The diverse coalition of which we were a part always knew that LGBT people lived in all parts of the District,” said Rosendall. “Our purpose was to ensure there was a central unit. It was about organization, not geography.”
Following a groundswell of opposition to closing the central headquarters of the GLLU, including opposition from members of the D.C. Council, Lanier backed down and agreed to retain the Dupont Circle headquarters. She said she would go ahead with her plans to create a GLLU affiliate officers program for each of the police districts.
GLAA and the other groups, including the group Gays and Lesbians Opposing Violence (GLOV), expressed strong support for that option.
However, in the ensuing years, activists expressed concern that Lanier and other department officials decreased the number of officers assigned to the GLLU central office and in recent years required all GLLU officers to spend at least half of their work shift on patrol duties unrelated to their GLLU work.
Lanier said she adopted the policy of “detailing” officers from all specialized units, not just the GLLU, to street patrol duties due to a citywide shortage of police officers. Police officials cited a retirement “bubble” caused by a major hiring surge 25 years ago, as the reason for the shortage of officers at this time.
Sgt. Matthew Mahl, a former supervisor at the GLLU and the current chair of the D.C. police union, told the Washington Post this week that the shortage of officers is also being caused by many officers leaving the department well before retirement age. Mahl said many were leaving because of what the police union has long said was low morale during Lanier’s tenure as chief.
Longstanding concerns over what some activists said was Lanier’s “de facto” dismantling of the GLLU surfaced in a 41-page Hate Crimes Assessment Report prepared by an independent task force created in 2012 by the Anti-Defamation League of Washington, a nationally recognized civil rights organization. The ADL created the task force and conducted a two-year review of the department’s policies toward addressing hate crimes and the LGBT community at Lanier’s request.
Among the findings of the report was that structural changes the department put in place for the GLLU beginning in 2009 appeared to have weakened its effectiveness and diminished its credibility within the LGBT community.
“The restructuring of the GLLU reduced the size and limited the role of the central core of the GLLU, weakening its effectiveness in responding to hate crimes and engaging in outreach and made it less accessible and visible to the LGBT community,” the report says.
Lanier has since renamed the unit the LGBT Liaison Unit and appointed an openly transgender officer, Sgt. Jessica Hawkins, as its supervisor. Although the outgoing chief has said the unit enjoys the full support of the department, LGBT activists have said it never regained the visibility it had before the restructuring polices.
“For the past 10 years, Chief Lanier has voiced her support for the LGBTQ community,” said Tonya Turner, an official with the D.C. Anti-Violence Project, which is affiliated with the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community.
“She often met with advocates and attended community gatherings as she sought to improve relations between MPD and the LGBTQ community,” Turner said in a statement. “We thank her for her efforts and look forward to building upon those efforts with her successor.”
Veteran D.C. gay activist Phil Pannell, who serves as president of the Congress Heights Community Association in Ward 8, said Lanier as done an overall good job as chief.
“I think the police department could have been a bit more creative in engaging the public in getting involved in unsolved homicides,” Pannell told the Washington Blade. “But other than that, I give Cathy a solid B+.”
When asked about concerns by LGBT activists over Lanier’s handling of the LGBT Liaison unit, Pannell added, “It is for that reason that I’m giving her a B+ rather than an A.”
Transgender activist Ruby Corado, founder and director of the LGBT community services center Casa Ruby, said that while she, too, agrees that Lanier’s intentions on LGBT issues have been supportive, she called Lanier’s overall record on LGBT issues “disappointing.”
“I like her as a person,” said Corado. “The main concern is she dismantled the LGBT Liaison Unit,” she said. “It was the individual GLLU members, including [former GLLU supervisor Sgt.] Brett Parson, who helped make the important changes in the culture at the department.”
Corado added, “As far as I know, the unit has been left with no support. They are doing amazing things with the little they have.”
Capt. Cheryl Crowley, who oversees all of the police liaison units, including the LGBTU, has disputed contentions by activists that the unit is no longer effective, saying it continues to reach out to the LGBT community and assist in cases involving LGBT crime victims.
Rosendall and transgender activist Jeri Hughes said they and others in the LGBT community have had a longstanding cordial and positive relationship with Newsham.