Women make up just 12.6 percent of all police officers. Much of the debate about police violence and misconduct has focused on race while skipping past this stunning statistic. No honest observer can deny that too many American policing practices reflect and contribute to racial injustice, but the focus on racial injustice shouldn’t make us lose sight of the gender disparities that also distort American policing. One simple way to achieve a less violent and more equitable form of law enforcement is to push agencies to hire more women.
Decades of research show female officers can handle hostile and violent suspects as well as their male counterparts, but a 2017 Pew survey found only 11 percent of female officers reported they had ever fired their weapon while on duty, compared with 30 percent of male officers. Female officers were also less likely to believe aggression is more useful than courtesy, less likely to agree some people “can only be brought to reason the hard, physical way” and less likely to report their jobs had made them callous.
These attitudinal differences are reflected in behavior. Controlling for differences in assignments, studies show female officers are significantly less likely to use force than male officers, more likely to display empathy and more likely to de-escalate fraught encounters. One study, for instance, found female officers were 27 percent less likely than male officers to “exhibit extreme controlling behaviors such as threats, physical restraint, searches, and arrest” in their interactions with citizens. Another concluded suspects arrested by female officers were less likely to be injured.
Similarly, female officers partnered with other women used force and extreme force least often compared to men partnered with men and men partnered with women. When women with male partners took the lead in encounters, force was less likely to be used than it was when the male officer took the lead.
Of course, gender isn’t destiny: Every officer, female or male, can and should be expected to police respectfully and with restraint, and statistics tell us nothing about how a given individual is likely to behave. There are many men and women who defy gender stereotypes: In my four years as a reserve police officer in Washington, D.C., I’ve been lucky enough to work with many empathetic and restrained male police officers. Statistics also don’t tell us whether men and women police differently because of nature, nurture or both. Most obviously, addressing gender disparities in policing can’t solve deeper problems such as over-criminalization or structural racism.
Nonetheless, the aggregate data make a compelling case that gender diversity could reduce police violence.
Having men dominate the profession might also be costing police departments more in lawsuits to settle claims of misconduct. A 2002 study found that although women made up 12.7 percent of officers in large urban police departments, female officers generated just 5 percent of citizen complaints and accounted for 6 percent of the money that departments “paid out in court judgments and settlements for excessive force.” The study concluded that male officers cost between 2½ and 5½ times as much as female officers in payouts after lawsuits regarding excessive force.
Since then, a 2015 New York Police Department’s Inspector General’s report examined all substantiated cases of excessive force by NYPD officers between 2010 and 2014 and concluded that although women made up 17 percent of all officers, they were involved in only 3.2 percent of excessive force cases. Another study looked at all reported police uses of force in the District of Columbia from 2014 to 2018 and found although women made up 22 percent of sworn officers during the study period, they accounted each year for only 10 to 16 percent of all uses of force.
Despite these data, there are still few female police officers and as of 2018, only about 11 percent of America’s hundred largest police departments had female chiefs. Female police chiefs and supervisors were even thinner on the ground in smaller departments and federal law enforcement.
A major reason for this is that law enforcement recruitment, training and treatment of officers tends to drive women away. Recruiting ads frequently emphasize images of SWAT teams battering down doors; recruiters focus on job fairs for veterans and male-dominated university criminology programs; police academies are modeled on military boot camps and overvalue physical strength while undervaluing communication skills and emotional intelligence.
A locker room atmosphere prevails in many police precincts, and rotating patrol shifts are devastating to family life. Even police uniforms and equipment are largely designed for men. When I joined the D.C. police reserve corps in 2016, I discovered the “unisex” pants and shirts issued at the police academy pinched and gaped in all the wrong places, the required firearms were harder to use for those with smaller hands and the duty belt system was clearly designed only for those able to pee standing up.
Years of research make clear the kinds of changes needed to recruit, retain and support more female officers: Use recruiting messages that depict police as helpers and public servants, not warriors; be creative in recruiting nontraditional applicants; abandon counterproductive paramilitary training rituals; crack down on workplace sexual harassment, and develop more family-friendly schedules.
It doesn’t take rocket science — but it does take political will.
Many critics have highlighted the fact that America’s police departments are typically much whiter than the communities they serve. In our increasingly diverse nation, there’s no excuse for white-dominated police departments. In the same vein, there’s no excuse for male-dominated police departments, either.