Photo: Zuma Press.
You go, girl; you fight him, Officer Matt Patin thought as he grimly reviewed a security videotape of Nicola Cotton's fight for life. He watched as a paranoid schizophrenic twice Cotton's size repeatedly beat her with her own baton while onlookers ignored her predicament. For seven minutes, Patin's fellow New Orleans officer gave it her all until 44-year-old Bernal Johnson wrestled Cotton's sidearm from her and fired 15 rounds into her body. Patin wants to admire her warrior spirit and grieves that Cotton didn't prevail in her fight for life.
Cotton's death on January 28, 2008, portended a particularly violent year for female officers: Fifteen were killed in action that year. Some experts say the danger to female law enforcement officers can be reduced with training tailored to their needs.
If it has only recently become apparent that the dangers associated with working in law enforcement do not discriminate against women, it is because the demonstrable presence of women among our ranks has been relatively recent.
Between 1894—when Marie Owens became the first female police officer in the United States—and 1970, nine women were killed in the line of duty on U.S. soil. In this period women constituted a miniscule percentage of the profession's work force and they were usually tasked with non-hazardous duties.
The 1972 congressional passage of an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 fostered optimism that women might one day achieve parity in the workplace. The subsequent influx of women into law enforcement has seen their representation swell from a mere two percent of U.S. law enforcement officers in 1970 to nearly 15 percent today.
Unfortunately, the growth in the ranks of female law enforcement officers has been accompanied by a corresponding increase in the number of female officers killed in the line of duty. To date, the names of more than 220 women officers have been engraved into the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C.
While it would be precipitous to say that the job is becoming more dangerous for women officers, it is not unreasonable to ask if more can be done to ensure their safety.
One thing is sure; almost every American law enforcement agency is looking for good women who want to wear badges.
And of course, that hasn't always been supported by male officers who wonder if the emphasis on recruiting women means their agencies are relaxing requirements to achieve the desired demographics.
National Tactical Officers Association lead instructor Don Alwes wonders if these dissenting male officers have ever tried to imagine what law enforcement's women have to contend with on a daily basis.
"I'm a pretty good sized guy," notes Alwes. "Still, I wouldn't want to be going up against a guy who is 7 feet 5 inches, 350 pounds and all muscle. And that's fairly proportional to the types of situations some of our female officers find themselves dealing with routinely. It takes a certain inner strength to even be able to contemplate putting oneself in such situations, and my hat's off to them."
But rather than acknowledge that courage, some male cops fixate on the stature of the body containing it: "Too light to fight; too thin to win" is their condescending commentary on the quality of female officers.
Rather than try to compete with their male brethren in a head-to-head match of strength and machismo, female officers often exploit their own innate talents and skills: talking suspects down instead of charging into hand-to-hand fights and using officer safety tactics to improve their odds against larger opponents.
But such skills need to be fostered and practiced in order to be successful in the field. Toward that end, effective training is most crucial for women in law enforcement.