In the United States, women have worked in law enforcement since the nineteenth century. However, until the women's liberal movement in the 1970s, they mostly had clerical roles or held jobs as dispatchers. Then, civil rights and affirmative action laws enabled women to assume law enforcement jobs, which were traditionally held by men.
The first women hired by the New York City police department in the middle of the nineteenth century were called "matrons." Female officers did not achieve full recognition for decades. In the middle of the 1970s, popular television shows dramatized female officers and detectives but women still made up only 2% of the total police workforce. The first female police chief in America was Penny Harrington, who was appointed in 1985 and served in Portland, Oregon.
Despite women's great strides in non-traditional careers since the 1960s, the percentage of female sworn law enforcement officers in federal, state and local agencies grew only slightly during the 1990s and 2000s. Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that in 2008, the proportion of female sworn officers across 62 reporting federal law enforcement agencies was 20%. The slow growth can be attributed to a number of factors.
Uneven hiring practices, recruitment policies and selection processes have kept the number of women in law enforcement artificially low. Hiring practices, including physical benchmarks based on male aptitude, have been a challenge for women. According to the National Center for Women and Policing, a survey of law enforcement agencies showed that departments not using a physical agility test for job applicants had 45% more female officers than those with such exams. While most of the agencies used to require an agility exam, the practice has been changing, with departments setting standards for female officers based on a percentile of female physical ability, in contrast to the original standards based on a certain percentile of male physical ability.
Women rarely consider a career in law enforcement because they misunderstand the nature of the job and because of the authoritarian and aggressive images portrayed in the media. Even when they are hired, they face discrimination, peer intimidation or sexual harassment and often do not have the necessary role models or mentors to help them climb up the ranks. In addition, many women do not take promotional exams because their first priority is family or personal relationships.
In the past, women were often perceived as too emotional, too passive or too physically weak to be officers. However, while they do not have the physical strength of male officers, studies show that female officers are significantly less likely to be involved in citizen complaints about the use of excessive force than men. Female officers' policing style relies less on physical force and more on communications skills, which makes potentially violent confrontations less likely to occur or escalate into excessive force situations. Hence, police departments with more female officers are likely to face fewer civil actions for use of excessive force.
As policing philosophy changes and the emphasis is on problem solving and community over intervention, inefficiencies and injustices, such as widespread excessive force and corruption scandals, which have been overwhelmingly attributed to male officers, have been brought to light. In addition, the under-representation of women in policy agencies has a negative impact on the culture and operational efficiency of law enforcement agencies throughout the United States. Overall, the numerous difficult challenges facing agencies make the need to hire more female officers more urgent.
As a result of changes in police work, with trends moving more toward service-oriented, community centered approaches, there are more opportunities both for hiring and promotion for women. Modern police procedures also require a greater aptitude for communication, intelligence, diplomacy and compassion. For police departments prizing intellectual aptitude over physical strength, women emerge as strong candidates. Most police departments have also become sensitive to verbal or sexual harassment issues, creating formal channels for addressing them, which can help women feel more comfortable in the police environment.
Women in law enforcement play a key role in establishing and maintaining important relationships between a police department and the community it serves. Female officers continue to have job challenges but in view of the police's shift away from brute force towards community engagement the participation of women in law enforcement is expected to continue to grow.