Finding Female Support
While female officers share many of the same concerns and challenges, it's often difficult to find support among fellow officers. You'd think that women would band together, but in an effort to make their own name they often sabotage other female officers' careers.
"Some hold back and don't give other females the tools to get better, to strive to be a better officer," says Parole Officer Jane Crutchfield of the State of Ohio. "That's something I'd like to see change. In our position, we need to come together and encourage each other more."
Connelly agrees. When she started out in law enforcement she found that many of her fellow female officers deemed her untrustworthy because she looked feminine and wasn't overly willing to fight suspects. They mistakenly felt she wouldn't be able to back them up. "A lot of the other women were mean to me because they perceived me as a girly girl," she says.
Regardless of appearances, many female officers see other women as competition. When former police officer Lisa Lockwood was accepted onto her agency's SWAT team, other female officers gave her the cold shoulder. "I just wasn't appreciated or congratulated by the females," she says. "Sometimes silence can tell you a lot more than saying something."
For these reasons, women's organizations made up of officers looking for solidarity can be good networking and support tools for female officers. But many women shy away from them because of the possible negative connotations. "My assumption is they're afraid they might get a reputation that they have a manhater attitude or a different sexual preference," says Lavin, director for the 2009 International Association of Women Police Conference that will be held in Seattle. "But it's not about burning your bra. It's a sisterhood," she says.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg PD provides mentors for all officers upon entering the academy. And a female-only mentoring network is also available. Capt. Michelle Hummel of the agency's Street Crimes Division sees the value of mentoring, but has reservations about the women-only group. "An unfortunate side effect is that it builds up a wall between men and women, which is not what we're trying to do," she says.
Brantner Smith believes mentoring can be greatly beneficial to new recruits if it's done the right way. She's aware of the perception that women's organizations are separatist. And she's very critical of any groups that attack the male gender wholesale.
While women can hurt each other, they can also be their own worst enemies. Brantner Smith feels female mentors who have been there could help save rookies from themselves. "I tell woman recruits, avoid drama and don't talk about your personal life. Go to work and work." She believes one of the most important lessons female recruits can learn is that they're going to face adversity. "Women like fairness, they like consensus. But life ain't fair and neither is police work."
Learning to Cope
"I think it's easier for women to be police officers and to deal with stress because we express ourselves, and it's more acceptable for us to express ourselves," says Harmer. "We talk to each other and we don't hold things in. I've seen guys where it just ripped them apart because they are unable to let go of that part of their job."
Humor is also essential in handling the stressors of the job.
"I get a lot of, 'Oh, please, frisk me.' I wish I had a dollar for every time I've heard that," says Connelly. "Sometimes I tell them 'Maybe, but put the beer down first.' That's one of my favorite responses," Connelly laughs. "You have to have a sense of humor because you don't know what the public's going to tell you."
Officers also never know what kind of call they might have to respond to next. In a field where you see such atrocities as babies dying at the hands of abusive parents, it's sometimes easy to fall into despair.
"For people who are dealing with death and violence all the time, there needs to be that light side," says Lockwood.
Harmer has developed several coping mechanisms to handle the stress of her heavy homicide caseload. "After 20-plus years in this business, I know my releases: exercise, being able to communicate with my significant other about how I'm feeling, and spending time with my family."
Don't Lose Yourself
Maintaining a balance between one's identity as a woman and as a police officer is never going to be easy. Knowing this, Sgt. Stefani Gombar of the Phoenix PD cherishes one piece of advice she received in the academy from a female officer: "Don't lose yourself." Her advice to female officers is to recognize and take advantage of their strengths as women. "I just think that we need to remember that we're women, and although we're doing a job that is predominantly male, we still need to maintain our femininity and use that to our advantage toward the community and ourselves," says Gombar. "We see things very differently than men, and that can be a positive."
Maintaining a good sense of humor and sticking to personal priorities are also important in sustaining a career in law enforcement. But the tug-of-war can't be denied, even when accepting praise.
Lavin appreciates when people come up to her and say, "That's so cool that you're a female police officer." But when asked how she would react to someone telling her she had done a good job for a woman her exasperated response is, "Good grief."
In January 2008, POLICE Magazine launched a year-long article series focusing on the “state of American law enforcement.” If you’d like to read the other chapters, click on the links below.
Chapter 1: The Thinning Blue Line. Law enforcement agencies nationwide are competing for a dwindling population of recruits.
Chapter 2: The Blue Mosaic. Policies meant to diversify law enforcement agencies have changed police demographics and will continue to do so in the future.
Chapter 3: Teaching to the Test. Does law enforcement training focus too much on qualifying and not enough on skills that can help you win fights?
Chapter 4: A Love-Hate Relationship. Most people only meet an officer when they are arrested, questioned, or cited. That makes it hard for them to like cops.
Chapter 5: Can the Average Cop Thrive in the Age of Specialization? The generalist cop is part of a dying breed, which means many of today's officers will need to excel at a specialty.
Chapter 7: Working on the Front Lines. The patrol officer is the backbone of American policing, but a lot of agencies don’t want to admit it.
Chapter 8: SWAT: Breaking the Mold. Agencies nationwide model their tactical teams on LAPD SWAT. So what does it mean if that unit changes its policies to be more politically correct?
Chapter 9: Stopping the Next 9/11. Improvements in intelligence gathering, training, and equipment give you a good chance of preventing the next attack and saving lives if it happens.
Chapter 10: Rules of Engagement. Today’s law enforcement officer is the best trained and best equipped cop in history, so why do policy makers think you have the judgment and intellect of children?
Chapter 11: Gangster Nation. Big city street gangs have taken root in small town America, bringing mayhem to Main Street.
Chapter 12: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't. When a cop uses - or doesn't use - a less-lethal weapon in contemporary America, there can be hell to pay.