Women face 'blue wall' of resistance

Across the US, police departments find recruiting women difficult. Harassment suits remain common.

The former top gun in charge of investigating sexual harassment in New York City's police department has herself now filed suit.

A police sergeant in Denver has gone to court claiming sexual harassment is so rampant in her department that she's not safe.

Two women, former state police officers in Philadelphia, called on the Citizens Review Board to conduct a formal investigation into allegations they were subjected to obscene gestures and intimidating threats. They too have filed lawsuits.

From New Jersey to California to Hawaii, the number of sexual harassment suits filed by women who work in criminal justice appears to be on the rise.

The primary reason, some experts contend, is the male-dominated police culture that remains resistant to change and accepting of women officers. And such attitudes have discouraged many women from joining the force.

"Sexual harassment is a serious problem that stems from the traditional view of women in policing - that they don't belong, that it's a macho job," says Joseph McNamara of Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

The number of women officers - once seen as the key to improving solution oriented community policing techniques - has remained stagnant despite a major push in the 1980s to recruit more women and the addition of 100,000 new police officers nationwide since 1994. Currently, about 13.8 percent of the nation's law-enforcement officers are women. That's up only 3 percentage points since 1990.

"There is an absolute resistance to hiring more women," says Penny Harrington, director of the National Center for Women and Policing in Oregon. "People are terrified that if women have an equal voice things will have to change."

Ms. Harrington, a former police chief, says it's unusual that so many women officers are filing suit now. For years, most women officers just tolerated what are sometimes difficult working environments. Studies have found that 80 percent of women officers say they've been subjected to some sort of sexual harassment during their careers, but only 5 percent have filed complaints.

Harrington believes that number is now increasing because more women are secure enough in their careers to feel that they can withstand the consequences - what one woman officer calls "the inevitable retaliation."

"Filing suit is a last resort because you know that it will either end your career or make your life intolerable," says Jamila Bayati, a former Los Angeles sheriff's deputy who left after filing a complaint in 1995.

Matter of life and death

Experts say filing a sexual-harassment complaint is the equivalent of breaking the so-called blue wall of silence. And like other officers who've cooperated in internal police investigations, women who have filed complaints often become ostracized. Many claim they've received anonymous death threats, been set up on false drug charges, or been reported anonymously to social-service agencies for allegedly abusing their children.

"It gets to the point where people won't cover you on emergency calls so your life is in danger," says Harrington.

But the results can also bring about important changes. Harrington and other experts in the field say addressing harassment head on is the best way to improve a hostile working environment and bring more women into law enforcement. A recent study by the National Center on Women and Policing found that the greatest strides in recruiting and retaining women have been made by departments under court orders to increase the number of women officers.

Eight of the 10 municipal police departments with the largest percentage of sworn women officers are now under or have been under consent decrees requiring them to hire more women.

Sgt. Josephine Townsend of the New York State police filed suit in 1995 contending she was first sexually harassed in the police academy when troopers demanded sex. Once on the job, she says male troopers delayed her promotion, urinated into her Stetson hat, and posted pictures of naked women with her name on them in her locker.

In June, Sergeant Townsend settled her suit, crediting police Superintendent James McMahon for improving working conditions for women.

"Our entire performance evaluation and promotion system has now been revamped to give everyone an equal playing field," says Townsend.

Bringing about change

She credits the lawsuit for helping to bring about the change, and is optimistic that the overall police culture is changing. But law-enforcement experts and attorneys who work in the field say the kind harassment Townsend complained of in her lawsuit is still too common.

"I don't want to stereotype," says New York attorney Joel Berger, who deals with harassment cases, "but many of these men are poorly educated, very sexually immature, and have a hard time viewing women as equals and colleagues."

Experts also say the recruiting and training process is set up in a way that discourages women. The focus is on military bases for recruits, tough strength standards, and boot-camp-style academy training.

Mr. McNamara is concerned that the overall police culture has become much more militaristic in the past 10 years.

"This notion that cops have to be tough, this conflict-oriented confrontational policing we're now seeing, this is not something that's attractive to women, or to me either," he says.

McNamara says police should model their behavior more along the lines of social workers, schoolteachers, or other community problem solvers. If police did that, he argues, they'd have more success attracting women and fewer complaints about police brutality.

Studies have consistently shown that women officers use excessive force less than men do and are more likely to look for long-term solutions.

"This type of policing is seen as weak - not real police work," says Harrington. "We still have the notion that policing is a militaristic operation and you have to be big and strong to be a police officer. But this is simply outmoded."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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