Over the last year, America has finally begun to acknowledge that it has a police brutality problem. The conversation about solutions has focused on body cameras, better training or stricter use-of-force policies, along with a need for community engagement. But a critical idea is being overlooked: increasing the numbers of women in police ranks.
As David Couper, the former chief of police in Madison, Wis., recently wrote:
Women in policing make a difference — a big difference — they make for a better police department. Haven’t you wondered why women police are not the ones involved in recent officer involved shootings? After all, they are usually smaller, somewhat weaker in physical strength, and yet they don’t appear to shoot suspects as often.
In fact, over the last 40 years, studies have shown that female officers are less authoritarian in their approach to policing, less reliant on physical force and are more effective communicators. Most importantly, female officers are better at defusing potentially violent confrontations before those encounters turn deadly.
This research was prompted by widespread speculation that women, who began joining police departments in larger numbers in the early 1970s, would fail as patrol officers. One of the earliest studies, sponsored by the Police Foundation in 1974, found that women encountered many of the same kinds of situations (involving angry, drunk or violent individuals) and were as capable as men. The study’s most important finding, though, was that “women act less aggressively and they believe in less aggression.” The researchers predicted “the presence of women may stimulate increased attention to the ways of avoiding violence and cooling violent situations without resorting to the use of force.”
Subsequent studies have reached the same conclusions: In a 1988 article in the Journal of Police Science and Administration researcher Joseph Balkin reviewed the U.S. and international research spanning 14 years on the involvement of women in police work. He found uniformly that women not only perform the job of policing effectively, but are better able to defuse potentially violent situations: “Policemen see police work as involving control through authority,” he wrote, “while policewomen see it as a public service.”
The full impact of these differences would be revealed again in the startling findings of the 1992 Christopher Commission report on police brutality in the Los Angeles Police Department. The commission was created in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating and the subsequent devastating riots: “Virtually every indicator examined by the commission establishes that female LAPD officers are involved in excessive use of force at rates substantially below those of male officers.” The commission explained: “Many officers, both male and female, believe female officers are less personally challenged by defiant suspects and feel less need to deal with defiance with immediate force or confrontational language.”
A 2002 study by the National Center for Women & Policing of excessive force incidents in seven major city police departments found that “the average male officer is over eight and a half times more likely than his female counterpart to have an allegation of excessive force sustained against him … [and] two to three times more likely than the average female officer to have a citizen name him in a complaint of excessive force.”
More recent data spanning 2004 to 2014 from the Denver, Indianapolis, Washington, D.C., and Kansas City police departments, reflect these earlier results: Women are named significantly less often than their male counterparts in excessive force complaints.
Despite this evidence that increasing the number of women in law enforcement would significantly reduce police violence, the number of women in policing remains stuck at low levels. As of 2007 (the most recent data available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics), local police departments averaged just 12 percent women in their ranks, only slightly higher than the 7.6 percent of women in local departments 20 years earlier. Only 11.2 percent of sheriffs’ officers were women, and an even smaller 6.5 percent of state police officers were women. However, many of the smallest police agencies have no women, and the vast majority of all agencies have only token numbers of women in top command positions.
Larger police departments average slightly higher percentages of women, at 18 percent, but that’s only because of federal court-ordered consent decrees that forced the largest agencies to hire more women and racial minorities. These decrees, dating from the 1970s and most of which are now expiring, were the result of sex and race discrimination lawsuits pursued by the National Organization for Women and the NAACP.
Why aren’t there more women in policing? Misguided recruiting practices, ongoing discriminatory hiring processes and hostile work places.
Too many police recruiting campaigns feature slick brochures and billboards focused on adrenaline-fueled car chases, swat incidents and helicopter rescues – the kind of policing featured in television dramas and that overwhelmingly appeals to male recruits. In reality, 80 percent to 95 percent of police work involves nonviolent, service-related activities and interactions with people in the community to solve problems – the kind of policing that appeals to women.
The tests used in the selection and hiring of police recruits are also a problem. Based on the discredited presumption that brute strength is a key requirement for successful performance as a police officer, the vast majority of police agencies use some form of physical abilities testing in their hiring process. These tests tend to emphasize upper-body strength and disqualify some women – and men of slight stature. Yet physical strength has never been shown to predict a police officer’s effectiveness or ability to handle dangerous situations. Instead, testing should focus on an applicant’s communication skills and ability to defuse potential violence and maintain composure in situations of conflict.
Finally, as in the military and other traditionally male-dominated work forces, female officers face high rates of sexual harassment and negative male attitudes. Too many male officers continue to hold the view that women can’t be effective police officers. And yet, in contrast, studies have shown that community members prefer officer teams with both a woman and a man, largely because they believe women are better able to defuse potentially dangerous situations.
The good news is that changes in recruiting and hiring policies can have a dramatic impact on increasing the number of women in police departments. And, police leadership must place a high priority on recruiting female officers. Local police agencies can look to an effort underway by the U.S. Border Patrol to recruit only women for a major hiring push. The agency recognized that having just five percent women in its ranks impedes its ability to work with the tens of thousands of migrant women who cross the U.S.-Mexico border each year, many of whom suffer sexual assaults during their journey.
The Department of Justice should encourage similar hiring campaigns by local police agencies. Because without specific and enforceable directives to police departments to recruit and hire substantially more women who mirror the racial and ethnic diversity of the communities these agencies serve, I predict there will be painfully little progress. And as result, the inherent gender bias toward police use of violence will continue.
Until now, the national conversation has ignored the benefits gender balancing would bring to the effectiveness of police departments and to the people in their communities. With demands for police reform echoing from the streets to city halls to the White House, the president, the Department of Justice and local public leaders have a perfect opportunity to consider a dramatic, gender-based response.