Are policewomen breaking the barriers inherent with the job?

In December 2018, close to 100 women – and only women – gathered to summarize what is known about women in law enforcement and what we still need to know. The DOJ organized the research review and conference.

A report, Women in Policing: Breaking Barriers and Blazing a Path, came out last year.

The conclusion is startling, even though it’s old news. The publication says, “Women officers are less likely than men to use force and…men officers are significantly more likely than women to engage in police misconduct.” Also, women are less likely to “underpolice.”

Force Multipliers

Police Chief magazine picked up the story in its April 2020 issue. You can Google the title, “The Numbers Fall Far Short of the Need.”

Retired Chief Ivonne Roman from Newark explained that women in uniform rack up fewer excessive-force complaints, fewer lawsuits, and so on. She wrote, “Female officers are more successful in defusing violent or aggressive behavior.” Community trust goes up when departments include more women, Roman said.

Two months later, after the death of George Floyd, CNN ran a story titled, “Want to Reform the Police? Hire More Women.” The network reviewed use-of-force incidents in four cities that track the gender of the officer involved to fact-check previous research. In Cincinnati, Indianapolis, New Orleans and Orlando, male officers “were involved in more use-of-force incidents than females.”

(Granted, the placement, voluntary or not, of men and women in different assignments may account for some of the discrepancy.)

CNN advocated pushing the proportion of women in law enforcement past the national average of 12 percent. Most big cities already exceed it, including HPD, which the story said is 17 percent female. Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, DC and Detroit all have more than 20 percent. But according to a 2013 study, less than 10 percent of first-line supervisors are women.

Back in the Day

Katharine van Wormer saw this coming 40 years ago. A criminal justice professor, her sarcastic 1981 article titled “Are Males Suited to Police Patrol Work?” helped get her fired from Kent State University. “It would simply never occur to anyone to ask” if men should be cops, she wrote. At the time, arguments that women did not belong in law enforcement were common.

Van Wormer’s review concluded that male officers were poorer at gaining cooperation than female officers. They might tend to “victimize the victims,” she said, and subject citizens to a “locker room” atmosphere. She condemned overly aggressive behavior by men and “serious unbecoming conduct which can damage community relations.”

Problems then, problems now. A recent survey of stress in 150 female first responders suggests a possible explanation for the bad behavior. One woman wrote, “I am much more proactive in processing traumatic events, rather than numb out to them with alcohol, sex, gambling [and} avoidance.”

Much has changed since Van Wormer was let go. I recall attending meetings in an HPD roll call room in the early 1990 under a bulletin board adorned with a nude Polaroid. There we sat, until one day an embarrassed female sergeant ripped it down as the group gathered. You won’t see that kind of decor anymore.

Sexual harassment policies have been created since the 1970s, when the earliest cases clarifying the law were decided. The “Breaking Barriers” study noted that now both men and women request reassignment and shift changes for family reasons. Society is different, not just law enforcement.

Toward Change

Unfortunately, the growth of women in policing seems to have stalled. If we agree that higher numbers mean healthier communities, how can we make that happen? The “Breaking Barriers” group offered recommendations.

First, change recruiting materials to reflect the de-escalation and negotiation that typically fill a shift, de-emphasizing what they called “cops and robbers” stereotypes. Countries that do so tend to have more women in the ranks.

Next, change the weight placed by recruiters and academy instructors on “seemingly irrelevant physical requirements that are never again tested in an officer’s career.” Physical agility tests deter many women from entering or completing training. Instead, the report advised, take a harder look at cadets’ ability to win cooperation with nonaggressive tactics.

The group questioned the importance of command presence, which felt a bit like blasphemy. Perhaps, they said, policing could shift “to a more open-minded definition of an effective leader.” They also hoped for more mentorship from men and women, a tougher response to harassment, and more family-friendly policies such as parental leave and fixed shifts, among other changes.

Many women—and other minorities—still encounter hostility. “Breaking Barriers” acknowledged that women do not always feel valued by male colleagues, or worse yet, don’t always feel they can trust them. Harassment remains a significant problem, and in some agencies, it keeps women from choosing elite assignments that might lead to promotion. And some female officers, the conference-goers said, are undermined by their lack of confidence in their own skills.

The simple competence and sometimes stellar achievements of female officers have erased any serious doubt about women’s suitability for police careers, but you can judge for yourself whether anything needs fixing. The report and the CNN and Van Wormer articles are all available online. Or skip the reading and rely on Chief Acevedo’s observation: “It doesn’t take testosterone to do the job.”

Maybe it gets in the way.

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