Portland, Ore. — Friends and family have tried to convince a 15-year-old Minneapolis girl that her dream of becoming a police officer is not possible for a girl, the teen-ager told Penny Harrington in a fan letter. ``She thought she was going to have to be the first woman police chief,'' laughs Chief Harrington, Portland's new police chief and the nation's first woman to hold that position in a major city.
But the young admirer wasn't even born when Harrington began fighting a controversial feminist battle against one of the last bastions of old-boy machismo -- the conservative male world of law enforcement.
Although gender makes her appointment a news media novelty, Harrington is ironically more typical of the modern American police chief today than she is a departure from the norm. She is a college-educated whiz at administrative and political maneuvering, rather than a hard-core veteran of a beat patrol.
She's never had a patrol assignment, but the curly headed mother of three has handled everything from commanding the troops during the volcanic fallout crisis of Mt. St. Helens, when ash temporarily closed down the city, to placing abused children in foster homes. And her police colleagues here point to her leadership abilities and interpersonal skills as the factors that snared her the chief's position.
As single parent in the late '60s (she has since been remarried, to a fellow policeman), she needed to advance in her career to support herself. So despite hate mail and resistance from the police command, Harrington says, she had to file a discrimination complaint for every promotion she received -- except her January appointment as chief.
``If equality were here, this wouldn't be news,'' she says of the deluge of media interviews and the hundreds of letters from admirers. ``It's good if I can be a role model for young girls,'' she adds, noting that she's been answering her mail and offering ``moral support for some women who were about to throw in the towel.''
Interviewed on the run between taping a public-service announcement, running a personal errand, and appearing at a civil-service commission meeting here last week, the chief described herself as a registered Republican with Democratic sentiments -- a typically Oregonian political style. Touching on some of her tougher political stands, she says: ``I'd like to see handgun control, although that's not popular in the West. . . . I don't want to see people go to jail because they smoke marijuana, but I don't want to tell kids it's OK to smoke it. And I'd like to see alcohol more controlled.''
She says her main objective is to bring police and the community closer together. That will include the unpopular task of taking officers off special assignments and putting them back on the streets, and it will call for citizens to take a more active role in the relationship.
``The community can do a lot to prevent crime. For so long police have said, `You just sit back and let us take care of things,' '' she explains, shaking her head and adding that with the reduced budgets, crowded jails, and larger population in Portland, the police force must draw on help from the community.
Harrington's appointment signifies the change in attitude asout women in the law enforcement community, notes Gerald Arenberg, executive director of the National Association of Police Chiefs. ``It's really very common to find women'' in police forces today, he explains, noting that the Portland appointment is a natural result of that representation.
``Years ago the question [among policemen] was, `Am I gonna have to watch out for my woman partner as well as myself?' '' says Mr. Arenberg. ``You don't see and hear that on the street anymore.''
``I had concerns, but no longer,'' says Portland Police Lt. John Holly, whose concerns Harrington remembers being aired in a television interview during one of her early legal battles. Lieutenant Holly continues: ``We used to have a 5-foot, 9-inch height requirement [that women, including Harrington, couldn't meet]. But [when women were hired] we just discussed different methods of handling situations: You do it with two people or get on the radio and call more. We learned that height and weight are irrelevant when you can use your head to handle things.''
Women still represent less than 3 percent of the US police community, explains Beryl Thompson, executive director of the International Association of Women Police and a major in the Seattle Police Department, where she waited 15 years for her first promotion. She says blatant sexism has largely been eliminated from big-city police departments but ``horror stories'' sometimes surface.
Chief Harrington started her career in Portland, fresh from completing a degree at Michigan State in police administration, in 1964. By 1969 she was still doing the same job, investigating child-abuse cases. When she sought the same pay and promotional opportunities as her male counterparts, she says, the commanding officers told her women were not allowed on the regular force. When she won the right to take promotional tests, she didn't get promoted. When she did get promoted, she didn't get a raise. It took 42 legal challenges to work her way up the ranks from sergeant to lieutenant to captain -- and at every step of the way, as publicity increased, so did harassment from the public and co-workers.
``When you're in the situation where there's a lot of discrimination and you're the first one to raise the question, you don't know if you're crazy or everyone else is, and Penny fought a lonely battle,'' says Jane Edwards, the lawyer who represented Harrington during the legal challenges, which were accompanied by hate mail and ostracizing behavior from the police command.
``I thought for a long time, and I couldn't think of any other job I wanted to do. And I got told so many times they wouldn't let me do it [police work] because I was a woman that it got my fighting spirit up,'' the chief says of her ability to shrug off the unpopular task she had.
Her legal challenges included taking on the department's height standard; the college degree requirement for women applicants for the same jobs that required only a high school equivalency certificate for men; and separate written tests for men and women.
Her position today, though, seems to fit right in with a growing Oregon feminist tradition. The state has the nation's only woman state-house speaker, Vera Katz. Further, a woman, Norma Paulus, is a serious Republican contender in the governor's race next year.
``I don't think there's any discrimination today'' in the Portland police bureau, Harrington says, adding that she's had nothing but positive response to her appointment. She does admit that she has heard reports that some view her appointment as a publicity grab by the new and unconventional mayor, Bud Clark. And she notes that she wouldn't have been appointed ``if it weren't for Bud Clark . . . because he's brave enough to take a chance.'' But she adds that she was one of four finalists selected by an independent committee from a field of more than a dozen candidates.
Harrington's police bureau office sits atop a new building so richly appointed it looks more like it houses corporate executives than county jail prisoners and police. But the department faces law enforcement problems typical to most big cities.
The city of nearly 400,000 people has one of the highest crime rates in the country and was one of the few cities to report an increase in crime in 1983, while the national average was moving down slightly. Officials here say they don't believe the statistics reflect the full picture, because crime reporting techniques vary from place to place, and when public confidence in the police is high, reporting tends to go up. The city has less than half the jail bed spaces it had 10 years ago and consequently has a problem keeping criminals off the streets.