This police chief is hiring female officers to fix ‘toxic’ policing
BELLEVUE, Neb. — Officer Karen Wrigley’s pink nails tapped her body camera as she stepped from her cruiser into the cold. “You want to open up the door?” she asked the middle-aged Black man sitting in a parked minivan. “You’ve got an arrest warrant.”
The man had a criminal record for assault and other offenses, had run from Bellevue police before and was wanted for missing a court date for a traffic violation. He had no interest in returning to jail. “That’s horses---!” he cried, as Wrigley and her colleagues asked him 11 times over 15 minutes to exit the vehicle.
Wrigley, who is White, never raised her voice. She got on the phone with his lawyer through a cracked-open driver’s-side window — a window she had the right to bash in, given the circumstances. As reality set in, the man smoked two cigarettes and cursed his luck. He finally exited the car, remarking that he was freezing.
“Yep, us, too,” Wrigley said, handcuffing him. “Just to let you know, others aren’t going to be as nice as me.”
Wrigley, 35, is one of a slew of female officers hired over the past year and a half in this suburb south of Omaha, part of a deliberate strategy by Police Chief Ken Clary to reduce the likelihood of misconduct and excess violence on the force.
Jess Manning, center, talks with fellow officers Feb. 7 about an incident in a restaurant parking lot where a person with mental illness was said to have a gun. That person was taken to the Bellevue police station for questioning.
Valdez takes notes after conducting a field sobriety test on a woman who was pulled over on Feb. 6. She is flanked by Bellevue police colleagues Matt Vetter, left, and Andrew Jansen.
Clary, a former Iowa state trooper, believes the research and his own experience, both of which tell him diversity makes for better policing and decreases the use of force against civilians, especially those who are Black. He’s rewritten the department’s rule book and promoted an officer to become head of recruiting, with an eye toward adding more women and police officers of color and making sure they stick around.
It’s too early to see significant changes in data generated by the 103-officer department. But officers say the personnel efforts have helped usher in a culture shift, which experts say is the key to long-lasting change.
Outsiders seem to be noticing. This winter, seeking to understand the police hiring climate in a post-George Floyd world, Nebraska Fraternal Order of Police President Jim Maguire asked the state’s 225 law enforcement entities whether recruiting was up or down. Each chief who responded said the number of applicants had shrunk dramatically. Except one: Clary. He told Maguire he had more applicants hoping to police the city of 53,000 than ever before, with officers transferring from departments as far as New Mexico. Many new arrivals were women.
There’s Wrigley, who was inspired to become a cop as a teenager after watching the 2000 film “Miss Congeniality”; Brandy Valdez, a former ballet dancer and maid who sought her badge after leaving what she calls a “patriarchal marriage” and has a talent for calming and reassuring victims of sexual assault; Chatelle Ogea, a rookie officer, former social worker and current Army reservist; and Pam Volk, who resolved a recent dispute between a woman and her substance-abusing granddaughter by recounting her own experience living with an alcoholic.
Bellevue, the third-largest city in Nebraska, is experiencing “the complete opposite of what everybody else is dealing with,” Maguire said. “I don’t know exactly how Chief Clary is doing it. But whatever magic wand he’s been able to use down there, I would suspect that a bunch of other departments are going to try.”
A police chief’s evolution
As a captain for the Iowa State Patrol seven years ago, Clary hadn’t given much thought to the dearth of women in policing (nationwide, about 7 percent of state troopers are female). He did notice that the two women under his command drew citizen complaints far less than many of their male peers. In 2016, he attended the National Institute of Justice LEADS Scholars Program in Washington, where he was introduced to a wealth of academic research indicating female officers excel at de-escalation and use force less frequently than male officers.
Between classes, Clary struck up friendships with Ivonne Roman, a Newark police officer who would go on to be a finalist for New York City police chief earlier this year, and Maureen McGough, an attorney who is chief of staff for the Policing Project at the New York University School of Law. Roman shared with Clary many of the obstacles she faced rising through the ranks in Newark. In a later conversation over lunch, Clary shared with McGough a dawning realization.
“He looked at me and, out of nowhere, he said, ‘Mo', we have got to figure out how to get the toxic masculinity out of policing,’ ” she recalled. “And it was just like this moment of, ‘who are you and how do I support you?’ ”
Clary was the first police chief to join the 30x30 Initiative, launched by McGough, Roman and others a year ago to push police departments to make their rosters at least 30 percent female by 2030. To date, about 150 jurisdictions have signed on, including New York City and, this month, D.C.
But many others have been skeptical. Only seven of the 40 Midwestern law enforcement agencies Clary invited have signed up, McGough said. And during a seminar while the initiative was in the planning stage, a male chief told McGough and other organizers he was reluctant to hire women, for fear they’d be sexually harassed by male officers and sue the department.
The women in the audience were incredulous.
“So, not that he needed to address the behavior of the officers, right?” McGough said in an interview. “We don’t want to deal with the sexual harassment suits that would come from a woman.”
Clary was hired in Bellevue to replace a chief who was accused by the police union of sexist attitudes, racism and other misconduct. Mark Elbert retired after being cleared in an internal investigation and now works for the city as community development director. In an email to The Post, he denied wrongdoing.
Officers say they saw the leadership change as a chance to restore morale and trust within the agency. Clary describes himself as politically conservative. There’s a Ronald Reagan quote about delegating authority framed above a bookcase in his office, and twin photos by the door of Clary shaking hands with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. But he says he doesn’t always agree with Republicans on social issues. And in managing his department, he preaches that hiring and retaining people from more diverse backgrounds is of paramount importance.
“If you’re not intentional about recruiting everyone and showing everyone that they can be successful here,” Clary said as Fox News’s midday lineup played on mute on a corner television, “you’re intentionally excluding people.”
He took aim at recruitment and personnel policies he said discouraged women and people of color from applying. The rule dictating that officers couldn’t take extended medical leave twice in two years, affecting women who might have pregnancies in quick succession — scrapped. The bans on dyed hair and multiple ear piercings — gone. The bench press requirement for joining the SWAT team — nixed.
And this past winter, Clary promoted Howard Banks, a Black 39-year-old former school resource officer, to lead recruiting efforts, hoping he would relate well to a younger, more diverse audience. At physical and classroom training sessions for applicants, Banks offered breakout groups headed by female officers and officers of color who spoke to the challenges they faced in the regional police academy. Clary told applicants worried about meeting fitness requirements that he would run with them during testing.
At one recent screening, the chief joined recruits including Anastasia Schrader, 31, a child welfare case manager who said she wants to enter law enforcement in part to reverse distrust of police in communities of color. If hired, Schrader would be one of six Black officers on the force — and, according to Clary, the first Black female officer in the department.
Anastasia Schrader's path to possibly becoming Bellevue's first Black female officer involves passing a physical fitness test, so Manning guides her through push-ups during a Feb. 5 session at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Schrader, 31, and other recruits were also graded on vertical jumps, sit-ups and running ability. One of Schrader's running tests was a 300-meter dash, which Clary, far left, also participated in, along with Angel Menjivar, second from left.
Three days removed from the Feb. 5 fitness test, Schrader braids the hair of her 7-year-old daughter, Aurora. Later, it’s off to her job as a child welfare case manager.
When Clary arrived in September 2020, just four of Bellevue’s 80-plus officers were women, and just one officer spoke Spanish in a city where 16 percent of residents are Hispanic or Latino, according to census data. (About 6 percent of residents are Black.) Nineteen months later, the department has 103 officers, including 15 women and five Spanish speakers. Nine of the last 15 hires have been women.
Clary has tried to convince other departments to make similar changes. While teaching a hiring course hosted by the Nebraska Law Enforcement Training Center in 2021, he challenged lieutenants and captains to reconsider the potential impact of credit requirements when recruiting people of color.
“If you’re looking at hiring from minority communities, historically, you’re going to get bad credit,” Clary recalls telling the group. “At 18 years old, they don’t have a safety net of family that has money to throw at them to help them get their first apartment or their first car. So are they going to struggle with credit? I would argue, yes, probably at a much higher rate.”
Clary said he made some headway with a few departments, but a larger segment of police leadership in the Midwest has rejected or brushed aside his ideas. Whether Clary advocated reconsidering credit requirements or creating realistic physical fitness requirements for the job, he said, the most common response was consistent: You’re talking about lowering standards.
“I was exactly where you are five years ago,” Clary said he would tell those officers and officials. “We’re not lowering a standard. We’re thinking differently about the standard. We’re inviting people that didn’t believe that there was a pathway.”
Force as a last resort
Research generally supports the idea that female police officers are better than male officers at finding resolutions without using violence. A 2021 study found that female officers made 7 percent fewer arrests than their male counterparts while using force 28 percent less often. The researchers found the largest disparity centered on the treatment of Black civilians.
Female officers are, on average, more educated than male officers, more likely to engender the perception of fairness in the communities they police, more efficient in carrying out traffic stops that result in drug seizures and more effective in sex assault and domestic violence investigations, other studies show. Experts say female officers are less likely to fire their guns in the line of duty, use excessive force or become the target of successful civil suits.
Still, there are a few studies that found only minor differences in use-of-force incidents among male and female officers. And some research indicates that diversity cannot be a cure-all for departments, especially when traditional training and police culture remain in place. A 2003 look into police killings found that overall department diversity had little impact on outcomes, for example. A 2005 study of a suburban Maryland police department determined the difference between men and women in use of force to be statistically insignificant.
Officer Pam Volk, center, and Kenny resolve a dispute a woman is having with her granddaughter.
Volk, joined by Kenny, handcuffs a man who was stopped for a traffic violation but had an arrest warrant.
Manning, in window, and Kenny look up information on a computer.
Samantha Simon, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, says she is “pessimistic about the usefulness of demographic diversity in police forces.” She has found that success or failure at combat is still valued above all other fields of study at most police academies, regardless of an officer’s gender. Police recruits who struggled in violent confrontations were more likely to be hazed than mentored, she concluded when researching an article and an upcoming book.
“The people who end up being hired and make it to graduation fit a blueprint of who the institution thinks will be a good police officer,” Simon said. “And a lot of that really revolves around the use of violence.”
Bellevue police leadership believes it’s too early to use data to understand what effect the influx of women is having, with the majority of the female officers having been hired in the last year and a half, and several still in training.
One early insight: For incidents from September to December in which officers used force, the involvement of a female officer in a group effort yielded 8 percent fewer injuries. And in use-of-force incidents involving only one officer, none involving a female officer resulted in injury, according to the department.
Kenny, who worked at a nearby county jail before joining the Bellevue police, has a brother behind bars and says that fact influences how she performs her job: “How would I want an officer to treat my brother?”
In her downtime, Kenny plays Monopoly with friends and family during a dinner party at a friend’s house.
Ogea, an Army reservist and former social worker, removes a knife from a man’s pocket before questioning him as her field training officer, Weston Secrist, observes.
Ogea returns home from a 12-hour shift to greet her 5-year-old twin boys, Canyn, left, and Layton.
In interviews, Bellevue’s female officers consistently cited moments in life when they felt vulnerable as a way to explain their approach to policing.
Crystal Kenny, who joined the department in December 2020 after working at the nearby Sarpy County Jail, said her two brothers were “in and out of the system,” often getting hauled out of her childhood home in handcuffs. One is currently in jail in Lawrence, Kan. She speaks with him regularly by video chat.
“How would I want an officer to treat my brother?” asked Kenny, 32. “I would want them to be treated respectfully and fairly regardless of what they’ve done.”
Valdez, 35, said her passion for investigating domestic violence and sexual assault, and helping victims, is drawn from personal experience. “A lot of times, people do find themselves in very helpless situations,” she said. “They don’t know that there’s resources. They don’t know that there’s people who care, things that can be done to help.”
Changing the culture
The Bellevue Police Department, like most smaller law enforcement agencies, does not run its own police academy. Many recruits attend Sarpy Douglas Law Enforcement Academy, a regional facility serving multiple departments. Several Bellevue officers said instruction at the academy was heavy on violence and light on some of the skills they’d come to learn months and years into the job. Combat scenarios were common, but the scenario simulating negotiations with potentially violent civilians under duress lasted 15 minutes, Wrigley said.
“There’s a lot of times where I go to a call and I’m talking to somebody for over an hour,” Wrigley said. “You don’t get that in the academy.”
Bellevue officers increasingly are finding ways to use the department’s growing diversity to their advantage. Banks, the recruiting director, says he’s been asked by White colleagues to respond to traffic stops when Black motorists were growing hostile. Ogea, the former social worker, said her male counterparts have reacted positively to her taking over negotiations with suspects who are not responding well to them. On one occasion, after subbing in and settling a suspect down, the officer she’d replaced pulled Ogea aside.
“He said, 'Don’t ever think that you’re going to hurt my ego for somebody wanting to talk to you over me.’” recalled Ogea, a 36-year-old mother of twin boys. “That might be a stigma for most officers. But I think a majority of them at Bellevue are not going to have any problem.”
Manning, Volk and Kenny enjoy a light moment after responding to a call together in February.
One perk of Kenny's job: She can spend a lunch break with her mother, Pam Kenny, and her dogs.
Clary says he’s always searching for ways to tweak the formula. He set up an anonymous email system by which officers can submit complaints, comments or suggestions to him. (The vast majority so far have concerned department technology.) Officers attend mental health discussions hosted by peers, and Clary has hired a therapist who offers weekly appointments to all officers.
“They’re going to give that extra little bit every day when they’re out there interacting with people,” Clary said. “They’re going to give people grace, because they were given grace.”
Wrigley has been known to sit down beside a distraught person — suspect or victim — and cry with them. That wasn’t always her way, she said, explaining that the example set by her husband’s loving parents birthed a sensitive side that she lacked early in her career.
Her empathy was on display the day she confronted the minivan driver.
“I’ll try hard and talk to him and see if I can get him out, because he’s a person, just like I am,” Wrigley said. “And maybe he just forgot to go to court, so why not give him the opportunity to go gracefully, I guess.”
After the man accepted arrest, Wrigley’s male colleagues teased her: “Karen, you’re too nice. We’re freezing.”
Wrigley shot back: “Then wear more layers. I’m perfectly fine.”
Sarah L. Voisin and Joyce Koh contributed to this report.
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