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The State of American Law Enforcement - Women Warriors

Female police officers must walk a fine line between fitting in and making their own way in law enforcement.

June 01, 2008  |  by - Also by this author

Two female officers of the NYPD. Photo courtesy of NYCArthur (

Female officers have made great strides since the days of being relegated to tasks that often made them little more than secretaries with badges. Female sergeants, captains, and chiefs are not unusual, if not as prevalent as males in such positions. And those bastions of male elitism such as SWAT and narcotics now count women among their ranks.

The intense controversy surrounding the Los Angeles Police Department's Officer Jennifer Grasso as potentially the first woman to join the agency's SWAT team shows both the progress women have made and how far they still have to go to gain acceptance in tougher police roles.

Getting the plum assignments has clearly been a struggle for women over the years. A detective since 1992, Jane Harmer of the Boulder (Colo.) Police Department remembers when women could only investigate crimes against children and sexual assaults. "It took a long time for women to be thought of [as fit] to be put into roles like homicide investigators, the hot assignments," says Det. Harmer. "That is probably the one thing that has really driven me crazy about being a woman in policing."

Proving Yourself

Women still have a hard time breaking into certain details. And despite the progress many agencies have made, most female officers still feel the need to prove themselves every day, regardless of their rank or level of success.

"When I first started out 17 years ago it was definitely a challenge being a woman," says Master Police Officer Beth Lavin of the King County (Wash.) Sheriff's Office, "because you feel like you have to go out there and fight with somebody to prove to the guys you can handle yourself and you're not 'one of those wimpy female officers.'"

Harmer also felt that demonstrating physical prowess and outstanding tactics was important in garnering respect at her department. Although Boulder PD is progressive and supportive of female officers, she couldn't shake the need to prove her mettle. "If I failed or did poorly, I felt someone would be over my shoulder saying, 'See, you don't deserve this, you don't belong here.'"

Such feelings don't dissipate after a few years on the job. Capt. Michelle Hummel of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Police Department says, "For each position you go to, it's almost like you're starting over. You're proving yourself all over again each time you get promoted or go to a new assignment."

Pressure to succeed and gain respect is compounded by officers' desire to not let other female officers down. In such a heavily male-dominated field, every woman feels she holds the responsibility of representing all women throughout the entire profession on her shoulders. Women in the upper ranks are in the spotlight even more.

"Every time a female sergeant takes a position in training, for example, and takes herself out of the hot position, I feel like, 'Oh no, there goes another female off of the street,'" says Harmer.

Public Appearance

Convincing the public to look beyond gender and respect a woman's authority as a police officer is also an uphill battle. And it's not always clear how to win.

Citing a landmark study that showed convicted cop killers chose targets based on an unkempt appearance, Officer Lori Connelly of the Phoenix Police Department firmly believes that looking professional goes a long way toward giving people the impression that you're on your game, and that is even more important for a female officer. "My boots are always shined and my uniform is always pressed, my brass is always polished, my hair is always well groomed," Connelly says. "Because I know the second I get out of that car that person is already making a judgment about me."

But beyond shiny boots, female officers themselves disagree on what makes for a professional appearance.

"Unfortunately, there are some female officers out there that are lazy," says Lavin. "They come to work with long nails and lots of makeup on and don't want to handle tough calls." Of course not everyone who wears makeup is lazy. Many officers count manicured nails as part of their professional appearance that demonstrates attention to detail.

Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith of the Naperville (Ill.) Police Department, who is a size four and wears fake nails herself, emphasizes that appearances can be deceiving, even to her. "Right now we've got a recruit who's five-feet tall, 24, and looks like the head of the pom squad," she says. "But she's a single mom and no one's going to stand between her and her getting home to her little girl at night. When it comes time to get tough, oh, boy... no one's going to be tougher than her."

Female officers would be remiss not to use their femininity to their advantage, however.

"So many times being a female has been a huge benefit. But it's how you work it, too," says Connelly. As a woman, she's found that she commands respect from the Hispanic men in her jurisdiction whose culture emphasizes being polite to women. This has come in handy with belligerent drunk drivers who won't comply with male officers' requests. Once Connelly arrives, the DUI suspects fully cooperate.

But Connelly is confused by people's perceptions of what makes a female officer acceptable. She's had a man say he would talk to her only because she was straight. "I've had other people who didn't want anything to do with a straight female officer, but would talk to a female officer that they perceived as a lesbian," Connelly says.

Lavin of the King County Sheriff's Office has had similar experiences. The fact that she is a lesbian herself can be a benefit or a negative, depending on the situation.

"One time I went to a domestic violence call and it was two women," Lavin says. "We had to make an arrest, and the female suspect said, 'You just arrested me because you like my girlfriend.' And I said, 'No, it's because you hit her.'"

Communication and Use of Force

Female officers often bristle at the idea of their tactics being different from those of men, but they agree that for most women, communication is their first line of defense.

Women are sometimes criticized for talking too much, especially in the academy. But a tendency to rely on communication skills without resorting to violence when possible can be a very good trait.

"I think women have a more calming effect on a difficult situation," says Harmer of Boulder PD. "Our first choice is to try to negotiate or talk a person down as opposed to going hands on. I think we do a better job of de-escalating a situation in some cases."

When it comes to use of force, female officers are divided on the subject. They react differently to the suggestion that women may use force more quickly on the job.

"Bullshit," says Harmer. "We're absolutely less inclined to use force. And I'm not talking about lethal force. Women are more inclined to use communication and then force at the last minute, unless you have to."

While Connelly agrees that she usually uses communication to deescalate a situation, there are times when force is necessary quickly, especially because of her petite frame. "Being a smaller female, in our policy it's considered justified that I escalate use of force when someone is significantly larger than me," she says. "Sometimes it's just necessary."

Even admitting the necessity to bring force against a suspect because he is bigger and more dangerous can be difficult for female officers. When an intoxicated 250-pound man charged Brantner Smith and tried to grab her gun, she had to use immediate force. And she had to report the reasons for her actions, including a breakdown of her statistics next to the suspect's. "Believe me, I didn't want to put my height and my age and all that stuff, but I did," she says.

Of 45 officers at Lavin's precinct 17 are female. Sometimes the entire shift is staffed with female officers. "People joke around and call it the broad squad or Cagney and Lacey," says Lavin. "But you know, we take care of business."

Despite confidence in her abilities to communicate and escalate if necessary, Lavin is also aware of her own limitations.

"When I first started off I tried to be superwoman and go first. But in today's world you just can't be superwoman. Safety is number one, whether you're male or female."

Family vs. Career

Family obligations can be a double-edged sword for female officers. When it comes to dividing up their time, they can get guilt from both sides.

"I still get crap when I have to take time off to take care of my kids," says Connelly of Phoenix PD. "And as a woman it's expected I do it to take care of them or I'm a bad mom, but then they say that I can't be counted on because I drop everything to take care of my kids."

Connelly sometimes fudges the truth to minimize criticism for taking days off to spend time with her children. "I never lie," she says, "but if some busybody asks why I took Monday off I'll sometimes tell people in general, 'I had an appointment,' even if that appointment was a field trip."

Vacation days are one thing. But devotion to family often forces female officers to make tough career decisions, even turning down coveted or exciting assignments women would otherwise relish working. It's often not an easy choice.

"I myself have taken positions that were not as glamorous to get weekends off so I can spend them with my family," says Harmer. "Sometimes I regret not going for a promotion," she admits. "But then you do what everybody does, you get yourself in check and say, Come on, what's your priority?"

Brantner Smith agrees. She turned down a promotion to lieutenant because it meant she could spend more time with her family, and she's glad she did. But while police work often keeps her from attending track meets and other school events, it also allows her to relate to her children in an unusually frank way. For example, with what she calls "stupid teenage girl story time," she tells her 13- and 14-year-old daughters about calls involving teenage girls' bad decisions, in a lesson of what not to do. "You have to walk a fine line because you don't want your kids to be paranoid lunatics," says Brantner Smith. "But we can make them strong. And we can inform them."

When it comes to making important career decisions, Hummel emphasizes the fact that maintaining one's own priorities, whatever they may be, is essential to personal happiness and being successful in all aspects of life. "I haven't regretted the decisions I've made because I've done what I think is best for me, my family, and the organization," she says.

Comments (1)

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shawn havens @ 7/11/2011 7:37 PM

whoa officers in ny huh nypd i mean god forbid the insanely jerks make a grave mistake u know or bad decision that looks bizarre or corrupt. i dont blame policemen and female cops who arrest suspects who dont have any good story and in new yrok i mean lookout daddy b/c thats the city which never sleeps is constantly awake. god blessed be for laws and officers b/c without that our country would deteroirate and rot away i'm telling ya now and here.

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