Despite slightly declining numbers in this decade, Illinois State University Criminal Justice Sciences professor Cara Rabe-Hemp says female police officers have made gains in numbers and respect since entering policing in larger numbers in the 1980s.
Rabe Hemp's new book addresses that. It's titled Thriving In An All-Boys Club: Female Police & Their Fight For Equality.
The idea came from a police lieutenant with 25 years of experience in a New Jersey police agency.
“She was hired in 1981, so real early in the U.S.,” said Rabe-Hemp. “And I asked her, ‘Has anything impeded you or slowed you down in your progression?’ This was hard to believe at the high rank of lieutenant, but she said, ‘One of the things that slowed me down is that police work is still a bit of a boys club, and I’m not a boy.’”
The lieutenant’s answer resonated with Rabe-Hemp enough to explore that question with other women in law enforcement. It culminated with her book that breaks down into sections focusing on the progression of women in the 1980s, 1990s and the 2000s.
“Because we would expect some differences from the first in the 1980s on to women today entering police ranks,” said Rabe-Hemp. But that doesn’t mean women weren’t part of policing in the U.S. before that. Hemp actually starts the book with a quick overview of females in law enforcement in the late 1800s.
“What you’ll find is that their tasks were very gender-specific,” said Rabe-Hemp. “During wartime for instance, you have women policing morality outside camps to make sure prostitution and venereal diseases stayed at a very low rate. You also had women who were prison matrons once the issue of female criminality comes into play as they’re being housed in jails and prisons.”
And the public and male police generally accepted women at that time, as long as they maintained that specific role. Resistance began in the 1980s following the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Title IX, when women pushed to become full-fledged police officers.
“Some of that had to do with being first,” said Rabe-Hemp. “Many women who entered policing in the late 70s and early 80s were the first in their departments. So this might mean the first-ever employed by the agency, the first woman to make rank, be an administrator, or even first woman to be academy president. So being first had its drawbacks.”
As did just being female.
“It hadn’t even happened long enough where there were even solutions to discrimination and sexism in those agencies,” said Rabe-Hemp. “These experiences for these women started at the police training academy and continued during field training and beyond.”
Rabe-Hemp related one officer’s story of no place at the academy to change clothes.
“She opened this issue with her administrator, so they opened the room but she had to walk through the male locker room to get to the place where she could change her clothes,” said Rabe-Hemp.
Lawsuits and in some cases enlightenment eventually led to change. But mostly departments had to undergo serious culture change, and women had to endure harassment from colleagues and supervisors before females would begrudgingly be accepted as police officers on par with males. Rabe-Hemp writes that this evolution came through many ways, including coercion and retirements by old-school heads of law enforcement.
Who were the women in the 1980s at the forefront of this change? Rabe-Hemp said many had family in law enforcement, already a profession they aspired to.
“Many told me stories about how they wanted to be patrol officers since they were young girls. They had participated in athletics in high school, competed, and were physically fit. This is one of the major challenges still today for women in policing, in that the physical exams favor men because they measure upper body strength,” said Rabe-Hemp.
Though some agencies today are requiring more frequent physical testing once an officer is hired, many still do not, begging the question of why is the exam even necessary?
“For that reason some people do believe that has been held up as sort of a barrier to keep women out of policing,” said Rabe-Hemp.
And she points to research that shows women actually “police” different than men. Principally they are more likely to engage in communication before using force.
“For example, female police are less likely to use force against citizens, especially excessive force than male officers. We also know their increased representation has resulted in more peaceful police-citizen relationships. They are less likely to be named in citizen complaints and lawsuits, which saves agencies and taxpayers millions of dollars. They are also more likely to take seriously reports of victimization by domestic violence and sexual assault, and to follow up with those reports,” said Rabe-Hemp.
In a nutshell, she said women have proved themselves as police officers and law enforcement administrators.
“Some scholars argue that if we actually increase the number of women in policing, that these positive benefits will trickle down throughout the agency and will change the way police do their jobs,” said Rabe-Hemp.
Has that caused male administrators and officers to take pause and adopt a different way of policing?
“I think the truth is agencies that have employed women for a significant period of time now are much more open to the contributions of women within organizations. One female officer I interviewed mentioned that this generation and former generation had mothers in the workplace. They’re much more open to the idea of dual parenthood and so they’ve had experiences that make them much more women as professionals in the workplace we didn’t see in the 70s and 80s,” said Rabe-Hemp.
But that doesn’t mean women have been fully accepted.
“I was surprised to find that many of the women I interviewed that entered policing in the 2000s were still facing overt discrimination and harassment, especially in agencies that didn’t have experience hiring women," she said.
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