Women in Law Enforcement

Women in Law Enforcement

Since the 19th century, women in America have worked in law enforcement. Surprised? Women were mostly relegated to clerical roles or jobs as dispatchers until the women's lib movement of the 1970s, when popular television shows suddenly dramatized the new breed of women cops and detectives. Civil rights and affirmative action laws paved the way for women to assume law enforcement jobs traditionally held by men. Today, women walk the beat, but not without challenges.

Originally called "matrons" when they were first hired by the New York City police department before the turn of the 20th century, female officers really didn't achieve full recognition for a very long time. In the mid-1970s, despite the popularity of television shows like Cagney and Lacy and Charlie's Angels, women only made up 2 percent of the total police work force.

In 1985, Penny Harrington was appointed the first female police chief in the nation, serving in Portland, Oregon. Today, women hold an estimated 12 percent of all law enforcement jobs.

Gender Equality and Challenges in Law Enforcement

Even when Hill Street Blues began portraying female cops holding their own with male counterparts in the 1980s, female officers were often perceived as too emotional, too passive, or too physically weak for the job. With trends in police work today moving more toward service-oriented, community-centered approaches, women law enforcement officers may find greater opportunities in both hiring and promotion.

Houston Police Chief Elizabeth Watson reports that today's police procedures require a greater aptitude for "intelligence, communication, compassion, and diplomacy," making women strong candidates for the many police departments that prize intellectual aptitude over physical prowess.

In many smaller police departments, women still hold less than ten percent of law enforcement positions. The National Center for Women and Policing reports that nearly 90 percent of all law enforcement agencies require a physical agility test for job applicants. Women face challenges when hiring practices include physical benchmarks based on male aptitude--a practice that has seen some changes in recent years. The survey reveals that departments that do not use the test have 45 percent more women on the force than those with the agility exams. Though critics see this practice as a lowering of standards, advocates point out that the original standards are simply based on a certain percentile of male physical ability. Many departments now set standards for their female officers based on the same percentile of female physical ability.

Though they may not have the sheer physical strength of male officers, studies reveal that female officers are "substantially less likely" to be involved in citizen complaints about the use of excessive force than males. Male police officers, said the study, are more than eight times more likely to be reported for using excessive force than their female counterparts. For police departments, this means that adding women to the force can result in fewer civil actions brought against the department for use of excessive force.

Overcoming Job Bias on the Force

Shirley Gray, who retired from the Dallas Police as the highest-ranking African American woman on the force, admits that "women in any profession will face challenges that male counterparts don't have to deal with." Gray, who joined the police in 1972, recommends that women officers have to learn "the tough way" not to take prejudiced and off-color remarks personally.

Having a sense of humor, one woman officer says, is critical. However, none need to put up with abusive, condescending remarks from colleagues. Most police departments have become sensitive to verbal or sexual harassment issues and have created formal channels for addressing them.

While female officers do have job challenges, they play a vital role in establishing and maintaining key relationships between the police department and the community it serves. As 21st-century policing moves away from brute force and towards community engagement, female participation should continue to increase.
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