Pregnancy and Policing

Once an officer shows her pregnancy physically, most officers agree she should take a light-duty job. The pregnancy adds stress to other patrol officers because they worry about her health and the baby's health. And she must deal with the perception that she looks more vulnerable.

Lori Connelly Headshot

Photo: Raul Garcia Pinero.Photo: Raul Garcia Pinero.

Pregnancy for a female officer covers many areas of concern, beyond a male officer's primary concern of, "Is she going to be a good backup?"

Several police departments have a policy in place to accommodate pregnant officers who often must present proof to the employer in the form of a letter from the officer's physician. Usually the officer may temporarily transfer to a less dangerous position during the pregnancy and for several months after the birth while nursing. This is if the transfer can be reasonably accommodated.

Once an officer shows her pregnancy physically, most officers agree she should take a light-duty job. The pregnancy adds stress to other patrol officers because they worry about her health and the baby's health. And she must deal with the perception that she looks more vulnerable. Many officers agree that having a visibly pregnant officer on patrol most likely would give the public the idea that the police were not willing or able to engage in dangerous life-threatening or lifesaving situations.      

Unless it's clear that the pregnancy is affecting the officer's ability to perform her regular duties, endangering herself, other employees or members of the public, most police departments can't force the pregnant officer to take a temporary reassignment. The best they can do is ask for documentation from the pregnant police officer's physician. There are undoubtedly some departments who don't have a policy for this, and will force the officer to take a temporary assignment out of pressure and/or the culture within the department. Many women don't complain about discrimination because they don't want to be labeled, and so the discrimination goes unreported even in departments that have policy to prevent it.

In 2006, six female officers with the Suffolk County (N.Y.) Police Department won a case against their department for discrimination during their pregnancies. They weren't allowed to take requested light-duty positions, as male officers could do following an injury. They received between $5,000 and $23,000 each.

In 2008, six female police officers in Detroit filed a pregnancy discrimination case against the Detroit PD, after they were forced to take unpaid leave during their pregnancies. The case was settled in the late summer of 2010 for $200,000.

These aren't big settlements in comparison to other gender-related lawsuits, and especially considering there has been a federal law since 1964 prohibiting discrimination relating to pregnancy. That law, which can be found under the Federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act, states that "discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions is defined as a type of sex discrimination and is prohibited." (Tysinger v. Police Department of the City of Zanesville).

Aside from discrimination and lawsuits, there are some legitimate health issues surrounding pregnancy for an officer, including health-related issues involving stress, firearms, and toxic chemical exposure. Firearms issues involve noise, lead, and toxic-substance exposure from weapon cleaning.

Stress is a concern during any pregnancy but even more so for female officers who often feel the need to hide their pregnancies as long as possible to avoid being put behind a desk or risk losing their job. While stress can lead to many conditions in the mother, it also affects the fetus. The chemicals released by the mother during stress can affect the fetus and the overall health of the pregnancy, leading to high blood pressure, fatigue, or pre-eclampsia.

Some symptoms of stress include insomnia, headaches, chest pain, upset stomach, depression, over eating, anxiety, under/over reacting, and drug or alcohol use to "unwind." Other symptoms that can be brought on or exacerbated by stress in pregnant women are the problems of loss of agility and balance issues.

After researching pregnancy and police officer issues, it appears stress may be the biggest problem for women who are pregnant or who want to become pregnant due to lack of department support. Most departments classify pregnancy under "illness" when it comes to categorizing how the pregnancy will be dealt with in an administrative way.

Social pressures that accompany being a pregnant officer in a male-dominated occupation include the continued pressures to be a good mother and employee at the same time as the child grows. At times, this seems like an impossible task. Many male officers believe a pregnant officer or mother can't do her job properly because she has to take time to care for her children and should look for a different type of job.

Let's delve deeper into the risks of being a pregnant officer.

First, there are the unexpected risks involved with firearms during pregnancy. There's always the obvious risk of being shot. Other risks involved with being around firearms include noise and exposure to lead or other chemicals involved in cleaning a gun.

Noise exposure to a fetus is a matter of serious concern. By 16 weeks of gestation, a fetus responds to sound. By 24 weeks, the ear is structurally complete. The amount of sound blocked by ear protection while firing a gun is significantly higher than the amount of sound blocked going into the womb.

Several studies testing the levels of sound reaching the womb vary according to where and how the microphones have been placed, but there's no doubt that the sound of gunfire reaches a fetus in the womb. The dangers of exposing a fetus to a loud noise while in the womb include miscarriage, retardation, hearing loss in the baby, and decreased birth weight.   

Exposure to lead is another serious issue during pregnancy. Should a female officer qualify with her weapon during pregnancy? It's generally considered safe if reasonable precautions are taken. While it's a risk every pregnant woman needs to be aware of, some precautions can be taken, such as qualifying at an outdoor range where ventilation is good, wearing a mask rated for filtering lead, and avoiding other shooters to limit lead exposure.

Designating someone to pick up the brass after shooting can also help limit exposure to lead or other chemicals. The dangers to a fetus from lead exposure include miscarriage, low birth weight, premature delivery, small head circumference, infant and childhood behavioral issues, and pre-eclampsia. Several studies report that these issues can occur at lead exposure levels that are considered acceptable.

To further limit lead exposure, it's important to wash your hands with cold water after handling firearms or ammunition. Also don't eat or drink at the range, and change your clothes immediately after qualifying or practicing.

Toxic substance exposure is another serious issue officers need to be aware of while pregnant. There's almost no information available about the risks associated with exposure to flares, drug-testing kits, fingerprint kits, and solvents. Chemicals that officers come into contact with while dealing with firearms include arsenic, barium, and copper.

How does this compare to the smoke from flares used during traffic enforcement? Flares shouldn't be inhaled, and the boxes are labeled with warnings about how long a person can be exposed to them while they are burning. I've lit a new flare from the burning end of another flare many times and inhaled the smoke. What are the consequences of breathing in those fumes? More studies are needed to determine the effects of this and other chemicals officers are regularly exposed to.

Researching pregnancy and female police officers can raise new questions. Even if the issues surrounding a pregnancy aren't discriminatory, a policy needs to be put in place. For issues involving stress, culture, or firearms and chemical exposures, women need to speak up, because what affects a pregnant officer ultimately affects everyone.

About the Author
Lori Connelly Headshot
Officer (Ret.)
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