Women officers arrest the gender gap
As policing moves away from use of force and toward more
Arriving at the scene of an unruly crowd, officer Marnie Rains of the Alexandria, Va., Police Department suddenly faced a huge man coming at her.
"He was so big I was almost staring at his belt buckle," she says, remembering that tense afternoon.
"When he said, 'I'm going to beat the ... out of you, my knees were really knocking," she says, but she never pulled her weapon. Officer Rains acted coolly in a situation that might have triggered a show of force from some male officers more inclined to meet physical threats with a return punch.
"I said, 'Sure, you can beat me up,' " she told the giant in front of her, "but I also told him he would still be arrested, so why didn't he just tell me what was wrong, and we could talk about it. Some of his friends calmed him down, and he backed off."
Rains's cool response is a dramatic example of community policing today in the United States: fewer squad cars in neighborhoods, more officers on foot and bicycles, and in Alexandria, even two women officers living in the neighborhoods they serve.
Combined with other community initiatives, police efforts have sent crime rates tumbling in Alexandria in the past five years.
Rains's action also disproves the lingering stereotype of women as unsuitable for dangerous police work, an all-too-common attitude among many older male officers in large and small departments.
Despite examples of progressive departments like Alexandria - where women officers are seen as equal to, or better than men in some circumstances - the number of women in police departments around the US is increasing at "an alarmingly slow rate," according to the National Center for Women and Policing (NCWP).
"We believe the whole field of policing is out of balance because we are not getting enough of a woman's viewpoint in the mix," says Penny Harrington, director of NCWP, a division of the Feminist Majority Foundation.
"And with the type of community policing we have today, women are better at it than men," says Ms. Harrington, a former police chief in Portland, Ore.
"I know many men who have skills that women do and are excellent police officers," she says, "but women do the job as well or better than men. I've heard why women can't be police so many times - little upper-body strength, no ability to fight - but policing is not upper-body strength; it is the ability to think and act. If women knew that real policing is typically problem-solving, handing family situations and neighborhood disputes - all things that many women are very good at doing - then you'd get more women into police work."
In a 1998 NCWP study of the largest 176 law enforcement agencies in the United States, women held only 13.8 percent of all sworn law enforcement positions. And many of these jobs were gained only after women brought discrimination suits, or agencies were under court order to hire more women.
If day-to-day policing is less about force, but listening to both sides in domestic and neighborhood disputes, then some experts insist that women may be the top cops of the future.
"I've been in this business 30 years," says David Baker, deputy police chief of Alexandria, "but we are fooling ourselves if we think this ought to be just a male profession. Women bring everything that men do, the same intelligence and abilities, but at the same time they can bring extra dimensions of sensitivity with people issues, such as dealing with domestic-violence victims."
After 23 years in the police department in Portland, and in her role as director of NCWP, Harrington says that the biggest barrier to women in policing is not just difficulties in recruiting, but "the attitudes and behavior of their male colleagues," along with male-dominated police unions.
"Most of the officers we have on patrol are pretty young for the most part," says Tammy Hooper, who has been with the Alexandria police for 11 years and is now a lieutenant. "They have been working with women the whole time and have never known doing the job without women."
Without that perspective, some older male officers continue to see policing as mainly a male profession with an emphasis on preparing to use force.
"Women may have a place in community affairs," says a police chief from the Midwest who did not want to be identified, "but can they cut it like men when it comes to effective physical force under many circumstances? I'd say the jury is still out...."
Deputy Chief Baker disagrees. "This may sound insensitive," he says, "but if that is the way any chief feels, I'd say it's time to move on."
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Women officers have had harrowing experiences, and performed well, without using deadly force.
Standing 5 feet 2 inches tall, and weighing about 100 pounds, Adrienne Miller has been with the Alexandria police department for seven years. She is a hostage negotiator as well as a patrol officer in this town of 125,000 that swells to 300,000 by day because of office jobs.
"I think citizens perceive females as being more understanding, compassionate, even motherly," she says. "And they respond well to this, especially in a hostage situation. The female voice has a calming effect. Of course, it is just perception, but it seems to work."
Last year Officer Miller, described by a fellow officer as "petite," had a chance to prove that such a label is no limitation when it comes to efficiency or courage.
She was called to a playground in the public housing projects of Alexandria where a mentally ill older woman with two butcher knives was threatening children. Miller took command by clearing the children away, and then drew her weapon and faced the woman.
"I yelled at her to drop the knives," says Miller, "but she kept coming at me. She was about 25 feet away. I kept backing up to keep distance between us, and I was at least grateful she had knives and not a gun, because I had every right to shoot her."
Another officer arrived just as the woman dropped the knives, but when the two officers tried to arrest her, the woman lunged for the knives. Miller kicked them away, and the two wrestled with the woman to subdue her.
"I was being very authoritative when I was talking to her, but I was also pleading with her to drop the knives," says Miller. "It would have been horrific to shoot her, something I would have had to live with the rest of my life, even if it was justified."
Would a male officer have handled it differently?
"I don't think so," says Miller. "Not some of the male officers I know."
Many women officers today, usually from departments with a high percentage of females, insist that perception of police by the public, as well as different policing styles, are the key factors affecting women and men in police work. At the bottom line, it's not a gender issue to them.
"I know there are barriers out there for some women," says Michelle Riesterer, a police officer for 11 years in Madison, Wis., the town with the highest percentage of women as officers in the US at 29.7 percent.
"But being a good police officer has nothing to do with your sex," she says. "It has to do with your personality and who you are. You could talk to some women here and they probably think women still struggle here. I know we are supposed to be more sensitive and communicate better, but I've seen female officers be mean and nasty just like male officers.... It's just a tough, tough profession. How many parents tell their daughters and [sons], 'Yeah, grow up to be a cop,' instead of a lawyer or a doctor?"
Few professions today bring with them the level of stress experienced by police on a day-to-day basis. "We expect far more from our police officers than ever before," says Baker. "They are supposed to be all things to all people. The stress comes from the complexity of what they do. The technology they use is complicated, the training, the systems, and the situations they face are complicated, as well as the contradictions within the criminal justice system."
The gender issue has resulted in dozens of lawsuits brought by policewomen over the last decade because of discrimination and sexual harassment.
Tina Carelli, the first policewoman hired in 1980 by Dormont, Pa., a small suburban town near Pittsburgh, was subjected to sexual harassment for nearly a decade. After she was fired for incompetence, she sued the department and was awarded $625,000. "I just don't talk about it anymore," she said when asked about her experience.
Sherry Burger, an Alexandria officer for 10 years, who recently taught at a Northern Virginia police academy, says it is the male officers in the smaller police departments who are leery of women officers. "They come to the academy and you can tell they are not accepting of women in law enforcement," she says. "They sometimes made it difficult for other women going through the academy."
Studies by the NCWP indicate that in many smaller police agencies, women's voices are seldom heard. "Women bring different experiences and ideas to the table," Harrington says, "and in many ways they speak for half the population. Even in the larger jurisdictions, where 14 percent of the command level are women, the chances ... that a woman's viewpoint is heard when really important decisions are being made about policing is still slim."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society