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Women in Law Enforcement

If men who enter the front lines of law enforcement are considered brave, then women with the same calling should be considered downright heroic. Not only do they face the same dangers and challenges on the street as their male counterparts, they must daily prove they are equal to their male peers and supervisors.

It's a tough assignment. It's probably why, although women began serving as officers more than 100 years ago, only 13 percent of law enforcement personnel are women. (In 1971, women accounted for just 1.4 percent of officers.) According to the National Center for Women & Policing (NCWP) about 15 percent of all state, municipal, and county police forces are women, but in state police departments only 6 percent are female.

This is despite the fact that studies dating back to the seventies have shown that women in law enforcement are at least as effective in carrying out their duties as men.

Police Departments have discovered that female officers bring particular talents to the job. These advantages include a less confrontational style, a lower likelihood of use of excessive force and the ability to use empathy to defuse tense situations.

These innate character differences between male and female officers hurt departments' credibility with the community and are financially costly. The NCWP reports that the average male officer is 8.5 times more likely to garner an excessive force complaint than a female officer. With excessive force liability lawsuits, the average male costs between 2.5 and 5.5 times more than the average female.

Smiling Policewoman

History of Women in Law Enforcement

The very early female criminal justice pioneers enforced the law but were also innately committed to taking on social work and community-oriented responsibilities. The first police departments in America were established in the 1800s and women began working as matrons in 1845, overseeing female inmates in New York City jails. These matrons, often the widows of fallen officers, sometimes guided or mentored their charges.

The best-known pioneers in police work from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century - Marie Owns, Lola Baldwin, and Alice Stebbins Wells - were permitted to take on some routine police tasks, but often found themselves protecting the welfare of women and children.

Women continued in law enforcement in limited ways through the Great Depression, when competition stiffened for jobs in all fields. Women who did manage to hold onto police jobs were often pulled off the street and were relegated to dispatch and other desk-bound jobs.

Opportunities opened up in the 1950's, when women were able to move into more male-oriented enforcement roles and could apply for promotion. When the International Association of Women Police was formed in 1956, women had a significant new source of support.

The need to fight vice - prostitution and illegal drug sales - in the 1960's was a boon for women officers. Higher ups knew women were key to the success of their vice squads. But these same women who constantly put themselves in danger, were not normally allowed to move from women's bureaus into regular patrolling.

In the 1970's police television shows like Get Christy Love and Police Woman made police women more acceptable to the public. The 1972 implementation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed gender discrimination in all public agencies, meant police agencies were required to hire and promote women on an equal basis with men.

Police Department glass ceilings really began to shatter in the eighties after Penny Harrington became the Chief of Portland Oregon's Police Bureau. In 1994, Atlanta Georgia woke up to find Beverly Harvard was its first Black and female police chief. In 1995, the International Association of Chiefs of Police identified barriers to female advancement and tore them down.

Today, more than 300 women serve as chiefs of police in departments across the nation.

The Trailblazers: Famous Women in Law Enforcement

There were several women who early on paved the way for other women by proving through their toughness and perseverance that women could make excellent officers. Lola Greene Baldwin and Alice Stebbins Wells often vie for the title of "first policewoman" but Marie Connelly Owns beat them by a decade.

Marie Owens was originally hired by the city of Chicago in 1889 as a health inspector charged with enforcing laws that forbid employing children under 14.

Her success in tracking down deadbeat dads -- whose abandonment of their families often forced their destitute children into the work force -- attracted the notice of the police chief. He brought her into the Chicago Police Force and placed her in the detective bureau.

She became Sergeant No. 97, with the same rank, salary, and badge and arrest privileges of male detectives.

Lola Greene Baldwin successfully ran the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) and Travelers Aid Society's project to ensure women's safety during Portland, Oregon's 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. After working for the YWCA for three years helping runaways and troubled young women, she convinced the Portland city council to create the Women's Auxiliary and add it to the Police Department for the protection of girls.

In 1908, at the rank of detective, she was sworn in as superintendent of the auxiliary. Until her retirement in 1922, her police work continued to focus on the protection of women. Baldwin also lobbied for laws to protect women and pushed for a home for troubled women. She advised other states and localities on women's law enforcement issues.

Alice Stebbins Wells, a former minister and member of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, petitioned her way onto the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in 1910. She was sworn in with arrest powers as the LAPD's first policewoman, charged with heading the "purity squad."

Her founding in 1915 of the International Association of Police Women, and her subsequent leadership of it, led immediately to dozens of other U.S. cities and several foreign nations' hiring of women police officers.

Gender Discrimination in Law Enforcement

While today's female officers aren't required to design and sew their uniforms and enforce purity laws as Alice Wells did in 1910, things are not exactly rosy at the station house. The ongoing under representation of women in law enforcement and the discrimination they face remains a critical issue for the criminal justice system.

A 2016 nationwide Pew Research Center survey of nearly 8,000 police officers, conducted by the National Police Research Platform, found that 43 percent of female officers felt their male counterparts were treated better. Only 6 percent of men had the same opinion.

There are laws and regulations that should ensure women officers receive equal pay and are safe from discrimination and harassment, but they are difficult to enforce in male dominated workplaces. According to a female officer-oriented website, the "number one obstacle women face in this field is the attitude of their co-workers. Although gender discrimination is against the law, it is still a major issue in the workplace."

One research study found that 17 out of 27 women reported they faced discrimination. The women who said they didn't themselves experience discrimination, said they knew of other women who had.

One officer, on her Facebook page, sought the stories of other female officers. The respondents reported:

  • Being passed over for special assignments and hearing male colleagues declare her place was in the kitchen. Although her police officers' association pressed her to file a complaint, she said it was the last thing she wanted to do.
  • Experiencing harassment by a fellow officer who went as far as urinating in front of her while on patrol. There were also racial slurs. She temporarily left police work but returned determined to document everything and seek intervention.
  • Having a male officer seek to ruin her reputation by passing off to command staff a topless picture of another woman as her. Thanks to the other woman's tattoos, she was able to clear herself, but felt her reputation had still been harmed.

Women Will Help Lead Future Improvements in Law Enforcement

Despite the ongoing and offensive workplace issues many women officers face, there is reason for optimism.

Law enforcement agencies at all levels of government recognize that women officers balance and strengthen their forces. Some women may lack the physical strength of men, but their bravery, creativity, and verbal skills make them invaluable officers. Women are less likely to draw their guns, more likely to look for nonphysical solutions, and excel at community outreach.

Many believe that the only real solution to workplace discrimination is having more women enter the field and rise through the ranks.

At the 2017 Generation W conference, which featured newsmakers from across the country, there was an all-female panel of law enforcement leaders. One participant, Michelle Cook, of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Department, said she believed the best way to attract more women is to re-frame what law enforcement is all about.

Major Annmarie Cardona of the North Miami Police Department agreed. Police work should be portrayed less as SWAT work and running through the streets, she said. "Yeah, that's part of the job, but not what we do every day.

Every day, she continued, they are responding to calls, educating people, and providing social services. "That's what we do on a day-to-day-basis and that's what we have to start showing the community."

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