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Bloomington and Normal police departments sign onto initiative aimed at hiring more women

In retrospect, the trajectory of Heather Hansen’s career follows an order that makes a conclusion in law enforcement seem logical, perhaps even preplanned.

A former corrections officer at a juvenile detention facility, then a probation officer and eventually a 9-1-1 dispatcher, Hansen’s transition to Illinois State Police trooper in the mid-1990s makes sense now, but in those days it was never part of her plan, or her overall end goal.

But the day that a “female trooper — very petite, very feminine and very kind” — walked into the police department where Hansen worked as a dispatcher changed everything.

ISP Lt. Heather Hansen
Illinois State Police
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“It was the first time I saw anyone that looked like me in a uniform, doing that job,” Hansen recalled.

Twenty-seven years later, Hansen is a patrol lieutenant and operations officer for ISP’s District 16 in the northernmost part of Illinois. Hansen has stayed with the state police — and on the road — for nearly 30 years, out of both a love for the job and self-imposed sense of responsibility to bring women up with her into a profession that has long been dominated by men.

“I want little girls and young women and college women and working mothers to see me — and I want them to join me,” Hansen said.

The product of a national coalition of police leadership, researchers and professional organizations, the 30x30 Initiative is aimed at encouraging police departments across the country to have 30% percent of their recruits be women by the year 2030.

Certainly, things have changed somewhat in Hansen’s 27 years, including the addition of “other women, women of color and gay women” onto the state police force, she said, but statistics as of March show just 9% of ISP troopers are female, with 91% male.

And that’s not a disparity unique to Illinois State Police, or local departments. It’s a nationwide disparity, evidenced in data collected by the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program: Nationally, just 12% of all full-time law enforcement officers are women, a threshold breached in the mid-2000s that has not spiked significantly since.

The 30x30 Initiative aims to change that disparity.

'We’re 50% of the population. We should be at least 50% of the number of law enforcement officers'

Since its formal launch, nearly 200 agencies have “taken the pledge” that involves working with 30x30 leaders and agreeing to terms of engagement.

Nine agencies in Illinois have joined the initiative, including the Bloomington and Normal police departments, and ISP.

It’s “vitally important for people to come together with a loud and passionate voice about the need for women to be in the profession,” National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives director Kym Craven told WGLT. “We’re 50% of the population. We should be at least 50% of the number of law enforcement officers.”

Kym Craven
National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives
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Like Hansen in Illinois, Craven spent around 30 years directly in law enforcement. She worked for a local police agency in Massachusetts in various departments, including traffic safety and community engagement, before branching out into consultant work and eventually becoming the head of NAWLEE, an agency dedicated to mentoring women in law enforcement and encouraging them to pursue leadership roles.

Craven said her passion for advocating for women in policing is a result of a gradual realization that things “weren’t fair,” despite an initial assumption that they would be.

“I didn’t necessarily question the limited amount of women in law enforcement in the way that I do today. I just took it at face value, like, ‘Oh. There’s not a lot of women,’” Craven said. “I came into it thinking that everyone would be on the same playing field.”

As her career continued, however, Craven said she watched male officers band together, or separate themselves in a way in which she couldn’t participate: They would play golf together, play on softball teams together and Craven, not inclined to either sport and not inclined to push for personal inclusion, did not “press on to say, ‘Oh, I need to be a part of that.’”

“What I see today is that it wasn’t fair. Now that I can really reflect on the numbers, I can say women just don’t have the same opportunities as men in law enforcement,” she said. “We have to do more to open those doors, to get women career-ready as recruits and get them to stick with the profession.”

From her seat as NAWLEE’s executive director, Craven said the 30x30 Initiative is “one of the most significant national strategies that has been rolled out in years” to address the lack of women in the profession, though there have been others with a more regional or targeted focus.

Participating agencies will have monthly meetings with 30x30 Initiative leaders, meetings with other agencies to talk best practices and recruitment strategies, and be part of research aimed at further studying women in policing — a topic of research that does exist but historically has not been “well funded,” according to Craven.

“I think some of the other softer changes, if you will, that aren’t 100% qualitative might be the perceptions of folks in the focus groups and listening sessions,” she said. “We’ll work with the raw data for the quantitative pieces of it that can be measured, like how many agencies actually met the overall goal of 30% by 2030, but it’s just as important for us to have reports back about if the culture in these agencies has changed over time as well.”

Culture is a key aspect of the 30x30 Initiative. According to its About section, the 30% goal was chosen based on research that indicates if a group within an institution reaches 30% of representation, that’s enough to influence the entire institution’s culture.

Additional research touted by the 30x30 Initiative argues that women in policing do change the culture of that work — and for the better.

‘The culture will change when the philosophies of the individuals in the culture change’

Cara Rabe-Hemp, an associate dean at Illinois State University’s College of Applied Sciences and Technology, has been studying the experiences of women in policing for about 15 years — ever since a retiring female officer with a decorated career told her during an interview for a graduate school project that “policing was a bit of a boy's club.”

Intrigued, Rabe-Habe began studying those experiences not long after. Among other things, she published "Thriving in an All Boys Club: Female Police and Their Fight for Equality" in 2018.

“There are two theoretical arguments for how women impact police departments. The first is just by having diversity of thought,” she said. “If you look at the history of policing over the last 100 years, there hasn’t been a lot of change or diversity in thought surrounding policing. What we see women being a mechanism for is challenging the ways things have kind of always been done … based on their socialization experiences.”

While there aren’t a surplus of examples to study, Rabe-Hemp said studies of law enforcement agencies that do have female leadership or “greater female representation” show those departments tend to have “more innovative recruitment and retention policies, establishment of family medical leave or maternity policies and more inclusive leadership styles.”

An example of this that Rabe-Hemp included in her book played out in Twin Cities in the not-too-distant-past.

Ivy Thornton accepted a job with the Bloomington Police Department in 2002.

Sgt. Ivy Thornton
Bloomington Police Department
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Now a sergeant and the only woman with a supervisory role in that agency, Thornton said she encountered a potentially career-ending decision within her first few years on the job.

In 2004, she was assigned light duty work when she was pregnant with her first child. For whatever reason, when she became pregnant with her second child in 2005, she wasn’t given that option.

“It was: Take family leave, which is 12 weeks unpaid and which we all know a pregnancy is (around) 40 weeks. Quit, or work pregnant. Those were the options. So I didn't quite like that,” said Thornton.

But instead of quitting, Thornton took action, eventually connecting with state Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, and kick starting legislation passed in 2008 that made it a civil rights violation to not offer light duty for pregnant police or firefighters. It took three years for that legislation to pass, so it had no bearing on Thornton, but she has no regrets about following it through, she said, because it’s bigger than her.

“I felt really good, even though I couldn’t benefit from it. It was the right thing to do. I'm OK with standing by myself — even if I'm the only one standing in my convictions,” she said. “I caught a lot of flack for that. There were a lot of people that looked at the situation, saying, ‘Well, maybe if you were nicer or you just asked nicely.’ I did ask. There was just nothing.”

That someone had to work from the inside of the system to change it is consistent with the way that policing works, according to Howard Henderson, executive director of The Center for Justice Research, which describes itself as a data-driven organization aimed at making the criminal justice system more equitable.

Howard Henderson
Texas Southern University
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“The policing culture is a closed network and it operates as if it’s a private corporation. It’s very difficult to change that from the outside,” Henderson said. “It’s going to require some ability to infiltrate the network to make those changes — and it is slowly changing. I think the more we diversify the network, the better off we’re going to be.”

Henderson said his organization has been among those studying various data sets that relate to law enforcement and has noted “quantifiable differences in the manner in which women address policing and men address policing.” That includes use of force data, in which the set CJR reviewed found “rarely do we find a female officer involved.”

Henderson clarified the research is not being used to say that one gender or sex is better at policing than the other. Instead, socialization differences make the determination, as does a willingness to conform to what American society is beginning to expect of its law enforcement.

“That push for more women, less aggressive policing, more respectful policing — all of this is in connection together. I don’t want you to see them as disconnected: They’re all part of the same paradigm shift, which is the expectation that policing will be fair, just and respectful of people,” he said. “The culture will change when the philosophies of the individuals in the culture change.”

But to change the culture, change agents must be a part of that culture, and that’s where the profession continues to struggle to this day, regardless of whether the topic is men or women.

“Fifteen years is a long time, but if you flashback to 15 years ago, we would get like 600 (applications to be a police officer),” said BPD public information officer Brandt Parsley. “For the past five or six years, if we get 100 applicants, that’s a lot.”

Craven said NAWLEE research indicates the “current generation of law enforcement” sees local jobs as “stepping stones” to a career at the federal level, leading to issues with retainment. In other cases, people retire earlier than they used to. Still yet, mental health concerns and a lessened interest in the profession in the wake of deserved and heightened public scrutiny also has contributed to a shrinking pool of aspiring law enforcement officers.

“There's just a multitude of different factors that are pressing on the recruitment and retention issues that we're seeing today — it's not one single thing,” she said.

Henderson views the hiring of more women as a way to restore public trust in law enforcement and a belief in its “legitimacy.”

“Women have been shown to be counter to corruption by helping to break up these networks that operate in collusion and dismantle it from the inside,” he said. “I think women will help create a more equitable criminal justice system because they’ll deal with the balance that needs to be there.”

And if there are gains made in at least gender diversity among various police agencies, Parsley said it may help them recruit a more balanced roster.

“People naturally gravitate toward a group. We’re wanting desperately and desperately trying everything we can think of to get people of differing backgrounds, but it’s really hard when you don’t have those people already (on-staff),” he said.

For Thornton, and perhaps other women hired into the profession, the idea that the women in policing was a bit of an anomaly only served to pique her interest in the profession even further. She’d known that she wanted to “do this job to make a difference,” and ran into suggestions for office work, but took her shot at becoming either a firefighter or police officer anyway.

“I didn't like being told no, I couldn't do something. When you're told, ‘You can't do that,’ or ‘No, there aren't women in that field,’ then it kind of just motivates you to do more in that field,” she said.

But not everyone is like that — and nor should that be the baseline for interest in a profession. Rabe-Hemp said measuring the success of the 30x30 Initiative, as well as any other diversity gains made in policing overall, will not just look at whether more women sign up to be officers, but whether they stay in the field and rise in the ranks.

“What has to happen is these agencies, when faced with this diversity of thought or these changes, need to reconsider recruitment practices with an eye toward shaking things up,” she said. “My personal thought is that we need to move beyond the celebration of single-hires over time. There needs to be greater opportunities for women in leadership, which could signal reform in policing and diversity of thought.”

Thornton, too, hopes for that kind of mentorship and propulsion of qualified women candidates to leadership — something she said she doesn't feel she saw enough of during her tenure.

"There are women that we've got here for five years, six years, three years — those are the ones you need to be motivating and mentoring, like, 'Hey, you can do this. We want you here.' I really hope that is done."

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Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.
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