Wanted: Female Cops

Police corruption and brutality trials in New York and Los Angeles have opened the door for a pressing question from feminists and women involved in law enforcement: As studies show women police officers perform better than their male counterparts at defusing violent situations and use excessive force less often, women's groups ask, why are women so underrepresented in the country's police departments?Members of an elite anti-gang unit of the Los Angeles Police Department have been accused of wide-spread police misconduct -- including beating and killing suspects and planting evidence. Since investigations of that group of officers began last fall, at least 20 officers have reportedly been fired, suspended, or have quit. Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks told reporters that the small group of officers framed at least 99 people by planting drugs or guns on them.Women's groups point out that the cadre of officers accused of police brutality and corruption was exclusively male. In New York, the three officers convicted of covering up the torture of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima and the four officers acquitted of the murder of African Amadou Diallo were all men.Some critics suggest that one reason for these statistics may be a scarcity female officers. Less than one-fifth of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) is female, and nationwide women make up less than 10 percent of sworn police officers and are virtually absent from the higher ranks.In 1991, court cases determined that the LAPD discriminated on the basis of sex. Since then, the LAPD has been ordered twice by the court to increase its numbers of women, a mandate that has been largely ignored, records show.Tapes from interviews with former Los Angeles cop Mark Fuhrman, the officer accused of perjury in the O.J. Simpson trial, revealed the existence of a covert all-male organization within the LAPD called Men Against Women, whose ultimate objective was to drive women from the force using harassment and intimidation. Fuhrman said the group was formed over beers in the 1980s following a federal court order demanding the department hire more women officers.Penny Harrington, head of the National Center for Women & Policing based in Los Angeles, believes the group may still be in existence today. "The intimidation escalates until the word goes out not to give backup cover to targeted women officers, endangering their lives," she says.Plus, says Harrington, "The attempt to drive women out only exacerbates the LAPD's excessive force problem." Introducing greater numbers of women to the force would significantly reduce the number of police brutality incidents, she argues.Harrington cites worldwide research that indicates women are better at community relations and are more rational when responding to incidents of violence. Female officers tend to use a style of policing that is the basis of community policing techniques and they use problem-solving to handle difficult situations, she says.Harrington's group hopes that the increasing focus on community-oriented policing and strategies to reduce the spiraling costs of excessive-force lawsuits will open up numerous opportunities to increase the numbers of women officers.One factor that may contribute to the low numbers of women on the force is the hostile environment female police officers often encounter in their departments, including daily discrimination and sexual harassment, Harrington added. A 1995 survey of female police officers in a medium-sized department found that 68 percent of the women had been sexually harassed while on the job by a member of their agency.In addition, many of the problems faced by women in policing exist because law enforcement agencies do not take women into account in the workplace, says Garden Grove Chief of Police Joseph Polisar. Polisar, who was police chief in Albuquerque when he participated in the New Workplace for Women study, says he discovered that supervisors are often not trained in department policies on pregnancy or childcare assistance. Uniforms and equipment are often not ordered in women's sizes. And physical education instructors do not properly pace female recruits, which results in injuries; and, ultimately, a disproportionate number of women being eliminated from the academy, says Polisar.This study also found that traditional police recruiting methods such as advertising in newspapers, making presentations at career fairs, and sending mailings do not draw large numbers of women. They recommend that departments host career fairs focused on women and develop fliers, posters, and brochures featuring female officers.Actively recruiting women will increase the pool of female applicants and ultimately, the number of female recruits in the academies, according to a study by the New Workplace for Women Project, which conducted recruiting experiments in two police departments.The Tucson Police Department tested that recruiting method and saw its female applicants jump from 10 to 29 percent, and Albuquerque increased its female recruits by 25 percent during the program.Leslie Fulbright is a native of Los Angeles who now lives and works as a full-time general assignment reporter in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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