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Cover Story

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

Commander Betty Kelepecz at the Los Angeles Police Department agrees. "I never would have thought about becoming a police officer if a woman hadn't encouraged me."

Kelepecz encourages agencies to find ways to acknowledge their female officers in public by attending community meetings, speaking at schools or serving as public information officers.

"We need women to serve as role models within their departments and their communities to attract more women."

Still a Man's World?

Kelepecz immediate past president of the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives, but policing was not her first career choice. Educated as a microbiologist, she was working in a lab, testing antibiotics, when a police officer's wife encouraged her to take the LAPD entrance exam. Kelepecz says she never considered a law enforcement career before them. "Societal standards and peer pressure keep females away from law enforcement," explains the LAPD's first female commander. "It's not a career young women think about."

Kelepecz appreciates the steps some agencies have taken to make police work more attractive to women. The removal of tradition mandates, such as the relaxation of women's hair standards, have been accomplished with no detrimental effects.

Peltzer researched uniforms for Albuquerque, which is joining other departments in considering more "female- friendly" equipment.

The police persona is also evolving, which Kelepecz believes will also help attract more women. Today, many police executives do not believe officers must stand 6 feet tall and weigh 180 pounds to be successful. More and more chiefs are seeking recruits who can talk their way out of difficult situations instead of resorting to force, but stereotypic images still exist among the public.

"Some women believe they have to change their personality and even their appearance to become a cop," Kelepecz explained. "They think you change into this gruff, angry person in uniform. They shouldn't feel like they must lose their femininity to become a police officer."

Current Efforts Shortsighted?

The recruiting efforts of law enforcement agencies seem dismally inadequate when compared to the cultural barriers that Kelepecz says keep women away from police work. Most current recruiting efforts focus on candidates who meet minimum age requirements. But many young people have developed career interests well before any attempt is made to attract them to police work, ultimately reducing the number of potential police officer candidates.

Some police executives say even the more innovative techniques are not enough- that more emphasis should be placed on attracting young people to police careers regardless of their gender.

Departments are looking only at immediate requirements for recruits, placing little or no emphasis on long-term needs. It seems most young people with the right education and character traits are making career choices long before police departments attempt to recruit them.

Getting to the Youth of America

Two of the most prominent efforts to correct this oversight are Law Enforcement Exploring and high school career academics. Exploring is a program of the Boy Scouts of America for both male and female teen-agers interested in law enforcement. The nearly 3,000 local posts in the United States are sponsored mostly by law enforcement agencies.

Sixteen-year-old Thea Difley is an example of how young people, especially those with drive and ambition, begin considering career choices at an early age. Difley sought out an Explorer Post at age 14 after developing an interest in a career as a police officer. Not only did Exploring confirm her career choices, the program is providing skills Difley will need as a street cop.

"I was extremely shy before joining the Explorers," she admits. "My advisors forced me to talk to all kinds of people." During the 1998 International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference in Salt Lake City, Difley staffed an Explorer informational booth- often by herself- an talked with hundreds of police chiefs.

Without her experiences as an Explorer, Difley may not have developed the confidence and assertiveness needed to some day obtain a police officer position.

For now, Difley is a lieutenant in a post sponsored by the Salt Lake City Police Department. Half of the city's teenage Explorers are females and many want to pursue law enforcement careers. Difley says Explorers has convinced her to become "a street officer." Difley believes as a patrol officer she can "help people, even if I never meet them." With great loyalty to her sponsoring agency, she hopes to one day join the SWAT team, since Salt Lake has never have a female SWAT officer.

Even young Difley notices the low number of female officers and is thankful for the acceptance of Salt Lake's male officers. "I receive lots of encouragement from the guys," she proudly reports. "They are really supportive of my goal of becoming a Salt Lake officer."

Career academics are high school career-focused programs, structured as small school-within-a-school learning communities. Both students and faculty volunteer to be in the program and work closely with a wide variety of government and community partners who provide leadership, guidance and other resources.

High school career academics first appeared in the '60s and, after a slow start, now exist in almost every state. Their objectives are to improve student performance, raise students' ambitions and satisfy the local demand for a skilled workforce. More than 50 percent of the students now in career academics are female.

Although students enter the program by choice, they often have little or no idea what careers they wish to pursue. The training provided in the career academy helps them decide if law enforcement is the career for them. The program not only provides future officers, but convinces others the profession is not for them, saving department's time and money down the road.

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