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The Longest Climb

It's a tough journey to the top, but women cops are slowly working their way up the law enforcement ladder.

October 01, 1996  |  by Sara Roen

She was not alone. The Los Angeles Women's Police Association (LAWPA), whose current membership stands at 210, was established in 1925 by 10 women employed by the police department. Lt. Ann Young, president of LAWPA, said that even back then, women found they needed the support of each other to dis­cuss their experiences in work.

At that time, explained Young, women were not permitted to work on patrol. Instead they were assigned desk jobs, work with juveniles or handled investigations of minor accidents; work that was to be completed from the office rather than in the field.

"Women always have to work harder (to advance)," Young said. That's why the LA WPA is important. "We strive to network together to assist women in the promotional process, as well as with an array of other problems. We have a mentoring program."

Part of that mentoring process includes educating and encouraging women to seek high level ranks and understand that the rewards can be great. The organization's mentoring program includes assisting women in understanding the options available, how to chart career paths and how to target a specific position, such as head­ing a drug investigation unit or internal affairs. Additionally, the group offers help in preparing female officers for interviews, testing as well as the nega­tives of holding a command post.

Ennis said that when she first took a chief's position at a "very trou­bled" department, she believed she per­sonally had to be responsible for com­plaints, lawsuits and other public issues that occurred. She eventually realized that such problems were "just business."

"Women take things personally. We tend to think that we're being sued because we've done something wrong," Ennis said. "It's just something that hap­pens out here."

Rikala echoes Ennis' sentiments. "It's hard to work with new rules when no one has defined them," she said. More energy must be devoted to helping women learn about their new roles, yet few models exist. Instead, there are "feelings of isolation, a lack of numbers, role models."

Rikala recommended that law enforcement agencies start marketing career advancement opportunities in recruitment to make the profession more inviting to women.

"It really has to do with how you sell yourself, and that goes for males as well," Rikala said. "You have to devel­op yourself as roundly as possible, build your universal self. It's part of the game."

Entering the Boy's Club

Learning how to play "the game" can be tough for women, who are often accused of being too emotional. "I had no clue as to how the politics worked," explained Elizabeth Watson, chief of the Austin (Texas) Police Department and former chief of the Houston Police Department.

After two years serving as Hous­ton's first female chief, Watson was demoted to assistant chief when the city's mayor wasn't re-elected. That's just how the city's governmental struc­ture worked, she said.

"I prided myself on being the con­summate professional. It didn't mat­ter how good you were," said Watson, adding that she's since become "thick-skinned."

Watson, who entered law enforce­ment at the urging of her mother, said she never envisioned becoming head of any agency. In fact, she said that when another woman became the first female lieutenant in the department, Watson reacted just like her male coworkers­ all of whom were hesitant about working for a woman of rank. "I had no frame of reference," she said.

Shortly after Watson became the department's second female lieutenant, the first woman resigned.

"I had a very difficult time," Watson recalled. She said that early in her career, she had been prohibited from working patrol; therefore, she lacked that experience when she was promot­ed. No one would work with her. Even­tually, she accepted what was consid­ered the most unpopular assignment ­patrolling the city's most dangerous zone-and gained her experience that way. Male officers booed and hissed at her on duty, which made the job that much more unpleasant.

It was the strong encouragement from her police officer husband that got her interested in advancement. However, initially she had resigned herself to never outranking her hus­band, who also worked for Houston PD. He challenged her to take the test for lieutenant; when she passed, "he was proud and happy," she said, adding that it was her husband who encouraged her to accept the appointed position as chief when it was offered.

Playing the Part

One odd problem she experienced was that there were no dress uniforms available for women chiefs, so she designed one and had it made. Since then, she has seen other female chiefs sporting uniforms similar to the one she designed. Watson, a mother of three, said she is pleased to see other women moving up the ladder.

"I think there is a great deal of net­working that has real positive implica­tions. I think it will be easy for women in policing in the future to do things that were unheard of in the '70s, when I started," said Watson, a member of the Women Police Chiefs Association.

Young's organization is proof of that.

Young said the LA WPA is included in the agency's recruitment program, which is particularly meaningful because the organization is enjoying strong support from administrative levels.

The organization has accomplished a great deal as well. Specifically, mem­bers campaigned for 24-hour child­care service for officers who are par­ents. The issue affects men just as much as women, Young said, citing the profession's tendency for police offi­cers to marry each other.

Having constant daycare available is a definite advantage. And if a married two-cop couple "gets mobilized in the middle of the night," there is no problem finding someone to care for the kids at odd hours.

Adding to the problem, Rikala explained, is a lack of "organizational readiness" on the part of law enforce­ment agencies; however, that seems to be improving. Rikala said some progress is inhibited by media reports about women's accomplishments, marking them as the first women in their areas of achievement.

That adds pressure to a female offi­cer, who then becomes an unwilling representative of the department and of women in general. Other issues of mar­riage, pregnancy and parenting are still considered a negative, but they should not be, Rikala said.

Ennis said the Women's Police Chief Association that is in formation is the result of women wanting to share their problems and concerns with their peers, of which there are so few. How­ever, through e-mail and travel in the same professional circles, women are staying in touch with each other.

The growing interest and increased ease in staying in contact will contribute to obtaining and maintaining more detailed informa­tion and data about pertinent issues, she noted. The goal is to ensure suc­cess at an executive level due to law enforcement opportunities-rather than in spite of them.

Sara Roen is a freelance writer based in Orlando, Fla., and a frequent contributor to POLICE.

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