The Greatest Factor in Improving Police

Thankfully, the line which kept women out of policing has now been crossed!
Thankfully, the line which kept women out of policing has now been crossed!

This month is women’s history month.

What better time to talk about the important role women have played, and continue to play, within our nation’s police.

Women have long worked in police departments in caretaker capacities such as jail matrons or youth officers, but it wasn’t until nearly half way through the 20tth century that they became fully sworn police officers (and equal to men).

In Madison, Wisc., women have now served in uniform for 40 years. When I arrived in Madison in 1972 as the new chief of police, women officers were limited to working with juveniles. They were further required to have a 4-year college degree (the men were not). They also were not permitted to carry a firearm, nor even compete for promotion.

When I interviewed for the chief’s job, I told them that I would integrate the department with regard to both race and gender. In early 1973, we began the enormous task of integrating women into the ranks, moving all current Policewomen to the rank of Detective, issuing and training them in firearms use, and opening up our promotional system to them. Needless to say, it was not without resistance!

We had not only to devise a new fitness test for applicants, but also to begin to unravel the prejudices against women in the ranks and in the homes of male officers. The first women experienced both resistance and harassment that lasted well into the 1980s in spite of my continuing strong commitment to them. But we overcame it and today the department is of proper proportions with regard to race and gender. As a side note, I believe minority males initially faired better than the women (“At least they are men!).

In the past, women served in limited police roles.
In the past, women served in limited police roles.

Leading  this enormous and game-changing transformation, I knew that the success would be in the numbers. We would not just hire a few “tokens.” For well over a decade I required at least one-half of every recruit class hired to be women and minority candidates. Yes, the numbers were that important to our success.

Adequate numbers of women means above 20 percent — maybe even one-half. Simply having one or two women in a police agency is not enough for them to positively influence the organization (and find the support they need). I can’t imagine what policing would be like today without them.

Today, women and racial minorities have changed not only the face of policing but also improved its style.

Throughout our nation’s history there have been only a few national attempts to improve our criminal justice system. President Johnson’s 1967 Crime Commission was one of them. In the mid-60s, a prominent group of citizens, police and academics were called together to make recommendations regarding the improvement of our system of justice. As to police, the commission made some important recommendations (only a few, however, remain).

Looking back, they missed the most important factor that would forever positively transform and improve our nation’s police — they got it right as to the need to racially integrate a police department — but they forgot about the women.

At the time, I think the commission was over-loaded with the need to open the ranks of police to people of color (as they certainly needed to be). Nevertheless, things were stirring among the feminists in our nation. I would like to be able to say that the change came because of outstanding leadership in the police field, but it didn’t.  It changed because civil rights advocates finally got the law on their side. Most chiefs of police were slow to act. Their mayors were not.

I wrote in my recent book, Arrested Development, about this period of time:

“Police must encourage and select the finest and the brightest to serve as police officers.

“[The integration] didn’t happen overnight. In most instances, it didn’t happen through police leadership, but by the changing color and gender of the electorate in our nation’s cities. What may have been the most difficult task of police administrators came about through legal mandates and civic elections, not because they were seeking diversity in their ranks. The forces behind those court decisions and electoral politics were that of a nation weary and angry at the injustices of racial segregation and keeping women out of all-male workplaces. So it didn’t take long for elected officials to see that women and racial minorities were moved into the ranks of their police departments in our nation’s larger cities in spite of police resistance in the ranks.

“During the early 70s, our nation’s law and culture were rapidly changing. There is no doubt in my mind that President Johnson’s adding “gender” in 1968 to the anti-discrimination list of “race, religion, and national origin” was a huge opportunity for women to serve in non-traditional jobs. This executive order assisted one of the most fundamental goals of a professional police—diversity. It enabled women as well as minorities and, eventually, those with  different sexual orientations, to come to see the police as representing them, their interests—something that before had been almost unimaginable. But again, with a small number of exceptions, it didn’t come about from police. Even today, most departments are sorely deficient in numbers of women police and even more so in the top ranks.

Today, women police serve in all areas and ranks.
Today, women police serve in all areas and ranks.

Today women are found in every conceivable law enforcement unit and at most every level. But how far has the policing come in terms of female representation?  Here are some national statistics Crime Data Brief Women in Law Enforcement, 1987 – 2008:

  • Among local agencies in 2007, women accounted for more than double the percent of sworn personnel in large agencies compared to small agencies.
  • The percent of female officers in local police departments increased steadily between 1987 and 2007, from 7.6% in 1987 to nearly 12% in 2007.
  • In 2007, the Detroit Police Department had the highest percentage (27%) of female officers among the largest police departments, followed by Philadelphia (25%), The District of Columbia (23%) and Chicago (23%) — Madison, Wisc. had over 30 percent.

I would also add that although most police agencies have a significant number of women in entry and first-line supervision, their numbers in the top command ranks are not in the same percentage. A glass ceiling seems to exist in policing as well as the corporate world. It is something out nation’s police leaders must soon rectify. Although we have recently seen women chiefs appointed in Minneapolis and San Diego!

When Alice Wells pinned on her badge with the LAPD in the early 1900s, she said, “I don’t want to make arrests, I want to keep people from needing to be arrested…” An interesting notion and one that I believe still holds today. Perhaps it is why women are effective police officers. To read more CLICK HERE.

My first acquaintance with the literature in the field came In 1972 with Catherine Milton’s Women in Policing. She wrote this for the Police Foundation and it became one of the first publications on the subject. It had enormous impact. For my own part, the change in my attitude about hiring women came about when I went to Europe and studied their police just after I got out of graduate school.  Most of them fully employed women and found them to be effective. I changed my mind.

In my own experience, I would have to add and highlight the contribution of Lesbian women to our department. As it turned out, they were our greatest recruiting base and some of our best leaders. Early on, our city stood firm not only with regard to discrimination because of race, religion, gender, or ethnicity — but also with regard to sexual orientation.

It was not easy for minorities or women (be they straight or gay) to break into policing, but the department prevailed and maintained a healthy and positive workplace for everyone who qualified to wear one of their badges. My last blog addressed the importance of what I called “Google-hiring.” And it strongly applies here.

Today’s policing skills must include soft skills as well as the hard, tactical skills; skills like leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn. We certainly know that Google would not overlook a good candidate because of that person’s race, gender, ethnicity, national origin — or sexual orientation. Neither should police.

Well, the rest is history and it is still unfolding. Today, our mothers and sisters continue to shout out with rolled up sleeves — “We can do it!” Yes, they can and, I would conclude, they did!

[I have two earlier blogs on this subject: Tribute to Women Police and They’ve Come a Long Way. Interested in more of the history of women police? Alan Duffin has done a good job of documenting this movement in his book, History in Blue: 160 Years of Women Police, Sheriffs, Detectives and State Troopers.]


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