Cathy Lanier served as the chief of police for the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C. from 2007-2016. Since 2016, she has been the Senior Vice President of Security for the National Football League. PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with Chief Lanier about how the NFL is preparing for the season during the pandemic, and her thoughts on the current state of police reforms in the United States .


NFL Season:  Planning for COVID Is Far More Complex than in Policing

Chuck Wexler: How does responding to a pandemic in the NFL compare to responding to a pandemic in policing?

Cathy Lanier: All my life I’ve been in policing, and we spend every day planning for and executing plans for a crisis. We need to be ready to turn on a dime and continue to operate.

It’s so much more difficult at the NFL than it was in policing. In policing, we had figured a lot of those things out. When we went through SARS back in 2005, it was complicated, but we had plans that we just needed to tweak a little bit.

For major league sports in general, there are so many complexities around a global pandemic. You have teams across multiple states and internationally. Schedules are fixed and need to be synchronized with precision. Large groups of people travel around the country and the globe during a season. The level of planning and contingencies we’re putting in place to move our season forward is incredible.

Wexler: How has the pandemic impacted the offseason and preseason?

Lanier:  Following CDC guidance and state laws and regulations while trying to implement a regular training season was challenging for every sport. You have restrictions across state lines, with some states requiring that you quarantine when you arrive from other states. CDC guidance says you should maintain six feet of distance between yourself and others and that you wear proper PPE. But it’s kind of hard to play football when you’re six feet away from everyone else. Facilities were closed, and there were stay-at-home orders, so it delayed strength training and conditioning. For contact sports there are a lot of challenges.

Wexler:  How is the NFL planning to navigate the upcoming season?

Lanier: The safety of everyone involved is always the first priority. That is the core principle that we’re working around.

Starting with that as a principle, our first plans were to gradually allow the coaching staff and business staff to return to facilities where they could, because there were still stay-at-home orders.

And when you think about professional sports, there’s an equity issue here. If you have one state that allows coaching staff or players to return and other states don’t allow it, it creates a competitive equity issue. So we had to coordinate those plans across all the clubs so that everyone had the same opportunity.

Then we put standards on returning to facilities, including protective equipment and proper sanitation. In sports there are a lot of frequently touched items and areas. So we needed sanitation to make sure everything remains safe.

And how do we safely broadcast games? Broadcasting requires bringing large groups of people to the same place.

So it’s just one layer after another after another. The goal is to just peel back each layer like an onion and put those security plans in place. But we stick to the same guiding principles from the very beginning. We’re going to stay in compliance with CDC guidance to make sure everyone stays safe, and we don’t contribute to the spread of the virus.

Wexler:  All the positive tests from the Marlins and other Major League Baseball teams must have made you nervous.

Lanier:  Sure. We’ve been following other sports leagues, first those outside the United States that returned to play, then other major league sports in the U.S. We feel fortunate because we’ll be the last group going through this. We’ve watched the NBA, NASCAR, and baseball, and we’ve learned more each time from everybody else’s execution. But we can’t implement exactly the same plans they have, and they can’t implement exactly the same plans we have. The NBA is playing in a bubble. That’s a massive undertaking, and it would be impossible for us to do and carry out our season.

We watch everything that happens in all the other sports, and are learning from everybody to see if there are adjustments we need to make.

Wexler:  Is it more difficult because football is a contact sport?

Lanier:  The big challenge there is making sure we have adequate, robust testing, then isolation to make sure there is no exposure between tests. I think we’ve done a really good job putting together a program that will get us going. Is it possible that people will test positive? I’m sure we will. It’s hard to imagine that we won’t. But I think we have a plan in place that significantly reduces that risk, as much as we possibly can.

Wexler: Will fans be allowed into the stadiums?

Lanier:   Those decisions are being made in conjunction with state and local officials. Some state and local regulations do not allow mass gatherings of over 50 or 100 people.  In states that do allow larger gatherings, it’s up to the club to determine whether they want to have fans in there.

The league’s decision, across the board, has been that clubs that do allow fans can’t exceed the number of fans that are allowed under CDC recommendations. In other words, our guidelines say that clubs can only have the number of fans that allow them to maintain six feet of social distance. So, in some cases, our guidelines are more restrictive than states’ guidelines.

We’ll be requiring masks for anyone in the stadium environment, including staff and fans.

Wexler:  Do the recent decisions about the upcoming college football season impact you?

Lanier:   I think it impacts the sport as a whole. Everybody is anticipating what the short- and long-term impacts of that will be. I think we have a really good plan that we spent the better part of six months putting together. I think we feel comfortable going forward with what we have.


Police Reform: It’s Frustrating That the Same Narrative Is Being Applied to All Deprtments

Wexler: What are your thoughts on the national discussions about police reform? Do you wish you were still a police chief?

Lanier:   When I watch what’s going on, I get frustrated watching the narrative unfold and not having the ability to help correct it when I see things that are wrong. I’d like to correct some of the reactions coming from legislators.  So no, I would not want to be in that position under the circumstances that chiefs have to navigate right now. Being a police chief is a tough job, and you have to navigate through tough times. But being as frustrated as I am from the outside looking in, I don’t know that I would do a good job there.

Wexler: Isn’t Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department a good example of the reforms that can happen with strong leadership?

Lanier:   That’s the frustrating thing. I listen to some of the narrative, even with local reporters who have been around for many years and city councilmembers who have been on the council for a long time. They’re not letting history be part of these discussions. The history is that the Metropolitan Police Department has been through significant reforms and made an amazing transformation. It has a record of being transparent and engaged. To watch as people put the national narrative on every police department and start changing the laws to impact policing in this way is very frustrating to me.

Wexler: What about defunding? Could MPD have made the changes they did without resources?

Lanier:  We were in that leaky boat because of lack of funding. We didn’t have adequate resources. We didn’t have adequate equipment. We didn’t have overtime available to send people to the range to qualify. And it was obvious at the time. One of our reforms was the financial control board taking over the city, because there was inadequate funding available to properly staff and train the police department. Once the funding was available, we could properly staff and train the department and create these reforms. But they all cost a lot of money. The reforms under our MOA cost millions and millions of dollars.

Policing is held accountable for a lot of things. It gets frustrating because we know that a lot of the things we’re dealing with are the result of other systems failing – lack of proper education, lack of economic resources, lack of mental health care. Those are all things that lead police to managing things that other systems aren’t adequately covering.

I used to tell the mayor that there should be at least one performance metric for every city agency about what that agency is doing to reduce crime. In education, you might be addressing truancy. In public housing, you might be addressing issues there. Mental health should have 24-hour crisis response available. If every agency put money in their budget to accomplish one goal that supported the reduction of crime and violence, that would be the best allocation of the city’s budget.

I’m not saying you take that money away from the police department. But once you put money into those other agencies’ budgets so those agencies could start filling some of those gaps, maybe down the road you could reduce the police budget. But you can’t reduce the police budget until those systems take up those things that are missing. 


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.