Gender Revolution in Precinct House

Officer Luldes Rivera stands in the sour-smelling stairwell of a public housing unit here and raps on the door of apartment 303.

This is her second visit in recent weeks. The first time, resident Burnilda Colon summoned police when neighborhood boys beat her young son with sticks. This time, Officer Rivera is just stopping by to check on Ms. Colon, who is jobless and pregnant, and to introduce her to a police social worker.

"You don't see many men cops doing this," the social worker, Gloria Carrara, says of Rivera.

The officer's courtesy call represents one of the latest trends in policing - us and them instead of us against them. It is one outgrowth of what experts say is the growing influence of women in uniform.

Across the country, more women are walking the beat and tending the precinct house, heralding both subtle and significant changes in what has been one of America's most male-dominated institutions.

Indeed, as more women enter the ranks, there is an emerging recognition that they bring a distinct style to policing, one that depends more on negotiation than machismo.

"Women as a rule tend to be more collaborative," says Chief Elizabeth Watson, head of the Austin, Texas, police department and former chief of the Houston police. "We come together and talk about issues. We want the same things, we just have different ways of going about them."

Women still represent less than 9 percent of all sworn officers nationwide, according to 1993 figures from the US Justice Department, the latest available. Their numbers are higher in the cities - almost 14 percent. Of all women in blue, about 3 percent are high-ranking officers, including Atlanta's and Austin's chiefs.

But their persistently small numbers belie their influence. In perhaps no other male-dominated arena does the infusion of women have the potential for such profound impact. As a result, police top brass from Pittsburgh to Portland, Ore., are seeking out women - and their policing skills.

"Potentially volatile situations that reach the hair-trigger stage are calmed by the presence of a woman," says Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation in Washington and former police chief in Trenton, N.J.

Research over the past five years and recent anecdotes reveal a woman's way of walking the beat. In general, studies found, women depend less on physical strength and more on verbal skills than men do; women are less likely to be confrontational when first answering a call and more likely to use physical force only if the situation requires it.

Some of that is a result of physique. "There are certain situations where if you are 6 feet, 4 inches and built like a quarterback ..., you may be capable of doing certain things that other people aren't," says Superintendent Ann Marie Doherty, the highest-ranking woman on the Boston police force. "So people who aren't like that try different techniques."

Some women in policing trace the difference to how girls have traditionally been brought up. "Because of the way women are raised socially, they do communicate differently," says Maj. Cynthia Smith, the highest-ranking woman in the Maryland State Police. "There's more emphasis on skills to defuse violence through communication as opposed to force."

Men and women cops alike caution against the stereotype that male officers can't be nurturing and female officers can't be tough. Many women officers credit a male superior with supporting them in their years on the force.

The most striking example, however, of women cops' tendency to avoid violence comes from the Christopher Commission, which studied the Los Angeles Police Department after the beating of motorist Rodney King in 1991. Its report revealed that women are rarely cited for using excessive force.

Since the report, L.A.'s city council has ordered the LAPD, now 16 percent female, to strive for a force that is 44 percent female. The council's rationale: A higher ratio of women cops can save money. The Christopher Commission found that women officers are involved in fewer expensive lawsuits against the department.

Other recent studies by criminologists have shown that women cops generate fewer citizen complaints than do men cops, are less inclined to use deadly force in general, and are involved in fewer shooting incidents.

Even under powerful pressures to assimilate, this research shows, women have created and maintained their own way of policing. "That's what's so remarkable," says Katherine Spillar of the Los Angeles-based Fund for the Feminist Majority. "Despite this pressure to conform, women have still made a difference."

Women officers exert a particular influence in certain types of crime - such as domestic violence, which makes up roughly half of all police calls, say police officers and criminologists across the country.

"It certainly is the case that female victims are often much more comfortable being interviewed by a female officer," says Officer Brian Ackeret of the Madison, Wis., department. While he does not see big differences in policing styles between men and women, he concedes that women officers handle domestic violence differently than men do. "In certain types of disturbances or domestic disputes, things sometimes will go more smoothly with a woman."

Women have also tended to be strong advocates and able executioners of the increasingly popular "community policing" concept.

"I think women understand it better; it's kind of the way we do things," says Penny Harrington, who in 1985 became the first woman to head a city police force.

It's no coincidence that the police forces at the forefront of community policing also have a high percentage of women cops, says Ms. Harrington, now director of the National Center for Women and Policing in Los Angeles. For example, the department in Madison, a community-policing model, has 28 percent women officers.

But some scholars are not convinced that women cops have left much of an imprint. Further, says Barbara Raffel Price, dean of graduate studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, the hypothesis that police need to change their approach to a community-policing strategy is flawed. The crime rate across the country has dropped because of "aggressive policing," not community policing, she says.

Women police officers have absorbed their work culture much more than they have influenced it, Ms. Price says.

Capt. Bobbie Owens, a 20-year veteran of the Austin force, agrees. "I wasn't appreciated for my differences as a woman," she says of her years on patrol. "People don't say, 'That was so great, the way you talked that guy down.' We're still ... in a lock-step system that doesn't allow much coloring outside the numbers."

Officer Rivera, too, has had her share of nights when the male officer backing her up wouldn't speak to her. And plenty of people have eyed with suspicion her 5-foot, 3-inch frame and inch-long painted nails. But Rivera is optimistic that the antagonism toward women in the police force and the tradition of hard-line policing in general are becoming relics.

"Things are changing," she says. "They teach you at the academy that you don't go into a situation like a lion.... You go in quiet and come out like a lion if you have to." It used to be mainly women officers who listened, Rivera says. "Now, it's coming down to the fact that everybody's starting to do that."

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