The percentage of women in law enforcement is hovering under 15 percent, according to the National Center for Women & Policing, and it's not increasing. Here's straight talk from current and former female police officers as to why we'd all be better off if that percentage rose, what's been holding the numbers down and which women are needed to fill the gap.
Why More Female Officers Benefit Everyone
Research and history have disproved the notion that women aren't suited for law enforcement. National Center for Women & Policing data shows female police officers traditionally employ a style of conflict resolution that puts communication before physical confrontation -- a notable finding as law enforcement agencies come under fire for excessive force.
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Female officers also reduce the risk of accusations of impropriety by their male coworkers when they search female suspects and prisoners, according to a study by the National Center for Women & Policing.
In a similar vein, female officers are particularly effective in situations involving other women. Susan Cormier, a veteran patrolwoman for the Pawtucket Police Department in Rhode Island, is regularly called outside her district on cases of sexual assault or child molestation, "because people open up more to the sensitivity of a female officer," she says.
The Perception Problem
Although women in law enforcement must meet the same physical, academic and psychological standards as men, stereotyped expectations of behavior still exist. "No matter how often a woman proves herself in the job, she's got to do it over and over again," says Diane Skoog, executive director of the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives (NAWLEE) and former chief of police for the Carver Police Department in Massachusetts. "Once a guy does it, he's set."
Although Cormier has never experienced discrimination within her department, people have asked her if she's scared or assumed she's inexperienced. The best reassurance is to look professional and act with authority, she says.
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Where Are the Women?
According to The Police Chief Magazine, part of the problem law enforcement has in attracting women may have to do with simple marketing strategy. There's evidence targeted recruitment efforts, such as specific Web pages and female officers at job fairs, goes a long way toward increasing the number of women officers.
Early education may also help. Cormier participated in a cadet program in her teens, and even though the program was affiliated with the Boy Scouts, she remembers an even mix of boys and girls. Now Cormier speaks at schools, camps and youth guidance programs.
Skoog says that women often leave law enforcement or stay in comfortable positions to satisfy family responsibilities. The 2000 US Department of Justice Bulletin Recruiting and Retaining Women: A Self-Assessment Guide for Law Enforcement advises setting a comprehensive policy for pregnancy and childcare to retain female officers that should cover such subjects as eligibility for and duration of pregnancy and childcare leave, light duty and disability insurance benefits.
Do You Fit the Profile?
Skoog's perfect candidate for law enforcement has "a unique personality. You're given a lot of power over others' lives." She recommends someone well-rounded and educated, with an "even" personality and an ego in check.
The rewards of law enforcement should resonate with you. Cormier thrives on the diversity of challenges that have been set before her, including SWAT, bike patrol and training new officers. She enjoys being engaged in her community and the chance to help others.
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"There are so many agencies that are looking for women," says Skoog. Along with the benefits women bring to law enforcement, parity clauses in town charters, grant restrictions that demand a certain percentage of women in an agency to qualify and a basic need for more applicants of either gender have opened this profession. "This is the field for women today," Skoog says.
If law enforcement sounds right for you, here's how to explore your career options:
- Consider your interests within the broad range of law enforcement opportunities. Departments to think about include police, sheriff, corrections, federal, university, parks and wildlife. Concentrations within these include homeland security, drug enforcement, K9, detective, community policing and probation.
- Investigate opportunities to observe an officer at work, such as a ride-along program.
- Learn what will be expected of you physically, emotionally and mentally.
- See if there are support programs to help you through exams and training.
- Find local and national networking opportunities. Cormier regularly meets with women from all fields of law enforcement. NAWLEE matches women at all levels of law enforcement with a mentor to guide them professionally.
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