Women Police: The Way Forward

In past, women served in limited duty assignments.
In the early days, women did parking enforcement, served as jail matrons, or working with juvenile divisions.

WOMEN POLICE: A PICTORIAL HISTORY: From limited to full duty as police officers.

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

Only since the early 70s with federal laws prohibiting discrimination in employment, did cities begin to think about hiring women as full police officers.







But hiring women meant making changes in how police were recruited, selected, trained, and led. All those changes improved the “lot” of both police men and women. However, in order for women to make a difference they must be in sufficient numbers within the ranks and also in leadership positions.









I recently found out from talking with Kathy Spillar, Executive Director of the Feminist Majority Foundation, that the numbers of women police has declined during the past decade and only about 10 percent of our nation’s police departments are women 20 percent or more in number.

This is not a good. So, I am wondering, is this another negative consequence of the increasing militarization of our nation’s police?

Women in policing make a difference — a big difference — they make for a better police department. Haven’t you wondered why women police are not the ones involved in recent officer involved shootings? After all, they are usually smaller, somewhat weaker in physical strength, and yet they don’t appear to shoot suspects as often. This should be something our nation’s police leaders need to realize. Police leaders also need to work a bit harder in making sure the ranks of our nation’s police are diverse both in terms of race and gender.

In 1999, I had the privilege of being present at the 25 year celebration in Madison, Wisc. of uniformed women who were in all aspects of assignment and promotion equal to the men with whom they worked.

The year was 1974, two years into my tenure as the chief in Madison, Wisc. I was about to hire my first class of police recruits. At the time, we already had seven “policewomen” who were, already being discriminated by the city as unarmed juvenile officers because had to have a 4-year college degree while male police officers did not and and the women could not apply for promotion or other assignments.

While I was well-acquainted with the 1964 civil rights act that prohibited discrimination on the basis of gender, my reasons were more personal — hiring women as police was simply the right thing to do. At the same time, I knew I had my work cut out for me bringing women or racial minorities into all-white organizations is no cakewalk. We had to open up assignments and promotion opportunities to the women who were already sworn police officers and then open up our recruitment, selection, training, assignment opportunities to women. It was one of the best things we ever did to improve policing in our city.

I say this because women greatly improved us. And, at the same time, they also changed me as a leader.

Women bring to policing many things that men cannot bring. Just about every woman has verbal skills that she has developed over her life to handle conflict, tension, even violence, that do not use the volatile mix we men carry with us. I could go on and on about the many ways working with women improved the ability of the Madison department to relate with those whom we served.

When I left the department after over 20 years as chief in the early 90s, 25 percent of our commissioned officers were women. In the decade after that, it rose even more — to over 30 percent.

It is not sufficient to have a “few” women on patrol and in the supervisory and command ranks, an effective police agency must have a significant number and I believe that number cannot be less than 20 percent.

The number of women police currently in our nation is well under that number (around 10-15 percent). This means there clearly is work to do and this work should be part of the discussion concerning the question that is plaguing most police today, “Where to from Ferguson?” How do our nation’s police improve, restore the trust that has been lost and move away the militarism that has captured many of them? Hiring more women would be a good start.

Police in America have a lot of work to do ahead of them. Hiring and promoting more women police  would be a good start. Looking back at that celebration in 1999, I remembering asking some of the women how they made it during the difficult years of their “integration.” They told me that yes it was a rough time and they took a lot of abuse from their male colleagues but one thing made a difference to them: they knew their chief had their back.

A leadership note to chiefs: If you have women in your ranks or are looking to hire more, they need to know you’ve got their back! When they know that, they will be your best recruiters as well as performers.

For an overall history of women police in America see:



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