I have seen a lot of changes in law enforcement since I became a police psychologist more than thirty years ago. While things are better for women officers than they have been in the past, in my opinion, there’s plenty of room for improvement. March is women’s history month. An opportune time for me to reflect on the status of women in policing, their challenges, their assets, and how they’re faring.
Women were first allowed on patrol in the early 1900s, a radical move that threatened to destroy the definition of what it meant to be a good cop, which was equated, then as now, with being a “real man.” Women make up approximately 13 percent of today’s police force, but only 1 in 10 supervisors and 3% of local police chiefs. Despite the gains women have made in other fields and their contributions to police work, this figure has changed little since I became a police psychologist. The reasons for this aren’t clear.
There is often a profound difference between how men and women define what it means to be a cop. In general, women emphasize helping over controlling people. They regard physical prowess, control and command actions, and officer safety as crucial, but they don’t seem to value these skills in the same way men do. A 2016 Pew Research survey of nearly 8,000 police officers found that one-third of the women, compared to almost half of the men, agreed that some people can only be brought to reason the “hard, physical way.”
In my second Dot Meyerhoff mystery, The Right Wrong Thing, a woman cop named Randy Spelling has been struggling to gain acceptance from her male colleagues. When she accidentally kills an unarmed teenager after mistaking the girl’s cell phone for a gun, she becomes a hero. It is a sickening moment. “I’m one of the boys now because I killed somebody. The same creeps who called me names,… the same jerks who gave me extra whacks in defensive tactics, Now I’m their hero….If that’s what it takes to join the good old boys club, I don’t want it.” Randy Spelling is a fictional character. The female officer whose story inspired me to write the book was real.
Over the years, women in law enforcement have suffered a rash of indignities from their male colleagues, too many, and some too vile, to list here. When they’ve complained, they have risked retaliation and social ostracism.
Are things more equitable today? It depends on who you ask. Forty-six percent of the female LEOs (law enforcement officers) in that large Pew Research survey thought that men in their departments were treated better when it came to assignments and promotions. Only 6% of the male LEOs agreed. When the question was turned around, one-third of the males said women were treated better, while only 6% of the women agreed that was the case.
What challenges women in law enforcement is not so much the physical rigor of the job, but a lingering mythology about what actually happens on patrol and the price women pay for being competent. Competent women are stuck between a rock and a hard place that men rarely if ever visit. A woman has to prove she is as good as any male officer, and she has to do this at every rank. Men need only to be as good as each other. On the other hand, when a woman shows she can be as aggressive, ambitious, powerful, proud, or tough, she may get a reputation as pushy, or strident.
Police work is extremely challenging. In my opinion, the ideal cop, male or female, is an androgynous combination of psychologist, minister, diplomat, politician, doctor, parent, historian, stunt-car driver, guardian, enforcer, athlete, combat social worker, and sleuth.
What do you think about women in police work? If you are a female cop, what’s been your experience?