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Gender and Excessive Force Complaints

Many studies on the benefits of diversity in the law enforcement profession have taken place. Most of these studies focused on the ways in which diversity would improve community policing efforts. However, very little research has been published on the role gender plays in police misconduct. Some imagine it has little impact. Others wonder whether an officer’s size, demeanor, or gender might actually increase the incidence of higher levels of police force.

In reality, the evidence supports those who assert that women are well-suited in many instances to deal with potentially violent situations in ways their male counterparts are not. There is, in fact, a correlation between gender, incidents seen as misconduct by the police, and cash payout for such actions.

A controversial step when first taken in the 1970s, the presence of female officers in patrol and other field-related assignments has become a norm of policing and is seen in small and large communities across the nation. With more than 30 years of data from which to glean some conclusions, one can gain a sense of whether or not gender plays a significant role in police misconduct.

Male Aggression and Policing

Sigmund Freud’s research on male aggression indicates that men generally have two intense impulses: Thanatos and Eros (death and/or destruction, and sexual urges). Following this logic, all males are born with the instinctive impulse to devour not only food, but also all frustrating objects. In addition, all males have the capacity for sexual desire. The difference between an “instinct” and a “capacity” is crucial. An instinct demands and outlet. A capacity is only latent—and may never be brought into play.

Women on the other hand, are less likely to act on violent impulses. According to researcher Anne Campbell, women generally have a greater fear of physical harm; and during conflicts, women usually adopt resolution strategies that involve lower risks of physical harm than their male counterparts.

The law enforcement profession is experiencing a significant change from the late 1980s and early 1990s. Citizen and community groups are less tolerant of police misconduct and excessive force. Law enforcement officers are now expected to be reflections of their communities and responsive to the needs of all residents. Public activists expect law enforcement officers to consistently resolve conflicts without the use of force.

It is impossible to resolve all conflicts without any use of force. However, according to research from the National Center for Women and Policing, many police and community leaders believe female police officers are substantially less likely than their male counterparts to be involved in problems of excessive force. Women currently comprise about 13 percent of the total sworn personnel in large metropolitan police agencies.

Yet, data from the NCWP indicates that only 5% of the citizen complaints for excessive force and 2% of the sustained allegations in large police agencies [agencies with 500 or more sworn personnel] involve female police officers. Female officers also account for only 6% of the dollars that are paid out in court judgments and settlements for excessive force among these large police agencies.

In contrast, the average civil liability payout for male police officers ranges from about 2 ½ to 5 ½ times the amount of payouts for female police officers in excessive force judgments. The average male police officer is more than 8 ½ times more likely than his female counterpart to have an allegation of excessive force sustained against him. The average male police officer is two to three times more likely than the average female police officer to have a resident name him in a complaint of excessive force.

See the NCWP Web site for details of two excessive force payout studies, one involving the Los Angeles Police Department, and one involving the Cincinnati, OH Police Department.

Why is there such a discrepancy in the use of force between male and female officers? According to criminologist James Messerschmidt, “…sociologists and criminologists have known for quite a while that there is a relationship between masculinity and crime, for gender has been advanced consistently as the strongest predictor of criminal involvement.”

In addition, research conducted by the National Center for Women in Policing reports varying opinions on why male officers are more likely to be involved in use of force incidents than their female counterparts. Generally speaking, men are inherently stronger than women. This might account for the differences in an officer’s willingness to use force to resolve conflict.

Some might suggest that male officers are more concerned with improving their physical characteristics [i.e. strength training and tactical skills] rather than their intellectual capacities [i.e. persuasion and negotiation skills]. This notion may be due to the belief that strength counts when persuasion and negotiation fail. Generally speaking, female police officers often rely on negotiation, persuasion, and effective communication to resolve conflict.

According to a Washington Times report, the communication and persuasion skills exhibited by female police officers are easier and more instinctive than the immediate threat and/or use of physical force.

A Perspective from the Street

Fresno Police Department Sergeant Elizabeth Marmolejo is a 12-year veteran of the Fresno Police Department. Marmolejo summarized her feelings in response to the question: Are male officers more likely to engage in use of force incidents than female officers?

She said, “Generally speaking, female police officers are more resilient than male police officers. Female officers often enter the law enforcement profession with very little upper body strength, limited tactical skills, and minimal exposure to a predominantly male-oriented work setting.

Over time, female police officers develop physical strength, obtain tactical proficiency, and successfully assimilate into the male-oriented working environment.

However, after obtaining physical and tactical skills and becoming proficient with both lethal and less-lethal technology, female police officers never forget how to use their most valuable tool in law enforcement—their ability to prevent and/or defuse conflict rather than provoking it and/or responding to it.”

Marmolejo’s opinion is similar to the thoughts of Fresno Police Department Sergeant Marty True. Sgt. True is a 20-year veteran of the department. He has served on the Fresno Police Department’s Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Team for more than 16 years. True said, “In my opinion, female officers are less likely to use force than male officers.

“I’ve supervised female officers in patrol during my assignment to the Violent Crime Suppression Unit and as a supervisor on the SWAT team. I can’t remember any incidents where a female officer was accused of being overly aggressive and involved in an excessive force allegation [of misconduct]. I believe female police officers are generally smooth talkers.”

True added, “I think [female officers] recognize their physical limitations and don’t rely on strength to control suspects; they primarily rely on talking their way through situations. In addition, I have never had a situation where force was required to resolve an incident and a female officer was reluctant to use it.”

Recruiting for Success

The Christopher Commission conducted an investigation on the use of force in the LAPD, after the 1991 videotaped beating of Rodney King. One of the conclusions the commission reported was that female police officers were better equipped to peacefully resolve situations of potential violence.

Female police officers have demonstrated their ability to perform all aspects of the law enforcement profession at the same levels of male police officers. If female police officers can perform the same duties as their male counterparts, and they are involved in fewer incidents that result in civil judgments awards, should law enforcement executives consider recruiting more female candidates?

Law enforcement executives should make efforts to ensure that their organizations are reflective of the communities they serve. Law enforcement agencies in California have been instituting strategies to diversify the workforce for many years. However, many minorities and women chose other career options because of the misperceptions about the acceptance and treatment of them within their ranks and within the communities they served.

Valuable Guide

The National Center for Women in Policing has created an extensive, relevant and guide for recruiting and retaining women useful for police agencies. Additional strategies that may be used by law enforcement agencies to enhance recruitment efforts might include collaboration with high schools and community colleges that have large minority student populations.

Organizational diversity should be reflected at all levels of the organization. Diversity within the law enforcement profession can enhance organizational communication, decrease tension within certain communities, increase public trust and confidence, and prevent certain preconceptions and stereotypes.

Recruiting the finest and most capable workers is a tremendous challenge. Law enforcement executives should develop a recruitment plan that defines their organization’s vision, goals, and objectives. The vision statement should highlight how the agency provides the highest level of service from a well-trained, diverse workforce. The goal of the agency should be to ensure that the workforce is diverse by continuously recruiting minorities and women.

According to California Commission on Peace Officer’s Standards and Training consultant Merle Switzer, the Sacramento Police Department is one of the state’s most innovative organizations in the recruitment of women and minorities. It has created two unique programs to enhance recruitment efforts: 1) The Female Fitness Challenge and 2) the Community Recruiter Program.

Fitness Challenge

The female fitness challenge is designed to assist female police officer candidates in successfully passing the department’s physical agility exam. The Sacramento Police Department employs about 700 sworn officers. About 12% of the sworn workforce is female. The department would like to increase the number of female police officers to 25% of the total number of sworn officers.

Although the Sacramento Police Department receives some well-qualified female applicants, a significant number of them fail the physical agility test. The female fitness challenge was created to combat the problems female candidates experienced on the agility test.

In addition to providing female candidates with an opportunity to develop the requisite skills needed to successfully pass the physical agility test, the fitness challenge enables female candidates to work with a personal trainer once a week over a three-month period to improve their overall physical condition.

The Community Recruiter Program was designed to enhance recruiting efforts in historically under-represented groups. The Community Recruiter Program consists of leaders from neighborhoods, associations, clubs, churches, and businesses who assist the police department in seeking out and recruiting police officer candidates.

The Sacramento Police Department has developed a three-hour training program for community recruiters. The training covers federal and state laws, the testing and selection process, and the academy and field training programs. In addition, a DVD has been developed outlining the selection, testing, and training processes for police recruits.

Each community recruiter is provided with a copy of the DVD and a recruiting handbook, which outlines and contains samples of the testing process. Each is assigned a police department recruiter who will assist with meetings, presentations, and the overall recruiting process. Last, the community recruiter can also assist the police department by serving as a panel member during the oral testing process and participating in recruitment booths at events.

Successful recruiting efforts will provide a foundation for policing in the future. Gender plays a pivotal role in police misconduct. Female police officers are involved in fewer incidents of excessive force than their male counterparts. In addition, female police officers are less likely to engage in behavior that results in damages awarded against their municipality and organization. One of the most beneficial contributions women bring to the law enforcement profession is their ability to de-escalate potentially volatile situations.

Female police officers have developed proficiencies in weaponry and enhanced their tactical skills; however, they primarily use their ability to gain compliance rather than relying on sheer force and brute strength. Certainly, there are times when force is necessary and must be used. However, force should not be the only tool in a police officers’ toolbox.

Men and women are both capable of resolving conflict without the use of force; however, women generally diffuse potential confrontations, not because they are not capable of using force to effect the desired results, but they prefer to use force as a last result. Male officers can learn something from female officers.

The next time a male officer is embroiled in a potentially volatile situation, he should consider using tactics that are frequently used by women to de-escalate and diffuse the situation, before resorting to force. This course of action could save the officer’s life, the life of a citizen; or it may save the officer’s city or county budget millions of dollars in civil damage payouts.

(Editorial Note: Captain Foster has extensive and detailed cash payout information associated with excessive force and police misconduct, and many other case studies that would not fit in the space of this article. Please contact him.)

Captain Keith Foster is a 20-year veteran of the Fresno, CA Police Department. His assignments have included being commander of the Management Support Bureau, where he was responsible for hiring and training police personnel. He is now the Northwest Policing District commander. He can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Aug 2006

Rating : 6.8

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Posted on : Nov 5 at 3:20 PM By Kim

Female police officers also have a much lower threat threshold than males so they are more likely to use deadly force if feeling threatened.

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