From teen mom to DC’s top cop: Chief Cathy Lanier believes in ‘compassion’

DC police chief: Consoling families 'a really important part of our job' 2:03

One of the steadying voices that emerged in the wake of Monday's mass shooting at the Navy Yard was that of Cathy Lanier, chief of police with the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia.

The tough-as-nails commander told NBC News that, as Washington D.C.'s first female police chief, she brings a unique perspective to the job: A certain compassion that stood out as she consoled not only a shaken city but also the grief-stricken families of the 12 people who lost their lives at the hand of 34-year-old former Navy reservist Aaron Alexis.

"Well, I mean, I think women and men do some things differently," Lanier said. "I think it's easier to show compassion, not only to my troops but to the people in the community."

Lanier, 46, who went from being a teenage mom on food stamps to being appointed police chief by the mayor in 2007, told The New York Times — in an interview weeks before the shooting — that she readily gives out her cellphone number to anyone in the community who might need it.

“If they call me in the middle of the night, they've got something I want to hear," she said.

Lanier grew up in Tuxedo, Md., and got pregnant when she was 14. She got married and dropped out of high school, but the marriage didn't last. Soon after, she was back at home — the welfare mother of a boy. 

After a series of jobs, including waitressing and a stint as a secretary, she joined the force at 23.

Last year, Mayor Vincent Gray renewed her five-year contract.

Lanier said she wasn't fully able to process Monday's tragic events until Tuesday night.

"You just start thinking about the 12 people who went to work the morning before and didn't come home, and the families, and the, you know, the impact for the families for the rest of their lives," she said. 

And Lanier believes talking to victims' family members is one of the most important parts of being a cop.

"I mean, there's no reason we can't do that because we're in uniform and because we're to be police officers and do our job," she said.

"You can't help but think as a parent, as a, you know, family member, you can't help but have the empathy of how it would feel if it were your family member." 

Washington Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier speaks Tuesday at a news conference about the shootings at the Washington Navy Yard. Jacquelyn Martin / AP