When Chief Penny Harrington joined the Portland Police Bureau in 1964, there were only 12 female police officers in the department. She rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the first female police chief in a major U.S. city. Particular leadership decisions lost her the support of the police union, however. For example, following an officer-involved death, Harrington banned the type of choke hold used on the victim and fired two officers that sold T-shirts reading, “Don’t Choke ’Em. Smoke ’Em,” on the day of the victim’s funeral.

Then, a special investigating commission led by former U.S. Attorney Sidney I. Lezak said she had shown “defects in leadership.” Harrington resigned in 1986 after just 17 months in office.

Harrington disputes Lezak’s characterization, saying the investigation was not only rife with secret testimonies, but based on misunderstandings of her leadership decisions, and biases (read: sexism). In any case, the U.S. lost one of its only female police chiefs.

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Chief Penny Harrington | Courtesy of Portland Police Historical Society

Today, women make up less than 13% of police officers in the U.S., with an even smaller number in law enforcement leadership roles like Harrington was, indicates a 2019 report from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). The percentage of policewomen has increased since women first entered the profession in the early 20th century, but some experts say modern police departments could do more to hire more female cops.

Why do men outnumber women in US policing?

Dr. Dorothy Moses Schulz, professor emerita at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and retired Metro-North Commuter Railroad (now MTA) Police Department captain, says it might have to do with with history and societal definitions of gender roles.

“Most women who entered policing in the early 20th century were assigned roles based on gender expectations. They worked primarily with women and children,” says Moses Schulz via email. “They were not ‘relegated’ to the roles; they chose these roles but because they were specialists rather than generalists (as patrol officers are), they were generally very few in number.”

Moses Schulz says that women were discouraged from joining police forces in the late ’60s and early ’70s. This mindset was based on the gender stereotype that police work was a “macho” job women weren’t fit for. In addition, many policemen’s wives had demonstrations in major cities (often at the urging of police unions) resisting other women working alongside their husbands.

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Early policewomen — Captain Edyth Totten and the women police reserve in New York City, NY. June 15, 1918. | George Grantham Bain Collection via Library of Congress

Today, there aren’t many departments active in trying to hire more female police officers, says Moses Schulz. On the other side, she sees a reluctance of women joining departments because they think it’s a “boys’ club,” it’s not “for them” (i.e., work/life balance is too hard), and the gender expectations are still in place today.

“People join policing when they are young and often influenced by whom they see doing the job, whether they think they will be welcome and successful, and whether they themselves feel capable of the tasks,” says Moses Schulz. “There seems to be continuing difference here in how men and women feel.”

The benefits — and concerns — of striving for diverse police forces

Moses Schulz says it’s good for institutions to reflect the community they serve, but that she’s not a fan of “nose counting.” Some of Moses Schulz’s concerns are rooted in the history of women in policing. She thinks that if departments select people based on their identity and what they’re good at, departments will end up with internal segregation.

“If women are selected because they work well with women and children, we will be reversing 50 years of attempted parity and return them to specialist roles,” says Moses Schulz. “I am not saying there would not be affirmative recruitment … but I don’t want to see policing or any other field get to where people are recruited only for show or to work with their ‘own kind.’”

Laura Goodman, a former Minneapolis police officer and adviser with Education for Critical Thinking, says diverse police forces are beneficial because police departments should represent the communities they serve. Then, community policing (collaboration between the police and the community) can happen, she says.

Goodman also says research has suggested women are fit for police work. Studies have indicated that they use less excessive force than men, they build relationships quickly, are good communicators, and take allegations of domestic violence more seriously than their male counterparts.

Diverse police forces are beneficial because police departments should represent the communities they serve.

“Am I saying that women are better than men in policing?” says Goodman. “No, I’m not saying that. I’m saying that the balance of males and females, which is how our world is, makes us a better policing department.”

How can departments hire more women?

Modifying departments’ physical agility prehire tests could be a start. Goodman deems a lot of them unfair to women. For example, wall-scaling requirements and push-up requirements which necessitate significant upper-body strength — something women typically have less of than men.

“Some departments have (you) press 80% of your weight. I probably could never do that and it didn’t prevent me from being a good officer,” says Goodman. “These tests have to be shown … to be a proven necessity on the job.”

If police officers are required to meet these physical requirements every day on the job, then departments should run these exams annually, Goodman argues.

Getting rid of other requirements — like the 20/20 vision requirement — would also remove obstacles, Goodman says. Considering there are options like contact lenses and LASIK surgery, 20/20 vision can be achieved in other ways.

Secondly, Goodman believes that changes to departments’ cultures to make them more welcoming to women would help recruit and retain more women.

“(Police departments) need to be known for an organizational culture that wants (women),” says Goodman. “When you have a department that values your gender and all the differences that people bring to a department, those (people’s) voices begin to be valued.”

Here’s what some departments are trying to hire more female police officers today

Some departments have made changes in an attempt to hire more women. For example, the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) modified its prehire test and introduced marketing campaigns geared toward women. Notably, it saw applicant pass rates for women increase after changing its trigger-pull test to a grip-strength test in July 2017, the SFPD indicated. It was noted that many female police officer applicants had trouble with the test which assesses the number of times a gun trigger is pulled.

However, the San Francisco Department on the Status of Women (DOSW) outlined other issues preventing women from joining the SFPD in a 2019 report.

It’s noted that there are still fewer female police officer applicants (17%, says DOSW’s report) than men and that the physical portion of the prehire test is still the most challenging for women, despite the trigger-pull test adjustment. Post-academy, female police officers interviewed by the DOSW indicated disparities in the treatment of women within the SFPD.

Other departments have seen increases in female officers hired. For example, the NYPD has seen the amount of female officers grow about 5.5% over 10 years, says a 2018 report from NBC New York. As of January 2020, the approximately 36,000 NYPD officers are still overwhelmingly male — 18% of officers are female while 82% are male.

However, the police department in Madison, Wisconsin, is a rare example of a department with a high percentage of female police officers. Twenty-eight percent of their department is female as of December 2019, Sergeant Meg Hamilton writes on the force’s website.

Case study: How the Los Angeles Police Department hired 33% policewomen in the ’90s

Hiring more policewomen onto a force was proven to be possible when former Portland Police Chief Penny Harrington was called in to recommend specific practices for hiring more women to the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). She was then the director of the National Center for Women and Policing.

In the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots in 1992, the LAPD’s response was investigated by a commission headed by attorney Warren Christopher. The riots started after black construction worker Rodney King was violently beaten by four LAPD officers.

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The beating of Rodney King caught on tape. | ATOMIC Hot Links via Flickr/Public Domain

After reading studies that indicated women have strong peacekeeping sensibilities, Christopher wrote in his report: “Minority and female officers must be given full and equal opportunity to assume leadership positions in the LAPD.”

Los Angeles’ city council was advised that the LAPD should set a goal of recruiting 43.4% women. The city council changed that goal to 30%.

Looking at the LAPD’s recruiting program, Harrington said “it was no wonder they couldn’t recruit women.” Marketing materials emphasized high-speed chases and shootouts or featured an attractive woman in a silk suit with pearls. Harrington advised that this image has nothing to do with the job.

“They came back with the best recruiting poster I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Harrington. “It was a picture of a woman in uniform … sitting on a motorcycle, which is what she drove. And she had a big grin on her face and her thumb up in the air, like ‘God, I love this job.’”

The recruitment office’s phone was “ringing off the hook,” says Harrington.

Harrington also looked into helping women graduate from the police academy at the same rate as men. The physical agility prehire test was particularly challenging to a lot of women. For example, Harrington modified the requirement of scaling a 10-foot wall by scheduling that lesson at the end of the Academy.

“If they put that many months (and) money into training you, they’re going to help you get over that wall,” Harrington says of the wall requirement’s rescheduling.

Looking at the LAPD’s recruiting program, Penny Harrington said “it was no wonder they couldn’t recruit women.”

As a result, new LAPD officers from 1992 to 1993 were 33% women. However, the new female recruits didn’t do much to increase the percentage of women LAPD officers — in June 1993 the percentage of women in the LAPD was 14.4%.

Despite modifying the LAPD’s prehire test and recruiting process, there are some requirements that Harrington thinks are keeping women out. Like Goodman, Harrington thinks wall climbing is just one such unnecessary requirement.

“I’d been trying to get rid of that wall my whole career,” says Harrington.

Likely, in more ways than one.

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