Since the late 1800s, women have balked at the notion that some professions are meant only for men. In 1845, the American Female Reform Society pushed for the placement of women in prison systems to protect female inmates. Flora Foster was one of two women assigned to work in a New York City prison in 1845 and worked in the facility for 36 years.
The first woman police officer to be hired was in Chicago in 1890. It took more than 100 years, but in 1985, the first female police chief to head a large agency was hired in Portland, Oregon.
Although women began their law enforcement careers in support roles, they never ceased to aspire to work side by side with men as police officers. This dream came to fruition in the 1960s as women finally became a significant contributing factor to our nation’s security.
The Number of Female Police Officers Has Increased Over Time, Except in Leadership Positions
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, women in sworn positions in the United States averaged 11.9% in 2010. The number of female police officers in federal law enforcement has been reported slightly higher at 15%.
Statistics have not increased dramatically in recent years, and the data on women in leadership positions is discouraging. Approximately 10% of female law enforcement officers are in supervisory positions and only 3% are in high-ranking chief positions.
Female Officers Are Highly Effective in Conflict Resolution and Sexual Assault Case Resolutions
Women police officers thrive on interaction with the community and participation in service-related events. Female officers excel at conflict resolution with both adults and juveniles. This reflects positively on the law enforcement community, because these types of activities make up 80% of police work.
According to a study by University of Illinois professor Amie M. Schuck in 2018, law enforcement agencies with higher percentages of women officers have higher clearance rates for sexual assault cases. This statistic may be attributed to relational theory — the ability of female victims to form a trusting bond with those of the same gender.
Results from the study indicate that female officers possess the interpersonal skills needed to encourage victims of sexual violence to file criminal charges. With the upsurge of sexual assaults on college campuses, researchers have suggested that an increased presence of female officers, who currently only average 17% of the sworn officers on college campuses, would benefit the academic community.
The sensitive details of sexual assault crimes require an empathetic approach that avoids victim blaming and secondary victimization. Women officers have proven their ability to investigate gender-based crime effectively and should be actively recruited for campus law enforcement leadership.
Female Police Officers Are Less Likely to Use Excessive Force
Studies indicate that female police officers are less likely than their male counterparts to use excessive force and participate in dangerous pursuits. The notion that because a female officer is smaller than a male and may arbitrarily shoot a suspect due to a fear for her life has quickly been quelled.
Researchers found that 30% of male officers had discharged their weapon in situations other than training, compared to 11% of women officers. Female officers have also proven skilled at deescalating situations through communication rather than force.
There also appears to be a higher tolerance of females in law enforcement working the streets. Women are 50% less likely to be ridiculed by citizens while on duty, but male officers are three times more likely to be threatened.
Women Officers Have Repeatedly Proven Their Heroism
According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, 13 women lost their lives in the line of duty during 2019. As of July 2020, that number had already matched the 2019 deaths.
History is full of heroic stories of women officers who have broken up drug and prostitute rings, arrested dangerous suspects, uncovered internal illegal activities, and saved fellow officers’ lives. But one story stands out beyond the call of duty.
Jennifer Fulford-Salvano, a deputy with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office in Ocoee, Florida, responded to a burglary in progress call and was first on the scene. Dispatch received the call from an eight-year-old boy who claimed he and his sisters were hiding in the garage and that three men had entered their home with guns.
Without waiting for backup, the deputy entered the garage to bring the children to safety. The three men were tipped off, entered the garage, and fired on the female officer multiple times. Although Deputy Sulford-Salvano was struck a total of 10 times (including her shooting hand), she managed to keep the children safe and force the assailants into the custody of backup officers who arrived at the scene.
A more recent story is the amazing bravery of Nicole Battaglia who, along with two other police officers in Alexandria, Virginia, responded to a shooter at a Republican congressional baseball team’s practice in 2017. Battaglia drew the attention of the shooter as soon as she pulled up to the chaotic gun battle.
Two Capitol police officers had already been shot and were attempting to position themselves to bring the gunman down. By distracting the shooter, Battaglia allowed two other officers who arrived on scene to surround the gunman and quickly de-escalated the situation, saving many lives.
Women Have Fulfilled the Difficult Demands of Police Work and Should Be Actively Recruited
There are many challenges females face when choosing a law enforcement career. One of the biggest challenges is learning to cope with disturbing, violent acts that are carried out on the most vulnerable victims, such as children, animals, the elderly, the disabled, and our veterans.
Another issue that females face is convincing those around her she holds a position of authority. Women officers must not only prove to their coworkers that they can do the job, but also demand the respect of those they investigate or arrest.
Many jobs require skills and mental stamina. The role of a police officer role particularly demands these attributes, plus physical strength and emotional stability. Women have been proven equal to men in policing, and they should be actively encouraged to join our law enforcement communities.
About the Author: Dr. Dena Weiss is an associate professor at American Military University, teaching courses in criminal justice and forensic science. She recently retired after working 24 years as a crime scene investigator and fingerprint examiner for a central Florida police department. Prior to that position, she was a serologist for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Her court experience includes testifying in more than 200 federal and circuit court cases in over 15 Florida counties.
Dr. Weiss is also an active member of the Florida Emergency Mortuary Operations Response System (FEMORS). Her educational background includes a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and Sociology and a master’s degree in Forensic Science from Virginia Commonwealth University, as well as a Ph.D. in Business Administration with an emphasis in Criminal Justice.