The Political Education Of Chief Gainer

Background in Illinois Prepared Hill’s Top Cop for New Role

Posted January 23, 2003 at 5:52pm

Terrance Gainer has never been one to back off from a tough fight.

In 1988, he challenged then-Illinois States Attorney Richard Daley (D) for his post. In doing so he took on not only the son of the legendary Chicago mayor but also the city’s most storied political machine, and made the bid as a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic county.

He lost, of course, but not before he raised about $750,000 and garnered about a third of the vote, an impressive feat for a political neophyte whose name was barely recognizable outside state law-enforcement circles.

Serving as the deputy director of the Illinois State Police at the time, Gainer had been recruited to run for the prosecutorial post by then-Gov. Jim Thompson (R).

“I had just enough ego, and had been an attorney, and thought it was a pretty logical step from policeman to prosecutor, that it didn’t seem as political as running for a House or Senate seat,” Gainer remembered. “Wow, what an education that was.

“That was the first, last and only time I’ve run for public office.”

Rep. Bobby Rush (Ill.), an alderman and Cook County Democratic committeeman at the time, remembers Gainer well.

“There are probably only two Republicans in Cook County associated with running for states attorney,” he said. “Most of the other candidates that have run have been lackluster, sacrificial lambs, but Terry was considered a very serious candidate.

“He faced tremendous odds, I share that vantage point with him, that he ran against a guy by the name of Richard Daley,” said Rush, who sought unsuccessfully to oust the same man from the mayor’s office in 1998.

Later in his Illinois law-enforcement career, Gainer again refused to shy away from a politically tinged challenge.

As director of the state police, a post he held from 1991 to 1998, Gainer led investigations into the administrations of then-Gov. Jim Edgar (R) and then-Illinois Secretary of State Jim Ryan (R).

In the latter case, Gainer launched the investigation into allegations that Ryan’s office gave fraudulent truck licenses, charges that eventually followed him into the governor’s mansion.

But it was the investigations of Edgar’s administration that proved the most politically difficult for Gainer, specifically a public corruption case that involved people who had contacts with the governor’s office.

Former U.S. Attorney Frances Hulin, who worked with the Illinois State Police closely throughout the course of the investigation, praised Gainer’s integrity.

“It was a very sensitive investigation. Terry took a pretty hard beating on that,” she said in an interview. “He exceeded what you expect in terms of the honorability of people. … He’d get a phone call from the governor’s office saying, ‘What are you doing talking to those people in Chicago?’”

Gainer maintains that Edgar allowed him the latitude he needed to conduct the investigation impartially and that the matter had nothing to do with his departure in 1998 to become Metropolitan Police Chief Charles Ramsey’s No. 2.

“When some of those investigations later in the years got close to his administration, and definitely never to Jim Edgar, but people very close to him, it was pressure-filled times,” he remembered. “I’d walk into a cabinet meeting, as I was a member of the cabinet, and some cabinet members [were] under investigation, so the conversation stopped.”

As for his style, Hulin said Gainer was always extremely hands-on. “He was actively involved with anything that was of significance,” Hulin said. “He’s a sharp man.”

But after four years at MPD working to reform Washington’s police department and a decorated law-enforcement career spanning three decades before that, the last thing Gainer expected to find himself doing when he took the helm of the Capitol Police was talking about hats.

But when Gainer took over as chief of the Capitol Police last June he wanted to find an easy way to boost the morale of the officers and eliminate what many among the rank and file saw as a needless accessory to the uniform. What he didn’t yet know is that nothing in Congress is that simple.

“When I met with different people almost everybody universally complained about wearing the hats. You wouldn’t think that in life’s scheme of things … we would be dwelling on hats, but that was one of the first issues to come up. They aren’t comfortable,” Gainer said in August.

So the blunt-speaking newcomer set out to fix what seemed like a minor issue. He asked the Capitol Police Board for the authority to let officers take off their hats.

“You could have heard a pin drop in the Police Board room,” Gainer remembered. “‘Gee, chief, I don’t know. You’re on to something pretty important. The Senators and Reps. like to see them with their hats on, so why don’t you hold off on that decision.’ And I walked out shaking my head saying, ‘Oh boy, I might be in for a long ride here.’”

Gainer has now been on the job for almost eight months. And though he had been warned that being the Hill’s police chief amounted to having 535 bosses, Gainer admits he still wasn’t prepared for the administrative hurdles.

“Honestly I don’t think I was that prepared,” Gainer said in an interview this month. “Between Appropriations and Administration on both sides and the Capitol Police Board, it is a bit more complicated than I thought. But it is part of the attractive, deliberative process of Congress.”

It took much longer than he thought, but Gainer eventually got what he wanted, at least in part. Officers can now take their hats off indoors — except in the Capitol.

“Everybody agreed — the officers and the Senate and House Sergeants-at-Arms — that the Capitol was different,” he said. “I was ready to say no hats in the Capitol, and that probably was a trigger that shouldn’t have been pulled.”

If Gainer chafes under the web of oversight, he certainly doesn’t show it. He seems to genuinely respect the institution and hasn’t had a visible conflict with the many officials and committees — including the House and Senate Sergeants-at-Arms, the House Administration Committee, the Senate Rules and Administration Committee and both chambers’ Appropriations subcommittees on the legislative branch — with a direct say in how he manages the department.

And the reaction to his leadership among officers has ranged from measured optimism to outright adoration.

“We’re seeing for the first time a chief who is here for us and [to] help the department,” said a veteran officer who has been with the force for 15 years. “He’s not just a ‘yes man,’” the officer added, referring to his position vis-à-vis the Police Board, comprised of the House and Senate Sergeants-at-Arms and the Architect of the Capitol.

With regard to hats, that officer said Gainer’s push to allow officers to take them off was an act of “kindness and reason” that has raised morale. “We are the only police in the city now wearing hats. It’s like a horse with blinders,” she said, explaining that the hats obstruct the view of an officer “wanding” an individual at security checkpoints, causing an unneeded distraction and safety risk.

“It’s a real headache — literally — to wear a hat eight, 12 or 16 hours a day, a task [police] officials do not have to contend with, since most of their day is spent in a detail office or headquarters with their hats off,” the cop said.

The chasm between rank-and-file officers and officials to which the officer referred is something Gainer wants to dissolve. He began doing so one of his first days on the job by choosing to drive a marked squad car rather than the unmarked SUV his predecessor rode. Other top officials in the department were asked to do the same.

Gainer dons a uniform for work — something former Chief Jim Varey did rarely, to the chagrin of some officers. He also has begun to institute a policy in which all officers will wear the same color shirt. During the winter months, sergeants and below wear dark-blue shirts, while lieutenants and above currently wear white. Soon everyone will wear the dark blue, and Gainer has already begun doing so himself.

“I want to demonstrate that, first off, we are police officers, serving in different capacities,” he said. “Some are police officers who are K-9 people, and some who are chiefs, but bottom line, when something happens up here in defense of a person or in defense of the Capitol, we’re all just police officers.”

Although Gainer recognizes the impact changing internal policies such as uniform rules can have on morale, he is the first to say the Capitol Police has to be “more than a happy, well-dressed force.”

“You’ve got to have a mission, and you’ve got to be trained, and you’ve got to challenge each other, and you’ve got to be ready to do what we were hired to do, and that’s defend the Capitol complex, the buildings, the people and the principles that we stand for.”

When Gainer took the helm of the Capitol Police last year, the force was rapidly losing officers to other federal agencies at a time more was demanded of the Hill’s police agency than just a year earlier. The past half-year has seen a lot of change for the force.

“Attrition is down to where attrition normally is — or less — because it’s a more attractive organization. And the quality of candidates we’re getting in here is high and the completion rate is very high,” he said.

Some of the changes have been a matter of tone. The union and department management attended the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies conference as a team for the first time in November. Last year the force became the first full-service federal law-enforcement agency to receive the highly sought CALEA accreditation.

And Gainer worked to resolve a long-running dispute with the Office of Compliance. “The only thing we ought to be disagreeing on is approach” on how to best protect officers, he said. The conflict over access to department safety plans predated Gainer but according to those familiar with the dispute improved when he arrived. The two agencies “couldn’t reach across the table and shake each other’s hands, and that’s troubling,” Gainer said.

At times, officers have bemoaned the menial quality of their duties, especially manning doors, and have asked for more challenging assignments. Initially Gainer’s response to that was to try to find as many off-campus opportunities as possible in which they could participate. To that end, Capitol Police officers have assisted the Metropolitan Police Department during International Monetary Fund and World Bank protests. Others helped area police agencies with the sniper investigation. And a few officers serve as department liaisons at the CIA and the State Department.

“The officers have responded well to that, but I also think I’ve grown in my understanding of that,” Gainer said. “The officers want opportunities within the complex. And they are not shy, nor am I, about saying that it is a noble thing to [guard] a post.

“They also want to know, ‘Am I going to have an opportunity for advancement — sergeant, lieutenant, captain, … K-9 officer or a bomb-detection officer or a [Containment Emergency Response Team] member,’” he said.

In order to facilitate mobility, Gainer has opened up the process, advertising the jobs and moving officers between assignments.

“Everybody is looking for a little bit of change-up.”

The need for change is something Gainer appreciates. He moved to Washington in 1998 because he was looking for a change in his own law-enforcement career.

In May of that year Ramsey appointed Gainer executive assistant chief of MPD. The two knew each other from the Chicago Police Department — where Gainer had spent more than a decade working through the ranks as a homicide detective, sergeant and executive assistant — and Gainer had sought the post as a transition back into big-city policing.

It was his second stint in Washington. From 1989 to 1991 he served as special assistant to the secretary and director for drug enforcement and compliance in the Transportation Department in the first Bush administration.

In addition to his political exposure, Gainer was also a practicing attorney, serving as the chief legal counsel of the Chicago Police Department from 1981 through 1984. He was admitted to the Supreme Court Bar in 1997.

Gainer recognizes that having been a practicing attorney and run for political office aren’t exactly typical credentials for a police chief. But lawyers and public servants are hardly an odd breed on the Hill, and perhaps that makes the new chief a good fit.

“Maybe it was one of the reasons, and you’d have to ask others, that they selected me for it. Maybe they thought the interesting law-enforcement career with an understanding of what it means to be an elected official was an extra ticket that other people didn’t have,” he said.

“Even back from my MPD days or being director of the Illinois State Police for six or seven years, I definitely had a much better sense of the community’s role in governing than I think not having that experience.”

And running the Capitol’s police force is nothing if not community governing.