From teen mother to NFL security chief, Cathy Lanier's rise through the law enforcement ranks
Behind a nondescript doorway there was a meeting. Men from the FBI, local police and the sheriff's department were receiving a high-level security briefing about one of the biggest terrorist targets in the world. The recently appointed head of Homeland Security was there, surrounded by men in blue uniforms, brown fatigues and black suits, many sporting translucent cords curling around their ears.
At the head of the table sat a 49-year-old woman with shoulder length blonde hair barely touching her new black suit coat. She had purchased it a few weeks earlier when, for the first time in her adult life, she actually had to go out and buy "work clothes." She never spoke at that February meeting, just listened politely to the men around the table because she knew what they were going to say before they said it. More than 4,000 officers from 40 different law enforcement agencies were about to follow her lead, even though she had been on the job for only a few months. Even though she dropped out of high school when she became pregnant at age 14. Even though many said she destroyed her career when she filed a complaint to her police department, claiming sexual harassment on the job.
As chief of security for the NFL, Cathy Lanier has one of the most coveted jobs in law enforcement. Once a headstrong teenager who drove her mother crazy, she now commands respect and admiration from men not generally accustomed to seeing a woman in charge. Her path to the top has been unorthodox, as she keeps breaking society's norms to enforce its laws.
But Lanier will tell you she didn't have any choice. She needed to make a better life for her newborn child. For Cathy Lanier, it has always been about taking care of family.
"I was a bad kid," Lanier admits. It's 8 a.m. on the first day of the 2017 NFL draft. Her day started about three hours earlier and will go late into the night when her boss, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, calls out the top draft picks on this hot April day in Philadelphia. But she has carved out an hour to sit down with ESPN to offer advice to other women trying to navigate a career in what is typically a man's world.
"My mom raised three kids. I was probably the most difficult to raise. You know, just stubborn. Just a dumb teenager," she says. "I grew up in a tough neighborhood, went to a very tough school," near the Washington, D.C., line in Tuxedo, Maryland.
Lanier's first and perhaps greatest challenge came when she was 15, when she gave birth to her son. "I was a single mom with a ninth-grade education when I started out," she explains. A teenage brain "doesn't really work like a normal person, like an adult. After my son was born, it dawned on me with all the common sense I was lacking before, that my son and his whole life depended on me. And if I wanted him to not have to grow up in the circumstances I grew up in, living in a tough neighborhood, going to really tough schools, that I wasn't going to be able to do that with a ninth-grade education."
After marrying and then quickly divorcing her son's father, Lanier worked two jobs, as a secretary and a waitress, to pay the bills. She moved in with her mother and grandmother, both single mothers themselves, so they could help take care of her son while she worked toward her GED. Her goal, she says, was to put her son in private school. "When I was growing up, the kids that made it and did well were the ones that the family could afford to put them in a private school, because the D.C. school system was just so broken."
Lanier spotted an ad in the Washington Post for the Metropolitan Police Department in 1990. "What caught my eye was it said 'tuition reimbursement,'" she recalls. "I was taking one college class a semester, and it would have taken me 25 years to get my degree. So, I went down and took the test. Stood in line with 1,000 people."
She says there were maybe three women in line, but it didn't occur to her to question whether she belonged there. "My focus was my son's future," Lanier says. "And standing in that line represented opportunity for me to provide for my son. I never gave it a second thought." The next few months in the police academy were "tough," she admits. But she kept going because of her child. "Every day I got up, that was my focus."
Her first day on the job was supposed to be a typical patrol beat. But at 11 p.m. on May 5, 1991, riots started in the northwest part of the city. Earlier that afternoon, another rookie female officer had shot Daniel Enrique Gomez after police approached a group of men drinking in public. It was Cinco de Mayo in Mount Pleasant, one of the city's most diverse neighborhoods. The officer said she thought Gomez was trying to attack her with a hunting knife when she shot him in the chest. In response, men who witnessed the shooting began attacking officers at the scene, and word spread that Gomez had been cuffed at the time of the shooting, leading to three days of rioting and looting.
The then-23-year-old Lanier "didn't even know how to use a police radio," she recalls. "They were handing us gas masks as we were walking out the door. I didn't know how to put my gas mask on." She arrived at a scene where "we had two cruisers upside-down in the street that had been set on fire. There were huge crowds throwing bricks and bottles. It was a tough, tough week."
After her initiation by fire, Lanier had to learn not only how to navigate her new beat, but also the internal politics within the police department. Sexual harassment, she says, "permeated through the whole department. It was almost from the top down. But I wasn't going to let the environment throw me off track."
MPD in the early '90s "had a horrible reputation, and for good reason," Lanier says. "This was not your typical office flirty kind of harassment. In the police department, you're working midnight shifts, you're working late. You're the only one in the building. A police lieutenant at the time physically grabbed, groped -- you know, he was a chronic harasser. He had harassed many other women." She pauses and then admits, "It was severe."
Lanier was in her fourth year on the job and had been promoted to sergeant when, along with another female officer, she filed a sexual harassment lawsuit and settled with the city for $75,000 a piece in 1995. The officer she says harassed her was demoted and eventually fired after more women came forward following Lanier's complaint.
MPD's current Chief of Police, Peter Newsham, who came up through the ranks with Lanier and often competed with her for promotions, remembers both Lanier's lawsuit and the culture leading up to it well. "The police department now has changed dramatically," he says. "But when these types of complaints surface now, I think of Cathy Lanier and what she went through. I take it very seriously."
"This is a person who I admire and respect and I completely believed her when she told me it happened to her," Newsham explains. Lanier says she was surprised by how supportive her male colleagues were after she filed the complaint. But she admits it was "a very, very tough environment" inside the police department during the internal investigation. She was told, "You'll never make it past the rank of captain in this department because it's all appointed," she recalls before pointing out, "He was wrong."
Instead of letting it kill her career, Lanier steadily climbed through the ranks at MPD, overseeing the city's narcotics and gang unit, its Special Operations Division that dealt with bomb threats, armed standoffs and large public events, and the city's homeland security and counterterrorism department, until she became the city's first female chief of police in 2006. Throughout it all, she kept going to school, including stints at Johns Hopkins University and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, until she had two master's degrees in national security.
"What I really admire about her," Newsham says, "is she took the position of chief at a time in her career when she was probably not ready for it. But she took it and didn't blink, never had any fear. She had a confidence and a drive I've never seen in another person and she was hugely successful. Hugely successful.
"She had this persona with the community, this empathy that she emanated of being responsive to victims of crimes," Newsham says. "She developed trust and legitimacy in the community by way of being accessible. She made the entire police department be responsive to people in the community. That was a dramatic change for us, but that is what makes us here in D.C. now stand out in policing."
Most major city chiefs only last in the position for about three years, Lanier says. But when she announced her retirement to join the NFL in August 2016, she was in her 10th. Her decision came as a tremendous surprise to city leaders, who credited Lanier's leadership for a 23 percent decline in the violent crime rate during her watch.
On Oct. 3, 2002, 72-year-old Pascal Charlot was taking a walk when he was shot along one of D.C.'s busiest streets. Not yet police chief, Lanier was the commander of MPD's 4th District and helped investigate Charlot's death. It soon became apparent the retiree was one of five people killed that day by the D.C. snipers, pulling Lanier into one of the most frightening murder sprees the nation had ever seen at the time. John Allen Muhammad, 41, and 17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo killed 10 people, and were later tied to 11 more shootings, five of which were fatal, picking off victims as they went about ordinary tasks like shopping, driving and mowing the grass.
The sniper attacks are just one of several events in Lanier's career that "make me a little different," she says. She also points to Unifest in 2007, a year after she became chief, when a woman high on crack plowed her station wagon into a neighborhood music festival and injured 40 people, including small children in strollers. Lanier says she has been responding and learning from these types of mass casualty events long before terrorists and lone wolf shooters started using them in recent years in France, London and Las Vegas. "You have to constantly be on the cutting edge of what's happening because the first time a car intentionally plows into a crowd of people, that's a game-changer."
She was hired by the NFL, she says, "to reinvigorate and modernize the way we do security. It was kind of my signature in MPD," when she planned for massive public events attended by hundreds of thousands of people, like both of President Barack Obama's inaugurations and large-scale protest marches in front of the Lincoln Memorial. She used to prepare a list of all the protests happening in the nation's capital each day, with about 2,300 special events taking place each year.
But it was the unplanned events that are most memorable, like election night in 2008, when Obama won his first presidency. People flooded the streets, walking from Virginia into D.C. to gather at the White House at 10 p.m.
It's these types of spontaneous moments Lanier says she tries to prepare for in her role at the NFL.
On that hot April afternoon before the NFL draft, Lanier walks laps around the statue of George Washington sitting atop his horse at the center of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Any other day, traffic would be circling the statue along with her in the rush to get home. But on draft day, the parkway is filled with more than 60,000 fans, eating and drinking, competing in combine drills, and looking at the NFL's collection of diamond-encrusted Super Bowl rings while waiting for the picks to begin. Security is tight, with all of the roads around the parkway shut down and a mile of fencing forcing fans to pass through metal detectors as they enter the free event.
Lanier heads toward a trailer hidden behind a fence near the big stage. Inside the trailer, multiple staffers monitor television screens counting and capturing the images of nearly everyone inside and outside the fence. She's testing the very latest technologies here, she says, to find the best fit for what the NFL needs at these open-air events and inside stadiums during a typical game day.
No event requires more coordination than the Super Bowl, where she was sitting at the table behind the nondescript door with some of the most powerful men in law enforcement. Local police are always the lead agency not just for the Super Bowl, but at every game throughout the season, Lanier explains. But she coordinates much of the planning leading up to game day.
"She came here with a rolodex with all of the names of all of the key people," says Chief of the Houston Police Department Art Acevedo. "Relationships matter in business, but especially in safety and security. If I had any concerns, I picked up the phone and she dealt with them. The NFL was very smart to bring in someone who knows all of the major city chiefs.
"It's time the NFL hired a major city police chief who knows what it's like to be on the flip side of the coin. What the local challenges are for local police," Acevedo explains. If the NFL had "hired from a federal agency an unknown name, we wouldn't know if they're more interested saving money or safety. They'd already be behind the eight ball because they'd have to build relationships." Instead, Chief Acevedo says he knew Lanier for more than a decade before she joined the NFL, explaining how D.C. has a reputation for being one of the most challenging cities to police due to the extra terrorism and daily demonstration planning required in the nation's capital.
"She rose to every challenge and passed with flying colors."
A typical game requires at least 10 different agencies, from the FBI to private security. At the Super Bowl, the number swells to 40, with diverse agencies such as U.S. Customs and Border Protection and even the Federal Aviation Administration in place to shut down airspace. As the most-watched event on television, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security gives the Super Bowl the highest level of threat protection, similar to a presidential inauguration. "This is every bit as complicated as an inauguration," Lanier explains. "It is every bit as important as an inauguration."
"I look at every attack that takes place everywhere," Lanier says. She points to an attack in Europe, where "one of the attackers survived and he described that as they walked down the street looking at hotels, they targeted those that didn't have visible security out front, because for a terrorist, the worst-case scenario for them is failure. So, security represents failure for them. We have to represent failure for a terrorist."
At Super Bowl LI, Lanier oversaw the construction of nearly three miles of fencing around NRG Stadium in Houston, built in concentric circles to prevent cars and trucks from plowing into crowds. Vehicles are scanned by high-tech X-ray equipment to pass through the first concrete barrier, with magnetometers and canine units preventing people with anything larger than a cellphone from passing through the second checkpoint. Even at a typical game, Lanier says, the league deploys sniffer dogs into tailgates and parking lots to find hidden rifles and possible explosive devices. "They'll hit on ammunition, firearms, all the way up to explosives. They're very, very good," she says. And she quietly chuckles, explaining, "They detect firearms quite often on off-duty police officers."
Planning for the Super Bowl, the NFL draft, overseas games in London and about a dozen other large-scale events takes more than a year. Lanier has a Top Secret security clearance and is typically the only woman at the table for high-level security briefings. It's something, she says, she has noticed throughout her entire career.
Her mother, whom she dotes upon, didn't want her to retire from the police department, where Lanier had worked for more than 27 years. "My mother wanted me to be the chief for the rest of my life. You know, that's cool, being the chief's mom," she laughs. "My mom used to flip through the channels, the local stations every afternoon to see me on the news, which was just about every afternoon. When I was at the combine in Indianapolis this year, I called her and she said, 'I'm watching the combination on TV.' And I thought, 'Wow. All right.' She's making that transition."
She now puts on lipstick for her interviews, something her mother pleaded with her to do throughout her police career, but Lanier just didn't think it looked appropriate on an officer. She also had to buy suits and other work clothes for the first time this past year, having worn a uniform nearly every day until she came to the NFL. Six feet tall, she always wears flats, not because of her height, but because she walks more than eight miles through tunnels and along the stadium's perimeter during a typical game. She goes on the field for kickoff, but rarely stays for very long. "I watched more football before I got this job," Lanier says. "There's not much time to watch football."
The most shocking thing in her new job is people's reaction to where she works. "You would think being the chief of police in the nation's capital, that's a cool job," Lanier explains. "Football is a mesmerizing thing. I'm shocked at how people are just ... " She searches for the right words to explain how baffled she is at their reactions, settling with, "I'm so much more important now."
But Lanier knows she's facing a skeptical audience when it comes to investigating players and coaches. She was still MPD chief in 2014 when video emerged of then-Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking his future wife unconscious in an elevator. "I thought what everybody else thought," Lanier says. "It's a terrible, terrible video. After I got to the NFL and had the ability to kind of look at how all that played out, what information they had when they made certain decisions, what information they got after decisions were made -- it just made me more determined to make sure that we do a thorough job."
But unlike her old job, where she had subpoena powers and conducted criminal investigations, Lanier says she now has to rely on others for that information. "It's not easy to do an investigation when you don't have subpoena power," she explains. An NFL investigation is not a criminal investigation. Instead, it's an internal administrative investigation to determine whether or not a player or coach violated the league's personal conduct policy.
The league isn't quite like a police department, tasked with collecting and presenting evidence -- nor is it quite like a judge, Lanier says. She never wants to interfere with or jeopardize an ongoing criminal investigation. The toughest cases, in her opinion, are when criminal charges get dropped -- something that often happens in cases with domestic or sexual violence, when victims refuse to cooperate. If prosecutors don't move forward with a criminal case, her team will reach out to the accuser to see if that person will cooperate with them. They don't always agree. "I think people don't realize that we can't just, you know, make assumptions. We have to have something to support that there was a violation of the policy."
But Lanier doesn't always need the accuser to talk. "If we have video, or if we have other evidence that would sustain that more likely than not that the conduct occurred, then we can go forward."
She laughs when asked about critics who claim the NFL would hide video that could hurt a player or team's image. "It's so the opposite," she says. "The extraordinary efforts that we go through trying to determine if an allegation is true or not, it really is extraordinary. It's a lot more extensive than what we did at the police department because you have to work harder to get there."
Lanier won't talk specifics about any recent investigations, like Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott's six-game suspension for domestic violence, which is in the midst of an ongoing court battle. The NFL Players Association, the union that represents Elliott and others who face punishment following a league investigation, "respectfully declined" to comment on Lanier's performance so far.
But to Lanier, football players are very similar to police officers. "They're held to a higher standard, as they should be," she says. "So, when there's bad conduct of any kind, it has a huge impact. One officer doing something inappropriate, one officer involved in a sexual assault or criminal conduct -- it impacts the entire profession. And I think it's the same for football players. These people are looked up to as heroes."
Lanier doesn't like to talk about herself, but she realizes there are women who want to know how she engenders respect from men in what has traditionally been a male-dominated profession. "The key for me was I came to work every day and I just did my job," she says. "If you're a worker, people want to work with you. If you're not a worker, they don't want to work with you. So, respect is developed that way. People have respect for me because they see that I come to work and I work hard every day."
Lanier says she doesn't let the small stuff faze her. Sometimes you have to let things go. "It all depends. You can't let people take advantage of you. I don't let people disrespect me."
Newsham, who has lost out to Lanier for promotions and ultimately replaced her as chief when she left MPD, says without hesitation, "Nobody worked harder to learn." He says when fans "come to know her they will realize she is the best hire the NFL has ever made. You will not get a more driven or committed person. You can't outwork her."
Acevedo in Houston agrees: "She's not just a name but a known entity. There is so much respect and mutual trust. It bodes well for the NFL."
Lanier's now on the road almost every day, traveling to the next stadium or planning the next NFL event. But Lanier comes home to her mother every week. "As soon as my son left college and moved out, I thought I'd get this empty-nest thing, but then my mom moved in," Lanier jokes before becoming serious. "I wouldn't trade the time taking care of my mom for the world. Not for the world."
She flies back to D.C. to cook all of her mother's meals, freezing some for her to eat later in the week. While Lanier was overseeing security for the NFL's recent games in London, she stayed in England for six days, flew home for two, returned to Europe for six more and then flew home again to help her mother before returning to London two days later. "I never changed time zones," she says.
Despite the exhausting schedule, and the fact she doesn't actually watch much football, Lanier's son calls her new job "a dream job." You can tell from the tone of her voice she's pleased that she has impressed him, even though he has been too busy to actually go to a game. Lanier is very protective of him, declining to let either him or her mother do an interview. She doesn't even want to publicize their names. Everything she has done in her career has been for the two of them. She has just worked too hard and seen too many things.
Lanier says her teenage self wouldn't have listened to any advice she now has as an adult. "That wouldn't go well," she laughs. "My son -- he's now in his 30s -- he says things that sound so much like what I used to say. It crystalizes for me just how much people change when they grow up."
But if she could tell her stubborn teenage self one thing, she knows exactly what she'd say: "Everything's going to be OK. It turned out. Don't give up."