During last summer’s protests, some advocates proposed yet another reform: that police departments should hire more female officers. The logic was simple. If — as some research suggests — female officers are less likely to use force and less likely to escalate encounters with civilians, their inclusion could transform policing.
But not all evidence suggests that female officers behave differently from male officers. Indeed, numerous studies find no evidence of differences in the use of force, coercive behavior, writing tickets and so on. Some research suggests that women might even feel pressure to “act like men” to gain acceptance in male-dominated police departments.
In a recently published article, we dig into this question: Do women police differently from how men police?
How we did our research
To look at whether male and female officers behave differently, we gathered publicly available information on millions of traffic stops conducted by the Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) and the Charlotte Police Department (CPD). In each department, officers record information on individual stops in the moment — or shortly after — they stop a vehicle. Our data on the FHP come from the Stanford Open Policing Project, which centrally houses many traffic-stop data sets that the research team either directly downloaded or accessed via a request made under the Freedom of Information Act. Our data on the CPD come from Charlotte’s open data portal and from data collected by other researchers, which was originally made available by Charlotte’s open data portal but has since been taken down. Open data portals are a common way that cities make public some information about policing activities.
With this information, we can examine whether male and female officers made different decisions about whether to search vehicles after they’d pulled drivers over. We focused on traffic stops and searches for two reasons. First, officers have a lot of discretion in this aspect of their job. Basically, if men and women want to behave differently during these types of interactions, they can. Second, traffic stops are the most common form of involuntary contact that civilians have with police.
Female officers search fewer drivers and fewer vehicles
Our first step was to look at whether female officers were less likely to search cars that they pulled over. When we look at the percentage of stops resulting in searches — displayed in the figure below — we see that female officers conduct searches at a much lower rate than male officers. This was true for both of the departments in our study.
This suggests that when female officers interact with citizens, they are less likely to escalate the contact by searching the car or driver. Although most of us would view being pulled over as negative on its own, our findings suggest that female officers are at least less likely to make these interactions worse with a body or vehicle search.
Do fewer searches make female officers less effective?
Does this lower search rate reduce female officers’ effectiveness? One reason officers conduct searches is that they suspect the presence of contraband such as drugs or weapons meant for illegal distribution. If female officers are conducting fewer searches, are they leaving more contraband on the streets?
Not necessarily. To answer this question, we looked at what police departments call “hit rates” for male and female officers. That’s the percentage of searches in which officers find contraband — which makes it a record of how accurate officers are when they decide to search.
When women search drivers or vehicles, they are far more likely than men to find contraband, as you can see in the figure below.
In other words, women are less likely than men to conduct needless searches.
But what about the raw amounts of contraband? Even with a better hit rate, are female officers overlooking some contraband and taking less off the streets than men? We do not find much evidence of that, either.
When we looked at the number of times that men found contraband compared with women — a number that’s different from the hit rate — men, on average, found contraband in only an additional 0.08 stops per 100 stops than women did. If we adjust to account for women stopping fewer cars in total, this difference remains small: Men found contraband in approximately 0.65 more traffic stops than women on average.
Put simply, on average women seem to be more effective police officers, by our measures.
Of course, this does not mean that every woman is always an effective officer, or that all women are better than all men, or that women cannot or will not inappropriately use force — including deadly force. Examples such as the case of Minnesota police officer Kim Potter, who fatally shot Daunte Wright during a traffic stop two weeks into the trial of Derek Chauvin, remind us that averages do not predict individual behavior.
Our findings suggest that female officers are less likely than male officers to investigate citizens aggressively — and that when they do, they are more likely to be justified in doing so. Studies find that negative contact with the police can reduce the likelihood of voting or being civically involved more generally. Having more female officers could increase trust in government in overpoliced communities, since women’s policing style, on average, tends to be more deliberate and less confrontational.
But our findings do not suggest that increasing the proportion of female officers will solve all of the United States’ policing problems. Other structural factors shape police-civilian interactions. However, our findings do suggest that increasing the proportion of police forces’ female officers could help.
Katelyn E. Stauffer (@k_stauffer) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of South Carolina.
Kelsey Shoub (@k_shoub) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of South Carolina and co-author of “Suspect Citizens: What 20 Million Traffic Stops Tell Us About Policing and Race” (Cambridge University Press, 2018).
Miyeon Song (@miyeon_song) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of South Carolina.