Recruiting Women: Are We Doing Enough?

"Women can do this job." Although the percentage of female cops in America still hovers at only around 10 percent, any doubt that women are just as competent and capable as males has been removed in many quarters and at many agencies.

"Women can do this job."

That observation by Donna Milgram, executive director of the Institute for Women in Trades, Technology and Science, would have been met with skepticism by many law enforcement agencies 20 or more years ago.

Even in 1980, the massive Los Angeles Police Department counted only 150 females among its thousands of officers.

Things have changed since then, albeit slowly and often painfully for some. In the past decade, Milgram's sentiment has been echoed by a number of police executives around the country. Although the percentage of female cops in America still hovers at only around 10 percent, any doubt that women are just as competent and capable as males has been removed in many quarters and at many agencies.

Police chiefs who expressed misgivings two decades ago have been convinced. A rural Texas chief- speaking with benefit of anonymity- is typical of some male administrator who reluctantly hired women because they had no choice. "I could see all kinds of problems," he admitted. "Jealous wives, injuries. It was a headache I didn't want. And we did have some problems. But today, female officers are getting the job done. That's what counts."

Now the chief says the only hindrance he faces in hiring women is the incredibly small pool of applicants in his area. Many of the best qualified of both sexes seek higher- paying jobs in the state's metropolitan areas.

Chief Lou Dekmar, of the LaGrange (Ga.) Police Department, said women "bring unique resources and a variety of perspectives" to his agency- qualities that promote teamwork and effectiveness. Dekmar says in his experience, women are less likely to be the subject of citizen complaints than male officers. "Women don't bring the typical male ego into tense situations," he explained. "They tend to de- escalate the situation and resolve matters with less force."  Women have clearly demonstrated they are as capable as male law enforcement officers, according to Dekmar. But, like most chiefs and sheriffs outside major metropolitan areas, Dekmar receives few applications from women. Only 10 percent of the department's officers are women.

Many departments where women were previously unheard of in sworn positions are aggressively seeking female applicants. Despite their newfound commitment to hiring women, police departments are discovering competition for the small pool of qualified female candidates is fierce.

It seems agencies are fighting over the same applicants or "stealing" women officers from one another, while little is being done to encourage more women to seek law enforcement careers.

No Easy Task

So why aren't law enforcement agencies working harder to attract larger numbers of female applicants? It appears such an effort is no easy task. Some agencies have called in Milgram and her non-profit organization to find ways to recruit more women.

Job fairs and other traditional techniques have been unsuccessful in attracting large numbers of females. According to Milgram, "A general recruiting effort will not appreciably increase the pool of female applicants."

Instead, women- specific strategies must be used. Milgram's organization has worked with several agencies to implement plans to recruit larger numbers of women and to ensure they are treated fairly in hiring practices and the work environment.

The Albuquerque, N.M., Police Department is one agency seeking new ways to attract female applicants. Lt. Vicky Peltzer says the department's recent efforts increased the number of women from 8 percent to 25 percent of all applications. APD displayed recruiting posters in gyms, grocery stores and other places women were likely to see them.

The department's recruiting brochures were revised to include photos of female officers. A career fair specifically for women was held amidst extensive media coverage. Fifty of the 68 fair attendees signed up to take the entrance exam. In a January 1999 basic academy class, 12 of Albuquerque's 30 recruits were women.

Like many other departments, Albuquerque experienced problems in retaining female recruits during academy training and early assignments. Peltzer says the department reviewed academy fitness requirements and assigned an instructor to work with female recruits. Peltzer believes more women would be able to pass physical agility requirements if they knew up front what was expected of them and took time to prepare for the tests.

There is a call for female officers to play a greater role in encouraging other of their gender to join the profession. "All women officers should serve as recruiters for their agencies," according to Peltzer.


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.


Seeking Prospects Early

While citizens' police academics have become commonplace across America, such programs usually do not admit "students" under the age of 18. Lou Dekmar's department, however, sponsors a teen-age police academy to educate young people about law enforcement. Teen-agers attend a full week of training during the summer to learn about all aspects of police work.

"One of the major goals of our teenage police academy," says Dekmar, "is to expose them to information on law enforcement careers." While none of the program's graduates- half of them young women- have reached the age of eligibility to apply for a position, Dekmar is optimistic some who complete the academy will seek police careers. "I think we have wet their appetites to learn more and seriously consider the law enforcement profession."

Federal Programs Are Little Help

Federally funded recruiting efforts do not target any specific group and their success in stimulating more interest in police careers is debatable. The Police Corps program was first funded by Congress in 1993. College students receive up to $7,500 a year, to a maximum of $30,000 to obtain the degree of their choice. After receipt of a baccalaureate degree, participants agree to work for a sponsoring law enforcement agency as regular officers for four years.

The IACP has adamantly opposed the Police Corps believing it attracts those desiring an expense-free education and that the participants will leave their departments, after their four-year commitment, for more lucrative professions.

The IACP has lobbied Congress to provide greater funding for the Law Enforcement Scholarship Program, which according to one IACP statement, provides "education and training for those men and women who have made a commitment to law enforcement careers." Because the scholarship program is consistently underfunded each year, it has had little effect on increasing the number of men or women seeking police careers.

The Ones That Got Away

What's harder than finding female police officers? Apparently, it's keeping them. Chief Mary Ann Viverette of Gaithersburg, Md., plays a prominent leadership role in the male-dominated IACP. Viverette is setting an example for other women by seeking the sixth vice presidency of the IACP, hoping to eventually be the first woman to head the 16,000-member organization.

"Nationwide, 15 to 20 percent of the officers hired annually are women," she explained, "but departments are maintaining a work force that is only 10 percent female.:

Like Kelepecz, Viverette understands female role models and mentors play an integral role in the success and retention of new female recruits.

Viverette also believes more work is needed in recruiting and keeping the best candidates- male and female. Hiring women merely to hire women results in poor retention rates and other problems. Unfortunately, "hiring women merely to hire women" has occurred in some agencies. A Louisiana chief- who requested he not be identified- admitted the first women he hired got their jobs, not so much for their abilities, but because of pressure from city hall to hire female officers. Hampered by a small applicant pool and his own misgivings, the chief realizes now those early mistakes were a disservice to his department and all women officers. He recalls those first female recruits failed to complete a year of service, reconfirming some male officers' opinions that women did not belong there in the first place.

"It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy," the chief explained. "If you think they (women) won't work out and therefore you don't hire and train properly, then it won't work. That reinforces the attitude that women have no place in policing and the cycle starts all over. But it really doesn't matter if they're men or women. Hire problems and you will have problems."

While police departments continue to improve their recruiting methods with the objective of finding the best possible candidates, the cooperation of schools, youth groups and parents will be necessary to bring about greater interest in law enforcement careers. Until more is done to attract young people to public service- a mission requiring the participation of many entities- the competition for female applicants will be intense and the number of women in law enforcement will continue to grow at a sluggish pace.

Wesley Harris spent more than 20 years working in police departments in Louisiana and Georgia. When Harris served as police chiefs in Decatur, Ga., 25 percent of the officers in his department were women. A frequent contributor to law enforcement publications and the author of several books, Harris now runs his own training and management consulting business in Longview, Texas. He can be reached at This was his first contribution to POLICE.


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