Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Savannah Police Department Capt. Michelle Halford (left) and Capt. Tonya Reid pose outside the police training center in Savannah, Georgia, on May 11, 2022. Twenty-two percent of the Savannah police force is female – 89 of 400.

Where more women cops walk the beat

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The Savannah, Georgia, police department is notably diverse with regard to gender. Twenty-two percent of the force is female. While that’s higher than most, departments across the country are welcoming more women during a recruiting crisis. 

A spike in violent crime during the pandemic and public demands for police reform are driving up resignations and retirements while giving women a new foothold.   

Why We Wrote This

In the face of crime spikes and thinning police ranks across the U.S., women are being welcomed in greater numbers as officers. That shift toward greater equality is not only opening new professional opportunities but also improving policing.

This influx of women during a crisis in the profession begs the question whether these recruits are facing a glass cliff. That is, are they being asked to fix a broken system they had little, if any, part in breaking?

Yet their impact is unmistakable, especially when it comes to conflict resolution and de-escalation.

“Women officers use less excessive force, they have a better relationship with their communities, they have better outcomes for crime victims, they fire their service weapon less, and they are named less in community complaints and lawsuits,” says Maureen McGough, chief of strategic initiatives at New York University’s School of Law Policing Project.

For Savannah Officer Jolisa Lewis, the key is in women’s approach. “We tend to get more answers than men,” she says. 

“It’s all about your interpersonal skills.”

Savannah Police Department Capt. Michelle Halford recalls perfectly the moment she decided to become a police officer.

As a 20-something student at a local university, her apartment was burgled. As if the humiliation of the intrusion wasn’t enough, the police response was, at best, dismissive.

“There’s nothing worse than having someone violate your space,” says Captain Halford. “It just didn’t feel like they recognized that.”  

Why We Wrote This

In the face of crime spikes and thinning police ranks across the U.S., women are being welcomed in greater numbers as officers. That shift toward greater equality is not only opening new professional opportunities but also improving policing.

That gut punch led to a life-changing decision: She switched her major to criminal justice, and later became one of the first women to hit the streets for the Savannah Police Department.

Captain Halford’s career rides the arc of a new reality in American policing – the emergence of policewomen as commonplace. 

The U.S. policing profession has been rocked by shootings, violence, and massive civil rights protests. National political chasms – defund the police versus “refund” the police – barb debate in the midst of a rise in violent crime during the pandemic. Meanwhile, cities from Seattle to Atlanta have seen ranks thin out as officers retire or decamp to smaller departments. Altogether, it has created a unique opportunity for women – launching a cultural shift anchored in the value of equality.

Public demands for reform and a tough recruiting environment are giving female police officers a new foothold – albeit during a time of crisis in the profession. Even so, having more women in the ranks is improving policing practices and community relations. 

Some of the growth in female officers is organic. It’s the same process that “happened for generations with men, which is that a cop has personal relationships with other people and encourages them to consider policing as a career,” says former Madison, Wisconsin, police officer Michael Scott, director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing at Arizona State University in Tempe. 

“Now women can increasingly say: ‘This is getting to be a pretty comfortable place to work,’ where you can be yourself and a police officer at the same time – you don’t have to adopt somebody else’s persona.”

Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters
Police officers stand outside the home of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito as abortion activists march in the justice's neighborhood in Alexandria, Virginia, June 27, 2022. A growing number of U.S. police departments are hiring women as officers, despite a recruiting crisis.

Savannah’s 22% female force

Women have been involved in policing in the U.S. since 1845, when two police matrons were responsible for female prisoners at the so-called Tombs prison in New York City. But the real push to hire women as officers began in the 1970s. Like many cultural shifts at the time, that development was driven more by litigation than encouragement. By the end of that decade, 3% of officers were women, according to 30x30, an initiative with the goal of achieving “30% women recruits by 2030.”

In many departments, the percentages remain far below that goal. Only 2% of Georgia State Patrol officers are female. A 2019 special report by the National Institute of Justice found that fewer than 13% of law enforcement officers in the U.S. are female.

But here in Savannah, one of the oldest police departments in the country, 22% of the force is now female – 89 of 400. That is a higher percentage than New Zealand, a global front-runner when it comes to hiring female officers.

Three of the city’s four precincts are now captained by women. At one recent incident in downtown Savannah, all four responding cruisers were helmed by women.

“A woman today can look at a police force and see women at every level: detectives, chiefs, captains, drug interdiction, sex crimes – everywhere,” says Savannah Capt. Tonya Reid, who runs the department’s training center.

Capt. David Barefield chuckles that “I’m now the minority” among precinct captains, but he knows there was resistance to female officers before he came on the force 21 years ago.

“When officers arrive on the scene,” he says, “whether an officer has a female backup or there’s a female primary – having that dynamic is beneficial, at least in my personal opinion, because females can often be more approachable.”

“It’s about team building and working together,” Captain Barefield says. “We’re glad to have variety that is largely due to this career path [being] more open to female officers.”

Tierra Hayes/Chattanooga Times Free Press/AP
Chattanooga Police Chief Celeste Murphy addresses the media at the downtown precinct after an early morning shooting on June 5, 2022. There are few female police chiefs, but other leadership roles include more women in their ranks. Three of Savannah's four precincts are now captained by women.

Help wanted

That openness to women is happening as a recruiting crisis not only drags on, but also may be getting worse. 

Based on a survey of departments last year, the Police Executive Research Forum found that retirements across the country increased 44%; resignations increased 18%. Meanwhile, the recruiting pipeline has dwindled to a trickle.

Seattle, for one, usually sees about 70 officers a year leave the department. In the past two years, 356 officers have left. Savannah is not immune. The city is short 121 out of a budgeted 517 officers. That has hurt response times, morale, and case resolution. Meanwhile, violent crime has risen by 24% in the city over the past two years. Nationally, the homicide rate posted a 30% year-on-year increase in 2020.

The influx of women during a crisis in the profession begs the question whether these recruits are facing a glass cliff. Are they being asked to fix a broken system they had little, if any, part in breaking? And if so, what are their chances of success?

At the very least, it seems certain that simply increasing the percentage of female officers won’t be a panacea.    

“There’s a pretty robust system – even if it’s just informal – that ... guarantees whoever is making it to [police academy] graduation is going to fit in with the institution pretty well,” Samantha Simon, an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, told her school’s news service last year. “So this idea that if we just hire more ... women officers, that this will somehow change the institution – I’m now fairly pessimistic about that.” 

Carlos Avila Gonzalez/San Francisco Chronicle/AP/File
A Santa Cruz County sheriff's deputy controls traffic on Miller Avenue in Gilroy, California, on July 29, 2019, the day after a gunman killed three at the Gilroy Garlic Festival. Maureen McGough, co-founder of 30x30, says, “Women officers use less excessive force [and] they have a better relationship with their communities."

A noticeable impact

Yet women’s presence is making a difference, most notably in conflict resolution and de-escalation.

Here in Georgia, while the Brunswick Police Department has posted a recruiting video that shows a SWAT team busting down a drug dealer’s door, the Savannah Police Department is taking a different approach. They launched a Ladies of Law Enforcement campaign. Instead of war scenery, one officer pets a dog; another smiles broadly into the camera.

“Imagine what it looks like to the community in an era when people say cops are overmilitarized and then you see a group of women officers petting dogs – that alone could lessen the feelings of an occupying force,” says Natalie Todak, an associate professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “A lot of especially women motorcycle officers always get those kinds of comments from citizens – ‘Look at that badass woman!’ – when they see cops coming down in a parade and one of them has a braid. That’s calming. That changes perceptions.”

Savannah Officer Jolisa Lewis has one trademark tactic when she hits the streets: a big, broad smile.

Her father spent his police career in Savannah. Some veterans have known Officer Lewis since she was a baby. She started in a ride-along program when she was 21. After she was hired, she worked at the city jail, but her inspiration came from the female leaders in the department.

Her first supervisor, a precinct captain, was a woman. “She wouldn’t back down from anyone,” says Officer Lewis. “I admired that.”

“We tend to get more answers than men,” she adds. “Men come off as strong, and they do have empathy, but people don’t see it. As a young, small, petite officer, I’m always smiling, even at a serious moment. So they feel more comfortable talking to me – especially juveniles who sometimes don’t react well to big men. It’s all about your interpersonal skills.”

Moving up the battering ram

Whether such a shift is powerful enough to overcome the tectonic forces tearing at the profession is far from certain. But getting this piece of the puzzle into place could be key to improving the overall picture, policing experts say.

“The growing research base around the unique value of women officers is hard to ignore,” says Maureen McGough, an attorney and chief of strategic initiatives at New York University’s School of Law Policing Project.”

Departments are taking notice. Efforts to make women feel welcome range from accommodations such as adding breastfeeding pods to  squad rooms to abolishing long-standing tactics designed to make women feel they didn’t belong, such as mandating they wear men’s exercise shorts during training.

“Women officers use less excessive force, they have a better relationship with their communities, they have better outcomes for crime victims, they fire their service weapon less, and they are named less in community complaints and lawsuits. If there was training out there that promised those outcomes, [police departments] would be clamoring for it,” says Ms. McGough, co-founder of 30x30.

Back in Savannah, as Captain Halford moved up the ranks, at one point she joined the drug interdiction SWAT force. Though slightly miffed about being placed at the end of the column, she took up her position. By the time she ended her stint on the unit, she was at the front of the battering ram.

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