Hiring Women — The Best Thing I Did!

Madison police officers (the department has sustained 25-30% women in its ranks during and since my tenure. One of the highest in the nation. It is change for the good that has lasted!).

I wasn’t always a champion of women police officers. It came about slowly during my early years on the street but most of all because of my university education and an awareness I had about the growing feminist movement.

I didn’t have much success in Burnsville convincing the city manager that women police were a good idea. Minorities, yes. Women, no. My boss in Burnsville was a strong believer in civil rights and the importance (even in suburban Burnsville) for us to bring racial minorities into the department — but he didn’t want to go so far as to recruit women.

But in Madison things were different. I knew the times were changing and my pitch to the police commission who would hire me was that I would bring women into the police department. I shared with them the feelings and values I had about doing this.

This was a bold step in the early 70s. Only a few years earlier in 1967, a national presidential commission on the police recommended that police have college degrees and that they hire minority officers, but they failed to recommend that women be assigned other than as juvenile officers.

Nevertheless, I held a deep-seated feeling that the diversification of the police service was essential in terms of both race and gender if American policing was to ever move ahead. Looking back, I have to admit that the civil rights and feminist movements did more to improve our nation’s police than almost any other movement. Few of my colleagues held the same views I did about women poilce. After all, integrating police with women and minorities was more about politics than the values of the police leaders during my day.

When I took over the leadership of the Madison Police Department there were seven “policewomen” on staff who served as youth officers (“kiddy cops” in the vernacular of police at that time). They were required to have a college degree, while the men did not. They were not permitted to carry a firearm, while, of course, the men did. But most glaring inequality was that women were not permitted to compete for promotion to higher ranks. I quickly moved to change all that. I wanted women in leadership positions on my department and (luckily) I had the Madison community on my side, but not the police department.

An excerpt from my book which portrayed a small piece of the resistance in our all-male ranks to diversifying the department:

“I remember one morning attending a briefing of senior day-shift officers, most all of whom were males older than I was. They soon were complaining about the changes going on within the department—such as hiring women and developing policies that restricted the use of deadly force or allowing a supervisor to call off a high-speed chase if the pursuit became too dangerous. [Most commonly the question about both women and minority officers was, “How many more do we have to have, Chief?”]

“As the grousing continued, I remember asking them a question that began this way: “When I came to the department, many of your wives told me they were embarrassed to say their husbands were police officers. They shared with me that those days of riot and turmoil took a toll on them and your children, as well. Looking back, I want to ask you one question: Is that the case now? Or are your wives and children proud that you are a Madison police officer or not?” I had made a point, and it was quiet in the room.

We all knew that women and minority officers had made a difference, a big difference, in how we were viewed by the community in which we worked…

“We all knew what had happened since I had become chief. Yes, things had changed and they had changed a lot. but they had changed for the better. They all knew that each one of them had benefited from the department’s effort to professionalize—to be the best police department possible. They knew they were no longer considered pariahs. They now were seen as respected professionals. We had all benefited.

And a great part of this community “benefit” was the fact that I had brought large numbers of competent and highly-qualified women and minority officers into our ranks. On the other hand, Black and Hispanic males had it a lot easier. They were men.

Today, over 30 percent of the Madison Police Department is female. It was one change that has strongly sustained itself.

But for the first women I hired, the road ahead was not easy. They had many obstacles to overcome and quite a lot of internal discrimination.

By August, 1974, I was able to field my first recruit class after six months of training. Six of the 27 new officers were women. I write in my book what I said to those new Madison police officers on that historic day:

“I expect you to employ your full skill at all times and to all persons. I expect you to be able to prevent crime, manage, or intervene in situations requiring police service. I expect you to be open, to accept change in this changing world, to develop and maintain a broad perspective of your function and the society in which you work, to be flexible and to develop the ability to grow with the people you serve…”.

I also reflect in my book…

“I was committed to hiring a new kind of person to be a police officer in Madison—people who would share my dream, and educated men and women who’d thought they’d never consider being a police officer until they heard about what we were doing in Madison. Consequently, those men and women whom I selected during my career are still contributing to the department today. They are the ones now who sustain the dream… The officers I tended to hire were older, more educated, and either racial minorities or women. I had to make a large leap to bring the personnel of the department around to reflect the community it served….”

I knew that change had to begin at the top of the department, but I also learned that in order to sustain any change, it must also begin at the entry level — in the kind of police officers I hired.


A research project conducted in 1989 by the Police Foundation found that gender is not a valid reason to exclude women from police patrol work (of course this was six years after we had done so in Madison, but the research was necessary in order to quell continuing doubts about women police) – see http://www.policefoundation.org/pdf/womenonthemove.pdf for the entire report.

  1. Both female and male patrol officers responded to similar kinds of calls for service and encountered the same number of dangerous, angry, upset, drunk, or violent citizens. Although both groups obtained similar results when handling angry or violent citizens, the study noted that women patrol officers tended to be more effective than their male counterparts in avoiding violence and defusing potentially violent situations.
  2. The study found that women as a group made fewer arrests and gave fewer traffic citations. But the difference in arrest levels did not affect the women’s performance ratings.
  3. Researchers discovered that women were less likely than men to engage in serious unbecoming conduct.
  4. Women were also more likely to be assigned to light duty as a result of injuries. But these injuries did not cause them to be absent from work more often than men.
  5. Citizens involved in incidents with police officers had the same level of respect for and favorable attitudes toward patrol officers of both sexes. Female and male officers did not differ in terms of their respect for and attitudes toward citizens with whom they came into contact.


  1. In regards to point #4 in the blog which states that research on female officers showed that women were more likely to be put on light duty from injuries than men were:

    I recall that during my early policing days as one of only a handfull of women working patrol on the streets in Madison in the early 1980’s, we talked about the fact that male officers who got injured on duty refused to go on light duty or complete work comp forms to document their injuries because it was perceived as being weak. Female officers started changing the thinking on this practice, making it acceptible to file injured officer forms and go on light duty to heal more quickly and get treatment so that injuries were not lasting and debilitating, requiring early disability retirement. Once we changed the customary practice of toughing out injuries on the street without treatment, the men started accepting this change and eventually recognized that it was to their benefit to document their injuries, get treatment quickly, and get back on the street fully healed instead of with injuries that compromised their abilities.


    1. Being among the very first women Chief Couper hired, I wondered how criteria had been set for determining what kind of woman he and the board wanted. We had a very wide range of backgrounds from high school only to Masters degrees, married, single, children, none and varying in age in my class of only six women (and 14 men) from 18 to 48. Often, I was the only woman at the 10:30 briefing! We found over time that we created our own ways of handling certain calls. For instance, a male officer responding to a bar fight was trained to id the primary instigator(s) and take them outside, away from their ‘audience’, their “supporters”. We learned to do the opposite, to keep that man where his friends & fellow drunks could see him. Even in that condition, most men won’t strike a woman. Soon, the audience usually started shouting and shaming this fella with “Oh, big tough guy, hit a girl, go ahead…” and in my 18 years, I was never punched by a drunk. Likewise, domestic disputes, sexual assaults and many other common calls were changed in the way women and in fact, all officers responded to them. Training changed in dozens of ways and responses to community needs did likewise. In the first years, male cops were mostly opposed to hiring women for patrol (or at least, in front of their buddies they were opposed) but within a few years, I began to hear officers on the radio asking if a woman officer was working tonight. The tough stuff the male officers & detectives put women officers through in those early years, well, much of it would be illegal today. We succeeded by ignoring the nasty and even dangerous bs we suffered from some, by being top notch at our jobs and occasionally pulling up with two coffees and a little ego massage. I could always ask after the kids and soak the bruises later. After a few more years, all officers had women in their academy classes and any charges of female inferiority disappeared.


      1. Right on, Chris! You and the other women were part of a magnificent American experiment — and it worked! We were into diversity and thus the ranging backgrounds of those who put a badge on in Madison. Most of them have told me that they knew Madison was the place they need to be. And the Madison PD would give them a chance and that the chief had their backs!

        I know you all suffered while breaking the gender barrier but I have to say that I think it was worth it. Look where the department is today — 30% women officers (one of the largest percentages in the U.S.). All because you and your colleagues stood up and braced up. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!


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