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Back to Archives | Back to March 2012 Contents 

Policing Our Nation’s Capital Using 21st Century Principles

By Cathy L. Lanier, Chief of Police, Metropolitan Police Department, Washington, D.C.

A recruit speaks with a young girl during one of the Metropolitan Police Department’s many community events that are designed to enhance relations. Recruits are taught early in their careers the importance of community trust and communication.

he purpose of this article is to discuss the policing philosophy that has proven effective for reducing violent crime in the District of Columbia (D.C.). With many different policing philosophies and a countless number of official studies, it is sometimes difficult to determine what works best. For example, in the past 25 years alone one can easily find well more than 100 evidence-based policing strategies. 1 The matter is further complicated by the constraints of annual budgets. Some promising initiatives are costly; this is problematic, especially given the current economic climate. Budgets seem to be stagnant, if not shrinking, and there is no immediate sign of improvement. Captured in just four basic principles, this D.C. policing philosophy has resulted in historic low levels of violent crime and homicide in a city with an extremely violent past. These principles have been implemented with minimal cost, yet they are designed so that expansion is possible.

Principle One: Reduce Crime by Bettering Community Ties

During the past decade, many large cities have had success in driving down violent crime through a combination of hot-spot and zero-tolerance policing. Under these principles, the most violent areas of cities are identified through the density mapping of violent crimes and then flooded with extra officers who are instructed to use a zero-tolerance approach to any criminal offense. The basis of this approach is rooted in George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson’s broken windows theory, which explains how smaller crimes and disorder can lead to larger, more serious crimes in the community. 2 While Kelling and Wilson’s theory is valid, using this approach in Washington, D.C.—a city that has been given the dubious distinction as not only the murder capital but also the city of unsolved homicides for decades—did little to curb the violence associated primarily with street gangs. In fact, these approaches had almost the opposite effect. In part, the explanation lies in the unique structure of the criminal justice system in D.C. In D.C., arresting officers used to process arrests manually, and this accounted for many hours of officer time away from the streets. This was compounded by the fact that officers in D.C. had to respond to court to personally present every arrest. These procedures resulted in the most effective street officers being pulled away from their primary patrol duties to process minor arrests, thus leaving the neighborhoods in the hands of the more violent predators.

The other problem with the zero-tolerance approach in D.C. was that these tactics served only to polarize the police from the communities most impacted by crime. The sentiment of the residents who were largely the victims of violent crimes in these designated hot spots was one of betrayal by officers. They felt officers had labeled their neighborhoods and then swooped in to arrest community members for minor offenses while the violent predators were left behind to further victimize their communities. This process created a perception that the officers were either afraid to go after the real criminals or simply did not care about the law-abiding residents who were the victims of crimes. In some cases, residents felt that the officers must somehow be working in concert with the violent gang members who were well known by residents to be involved in violent attacks but were never arrested. This presented a significant barrier to passing any information to police when crimes did occur.

Further complicating this problem was the response by officers when shootings occurred in these neighborhoods. Classic to most crime scenes, in the immediate aftermath, one could observe all of the officers inside of the crime scene tape, protecting the crime scene with crowds of residents outside of the tape. As officers pushed people away from the crime scene, opportunities to get information from potential witnesses were lost.

The traditional mentality that success is measured by a high number of arrests did not work in D.C., especially given its high level of crime. This was evidenced by the fact that homicides and violent crimes remained unacceptably high, and Washington, D.C., remained at the top of the nation for violent crime. To fix this real fear of crime and distrust of the police, the philosophy inside the department had to shift back to one of the original principles of policing: that the primary task in policing is to prevent crime, not to respond to it. Responding to crimes and making arrests are indications of failures of policing. This principle does share some similarities with Sir Robert Peel’s first principle as written in 1829. Nearly 200 years ago, he said, “The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder as an alternative to the repression of crime and disorder by military forces and severity of legal punishment.”3 However, as policing today is far removed from military occupations and the job of policing has changed substantially, the first principle of policing has changed accordingly.

Perhaps the greatest challenge in achieving success with this principle relates to the need for leaders to change the culture and the mentality of police employees. There has been a long-standing, deep-rooted mentality in policing in which officers and administrators seem to think they can neither stop crime nor prevent homicides. Neither belief is true. Everyone from the lowest ranking officer to the highest level executive has an important role through which they can stop crime. This transition in thinking is the first step in rebuilding trust within the community.

Principle Two: Developing Sources, Not Community Policing

The first principle not only laid out a shift in philosophy and tactics, it also served as the catalyst that identified the need to develop the subsequent principles. Clearly, the shift in tactics was significant in terms of the culture of policing inside of the agency. Compounding the problem was the fact that both hot-spot and zero-tolerance policing had been successful in other cities as an effective community policing model. The issue then became how to define what community policing is in D.C. and to educate the police officers who had to carry out the mission. Through the hot-spot example, it was evident that the definition of effective community policing varied among cities and even among neighborhoods within a city. In part, to help avoid confusion and further define the desired roles, the department developed principle two.

Historically, source development was primarily the function of specialized units such as narcotics, and, oftentimes, sources were developed through arrests or threats of arrest. This type of source development was contrary to what the department had accomplished with principle one. To move forward and initiate change, uniformed patrol officers were deployed on foot in the most violent areas, where they focused on developing sources within the whole community.

With more than 300 officers moved to foot, mountain bikes, and Segways, the shift in policing was instantly recognized by residents who remained skeptical of the police. The skepticism began to truly subside as residents got to know the names of the officers who routinely stopped to speak to them as they sat on their porches. In past practices, officers would make arrests for minor crimes such as an open container of alcohol in plain view. However, officers developed new approaches to situations, rather than being arrest oriented. This approach began to build trust among all segments of the community.

The same transformation began to take place at crime scenes. As initial responding officers secured the scene, beat officers would console family members and friends and check in with other residents to be sure they were coping well. Since the officers had established a relationship with the residents and were viewed differently, they often would get tremendous amounts of information about the crime—information that was historically withheld from detectives. Within a short period of time, the uniformed patrol officers became the primary sources of information about serious crimes, gang members, and violent repeat offenders. This ensuing shift in the public’s trust led to the development of principle three: the need to find ways for the public to get information to the police.

Principle Three: Maximize the Use of Modern Technology

There is much discussion about the emergence of a new era in policing that has been defined as intelligence-led policing (ILP). Most often, ILP is associated with the most sophisticated technology available to law enforcement today: mobile computers, license plate readers, closed-circuit television, gunshot detection, and complex analytical and predictive software. While all of these tools are important and used in Washington, D.C., the ability to deploy these resources has been difficult for many cities given the significant budget reductions resulting from the down economy. Therefore, the focus of this article is on the simplest use of technology available to most law enforcement agencies and often at no cost. These low-cost technologies have made the biggest difference in the department’s ability to receive, share, and use information to reduce violent crime.

To maximize the amount of time the officers were able to spend in the neighborhoods, all crime and arrest paperwork was automated. This automation reduced the amount of time it took to complete paperwork and allowed the department to eliminate mandatory court appearances. Additionally, to minimize time spent in community meetings—which typically had limited participation and shared information only one way (from the police)—each patrol district established a listserv for residents in their neighborhoods. Managers assigned to each patrol beat were issued mobile phones with email capabilities. These managers were required to provide their cellphone numbers to community members and post and respond to issues on the listserv 24 hours a day. With more than 16,000 members, the listserv became a tremendous asset as community members could provide or seek information and get instantaneous responses from police leaders. This simple measure created a consistent, virtual police presence in the neighborhoods. It also allowed the department to share positive stories about violent crime and homicide arrests that often led to additional witnesses coming forward. Detectives were prompted to use Facebook, Twitter, and other social media both to investigate and to communicate issues regarding crime.

Recognizing that much of the information the department needed to prevent crime would need to come from youth who may not feel comfortable calling or talking to police officers, an anonymous text tip line was created to expand opportunities for source development. Marketing tools such as tip cards were distributed throughout neighborhoods immediately following any crime and in schools to prompt violence prevention among rival neighborhoods. A similar anonymous system was created using several $1,000 rewards for information on illegal guns in the community. The use of the tip lines increased 319 percent in just three years. The department also reassured members of the public that their tips were not going unheard or unused. This was accomplished by conducting reverse canvasses and informing the public every time a major case was closed. This new philosophy proved effective, and it was the associated flood of new information arriving that prompted principle four.

These three charts illustrate the effectiveness of the philosophy as implemented in Washington, D.C. While
text tips and reward payouts saw substantial increases, the number of homicides saw historic decreases.

Principle Four: Ensure Strict Accountability at All Levels for Information Sharing

As amazing as this new partnership and flood of information was, what remained stagnant was the sharing of information within the department. Vital information that should have been shared remained isolated in individual units. Patrol officers had information on violent offenders that had to be shared with detectives. The gang unit had information on newly validated gang members that needed to be shared with patrol officers. Homicide detectives often had information about funerals and potential retaliation that had to be shared with patrol officers, and the command center had information on gunshot densities that needed to be analyzed by the gang unit. But none of this necessary information sharing was happening.

The Metropolitan Police Department employs a wide array of
technologies and innovative approaches to emphasize partnerships,
engage citizens, and improve efficiency in the agency’s ongoing
efforts to prevent and solve crimes.

In order for the above principles to work, there must be a system of accountability within the department. But exactly what is accountability? Simply put, accountability means that one is responsible for some activity or someone associated with that activity and that one will bear the consequences for the failure of someone to perform a function that was required. Not only is the issue of accountability relative to supervisors, but, in the community policing context, it applies at all levels. In 1988, on the subject of community policing, Kelling, Wasserman, and Williams wrote, “The accountability of individual police officers is a fundamental issue for police executives.”4 To this day, the truth of this statement has not changed, and it emphasizes that, in the community policing context, accountability exists at all levels in the organization. It applies in all aspects of community policing from information sharing and preventing crime to the work of homicide detectives and narcotics officers and, most importantly, patrol officers who interact with the community on a daily basis.

With the new technology placed in the hands of the frontline officers and managers, accountability for the use of that technology to share information is paramount. Executives and managers at the department were tasked with working with their subordinates to develop protocols for rapid dissemination of the most critical information at all levels. This practice resulted in dramatic reductions in the retaliatory violence often associated with the most violent neighborhoods. The gang unit analyzed information from school resource officers, the daily crime report, gunshot analysis, and sources. They produced a daily gang conflict report that was shared among all units. Within minutes of gunfire in an area with an active gang conflict, uniformed patrol and gang unit members deployed to rival gang territory to contact validated gang members. Homicide detectives routinely alerted district commanders to any plans for vigils, funerals, or potential retaliation associated with active homicide investigations.

Through the implementation of the above principles, the department has seen significant progress, especially with the reduction of violent crime. For example, in 2008, there were 186 homicides in the district. In 2011, that number was reduced by 42 percent to 108 homicides—the lowest number of homicides in nearly 50 years. Some reports indicate that crime is down nationwide, but it is not down to this degree. Additionally, the homicide closure rate went from 75 percent in 2008 to 95 percent in 2011. The national average for cities of comparable size to Washington, D.C., is about 56 percent. Regardless of numbers, one should not forget that police managers are also judged by community satisfaction and quality-of-life issues.

In sum, the department’s philosophy to reduce violent crime has paid off tremendously. The officers have garnered trust within the community, which ultimately led to source development, an increased two-way flow of information, and more useful intelligence about criminal activity. Then, the department looked inward and increased information sharing and accountability, which enabled it to successfully use the newly gathered intelligence to drive down violent crime and at the same time realize unprecedented homicide closure rates. ■


1Cynthia Lum et al., “Laycock (1991),” Evidence-Based Policing Matrix, (accessed January 29, 2012).
2George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, “The Police and Neighborhood Safety: Broken Windows,” The Atlantic Monthly, March 1982: 29–38, (accessed January 30, 2012).
3Kenneth J. Peak and Ronald W. Glensor, Community Policing and Problem Solving: Strategies and Practices, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2002).
4George L. Kelling, Robert Wasserman, and Hubert Williams, “Police Accountability and Community Policing,” Perspectives on Policing, no. 7 (November 1988), U.S. Department of Justice, (accessed January 29, 2012).

Cathy L. Lanier serves as chief of police for the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C. Moving up through the ranks, she has been with the department since 1990. She is a graduate of the FBI National Academy and she holds two master’s degrees. One degree is in management and police leadership from The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland; and the other is in security studies and homeland security from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Chief Lanier may be reached at

Please cite as:

Cathy L. Lanier, "Policing Our Nation’s Capital Using 21st Century Principles," The Police Chief 79 (March 2012): 20–24.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXIX, no. 3, March 2012. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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