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Challenges for Women in Policing

Written by Shannon Woolsey

It has been 100 years since Alice Stebbin Wells became the first woman to be known as a “police woman” when she joined the Los Angeles Police Department in 1910. She handled cases involving women, juveniles and children. There has been some dispute over who actually was the first female police officer due to the fact that early women in policing had such varied job tasks and did not do street patrol.

They were often viewed as mothers with badges. Some of their early duties involved patrolling dance halls to keep tango dancers at least 10 inches apart and patrolling beaches to stop clandestine activity. By the early 1960s, about 2,400 women were serving municipal police departments in the United States.

It was not until 1968 that the Indianapolis Police Department made history by assigning two female police officers to patrol on an equal status with male counterparts. Following the women’s movement and the passage of the Equal Opportunity Employment Act in the 1970s, more women began entering the field of law enforcement.

It was predicted by researchers in the late 1980s that by the turn of the 21st century, the number of women in law enforcement would reach nearly 50 percent of the workforce. Those predictions never materialized. The growth of women in policing has progressed slowly and has not shown significant gains during the last several years. In 2008, according to the Census Bureau, there were 99,000 female police officers out of approximately 884,000 officers, which is 11 percent of policing.

Numerous studies have been completed since the 1970s when women were first entering the field of law enforcement. The studies revealed time and time again that women can and do perform all the duties of patrol officers, and also excel in many areas. The question of physical strength continues to emerge when the issues of female police officers are brought up; however, physical strength has not been shown to predict either general police effectiveness or the ability to be successful in handling dangerous situations. Nor has physical strength been shown to play a role in line-of-duty deaths. Most police fatalities are related to gunfire and automobile accidents.

Studies have shown that women in policing are less likely to use excessive and deadly force. They are also less likely than their male coworkers to be involved in fights or acts of aggression on the job. Female officers rely more on interpersonal skills than physical force. Women are known to deescalate potentially violent situations more often than men. This emphasis on communication goes a long way in the modern approach to policing known as “community policing.” Police departments are leaning more toward community partnerships and proactive problem-solving versus the “tough guy” reactive approach popular in years past.

Research supports that women do experience unique workplace stressors and issues, such as language harassment, sex discrimination and a lack of mentors/role models. Additional barriers that have been identified are double standards and the issue of balancing family with career. The primary deterrent to women entering the field of law enforcement remains the icy welcome they receive from some of their male colleagues. Women face certain psychological pressures not encountered by men.

Peer acceptance is one of the greatest pressures operating within police organizations. The desire to be known as a “good officer” is a strong motivating factor, and failure to achieve that status can be very demoralizing and devastating. Unlike their male counterparts, women must overcome the societal prejudice of being known as the “weaker sex.” Many female officers also report feeling they have to work twice as hard to prove themselves and to be accepted, whereas male officers can just show up and gain acceptance.

Entrance exams for police jobs often require tests of physical agility, and some have been considered gender-biased. Some departments have required the scaling of a 5- or 6-foot solid wall, which requires great upper body strength and may keep many women from passing, no matter how strong or agile they are. Certain departments are revising their physical entrance exams, realizing that the 5- or 6-foot solid walls are discriminatory and in need of review.

The women who could scale such a wall would be so drained of energy, they would likely find it difficult to complete the rest of the test in the allotted timeframe. Some changes being made to the agility testing allow for two foot braces providing foot leverage, making it easier to scale the wall, as well as more realistic.

Sexual harassment is also a primary area of concern and more prevalent in male-dominated workplaces. In November of 2008, a female officer in the LAPD canine bomb unit was awarded $2.25 million in a sexual harassment lawsuit, stating that male members of the unit exposed their genitalia, made inappropriate remarks and excluded her from training opportunities (Patricia Fuller v. City of Los Angeles).

To make matters worse, LAPD paid out an additional $3.6 million to a male member of the same unit who was the only person to come to the defense of the harassed woman. The 21-year veteran suffered retaliation by being stripped of his rank and kicked out of the elite unit (Donald Bender v. City of Los Angeles).

Legal opinions from federal court cases have indicated that a code of silence often exists in these types of cases. Preliminary results showed that subjects who report incidents of sexual harassment may be subjected to a variety of retaliatory behavior designed to deter them from reporting illicit behaviors. The retaliatory behavior is often in the form of shunning, isolating and ostracizing the victim; failing to provide backup in critical situations; and refusing to communicate or cooperate with the victim on assignments. This type of behavior manifests in preventing or delaying victim reporting and reinforces the code of silence.

This sends a clear message about the treatment the victim should expect to receive if a report is made. The practice of hiring and retaining more women will lessen a department’s liability by reducing the numeric underrepresentation of female officers. An increased number of women can have a definite impact on reducing the climate of sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

Yet another deterrent for female police is balancing family and work, as well as pregnancy. Women who are considering a career in law enforcement need to know that, should they choose to become a mother, their job will not be in jeopardy. The Federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act requires employers to treat women affected by pregnancy, childbirth or related conditions the same as other persons who are not affected but are similar in their ability or inability to work. The act is designed to guarantee women the right to participate fully and equally in the workplace while also not denying them the right to have a family.

The most important step a department can take is to have a comprehensive policy regarding pregnancy made available to all female employees. The policy should address the Family Medical Leave Act, a light duty policy, disability insurance and paid leave issues, as well as uniform modifications and firearm qualification adjustments due to potential lead poisoning. Pregnancy is a part of life for many women; employers who fail to accommodate the combined demands of work and pregnancy threaten to rescind decades of advances for women in the workplace.

Police work remains a male-dominated field; however, many progressive police chiefs would like to hire more women but are finding a shortage of qualified applicants. In order for the pool of qualified women to increase, agencies need to send a clear message that women are welcome and will be valued. Some departments are going as far as specifically recruiting female officers.

Consent decrees remain one of the most valuable tools for increasing the number of women in law enforcement. Studies show that they are associated with a pace of progress double that of agencies without such decrees. Furthermore, studies have shown that when such consent decrees expire, that growth slows considerably in many cases. Consent decrees may be necessary until police departments are willing and capable of successfully hiring and retaining females.

Instituting a mentor program can go a long way in retaining female officers. Some women in smaller departments are entering as the only female in the department. This can make it more difficult to succeed knowing women face challenges and obstacles that their male colleagues do not. To alleviate this feeling of isolation, researchers recommend mentoring programs. They can be formal or informal.

Mentoring operates under the assumption that people relate more positively and readily to peer assistance than to supervisory direction. It provides an atmosphere for non-threatening growth and learning opportunities. The benefits of a mentoring program are extensive and include improved job performance, increased cohesiveness and cooperation, and improved morale of female officers.

With the cost of hiring, training and retaining a new employee estimated at about $40,000, it is beneficial to departments to utilize every tool available to keep new employees. An additional benefit of mentoring is that it can greatly reduce liability by providing a support system to resolve sexual harassment or gender complaints before they escalate into costly law suits.

Regardless of the type of mentoring program chosen by a department, the goal is to encourage one-to-one partnerships which cultivate professional growth for the individual, the department and the community, while reducing the costs associated with attrition.

The goal of a progressive police department should always be to recruit and retain a quality group of officers who reflect and represent the community they serve. This should include women and other minorities. The 21st century police officer is one who embodies not only physical strength, but also strength in character, communication and problem solving. The ideal officer is neither male nor female but a combination of admirable and reputable traits that embody what our communities desire in the new age of policing.

It is time to redefine the outdated image of male police officers who are unapproachable and defined primarily by their prowess. Both genders bring exceptional qualities to policing that, when combined, provide for excellent service and infinite wisdom.

Police departments should take the necessary measures to ensure that they provide that mix of qualities by recruiting and retaining quality female candidates. They should involve male officers in the mentoring process who outwardly exhibit the acceptance necessary to provide a supportive learning and working environment for women. Furthermore, they should implement supportive and clear sexual harassment and pregnancy policies. The question is no longer whether women should be in law enforcement, but when their representation will be sufficient.

Shannon Woolsey has been a patrol officer for 10 years with the City of Town and Country Police Department. She can be reached at woolseys@town-and-country.org.

Photos by James Gorman.

Published in Law and Order, Oct 2010

Rating : 4.8


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