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Recruiting Women: Are We Doing Enough?

Times have changed over the past several decades as female officers have become more accepted and proven themselves capable. But bringing more women into the fold has not proved easy.

August 01, 1999  |  by Wesley Harris

"Women can do this job."

That observation by Donna Milgram, executive director of the Institute for Women in Trades, Technology and Science, would have been met with skepticism by many law enforcement agencies 20 or more years ago.

Even in 1980, the massive Los Angeles Police Department counted only 150 females among its thousands of officers.

Things have changed since then, albeit slowly and often painfully for some. In the past decade, Milgram's sentiment has been echoed by a number of police executives around the country. Although the percentage of female cops in America still hovers at only around 10 percent, any doubt that women are just as competent and capable as males has been removed in many quarters and at many agencies.

Police chiefs who expressed misgivings two decades ago have been convinced. A rural Texas chief- speaking with benefit of anonymity- is typical of some male administrator who reluctantly hired women because they had no choice. "I could see all kinds of problems," he admitted. "Jealous wives, injuries. It was a headache I didn't want. And we did have some problems. But today, female officers are getting the job done. That's what counts."

Now the chief says the only hindrance he faces in hiring women is the incredibly small pool of applicants in his area. Many of the best qualified of both sexes seek higher- paying jobs in the state's metropolitan areas.

Chief Lou Dekmar, of the LaGrange (Ga.) Police Department, said women "bring unique resources and a variety of perspectives" to his agency- qualities that promote teamwork and effectiveness. Dekmar says in his experience, women are less likely to be the subject of citizen complaints than male officers. "Women don't bring the typical male ego into tense situations," he explained. "They tend to de- escalate the situation and resolve matters with less force."  Women have clearly demonstrated they are as capable as male law enforcement officers, according to Dekmar. But, like most chiefs and sheriffs outside major metropolitan areas, Dekmar receives few applications from women. Only 10 percent of the department's officers are women.

Many departments where women were previously unheard of in sworn positions are aggressively seeking female applicants. Despite their newfound commitment to hiring women, police departments are discovering competition for the small pool of qualified female candidates is fierce.

It seems agencies are fighting over the same applicants or "stealing" women officers from one another, while little is being done to encourage more women to seek law enforcement careers.

No Easy Task

So why aren't law enforcement agencies working harder to attract larger numbers of female applicants? It appears such an effort is no easy task. Some agencies have called in Milgram and her non-profit organization to find ways to recruit more women.

Job fairs and other traditional techniques have been unsuccessful in attracting large numbers of females. According to Milgram, "A general recruiting effort will not appreciably increase the pool of female applicants."

Instead, women- specific strategies must be used. Milgram's organization has worked with several agencies to implement plans to recruit larger numbers of women and to ensure they are treated fairly in hiring practices and the work environment.

The Albuquerque, N.M., Police Department is one agency seeking new ways to attract female applicants. Lt. Vicky Peltzer says the department's recent efforts increased the number of women from 8 percent to 25 percent of all applications. APD displayed recruiting posters in gyms, grocery stores and other places women were likely to see them.

The department's recruiting brochures were revised to include photos of female officers. A career fair specifically for women was held amidst extensive media coverage. Fifty of the 68 fair attendees signed up to take the entrance exam. In a January 1999 basic academy class, 12 of Albuquerque's 30 recruits were women.

Like many other departments, Albuquerque experienced problems in retaining female recruits during academy training and early assignments. Peltzer says the department reviewed academy fitness requirements and assigned an instructor to work with female recruits. Peltzer believes more women would be able to pass physical agility requirements if they knew up front what was expected of them and took time to prepare for the tests.

There is a call for female officers to play a greater role in encouraging other of their gender to join the profession. "All women officers should serve as recruiters for their agencies," according to Peltzer.

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