March is women’s history month. What better time to take a look at the evolution of women in law enforcement.
Women have long worked in police departments in civilian caretaker capacities, but it wasn’t until the early part of the 20th century that they became sworn officers. Oddly enough, the identity – and home department – of the first female police officer is a hotly contested topic.
- The Los Angeles Police Department reports that it appointed the first female police officer with arrest powers in 1910.
- Meanwhile, the Portland Police Bureau claims it hired the first female officer in 1908.
- Evidence recently surfaced that the Chicago Police Department may beat them both with the recent discovery of records of a female officer dating back to the 1890s.
Regardless, women have come a long, long way in law enforcement. While once limited to youth, administrative, or traffic assignments (as “meter maids”), women finally broke into patrol in the 1970s and ultimately into more tactical elements. Today women are found in every conceivable law enforcement unit.
But in these 100-plus years, how far has the profession come in terms of female representation? Here are some stats from the Bureau of Justice Statistics Crime Data Brief Women in Law Enforcement, 1987 – 2008:
- Among local agencies in 2007, women accounted for more than double the percent of sworn personnel in large agencies compared to small agencies.
- The percent of female officers in local police departments increased steadily between 1987 and 2007, from 7.6% in 1987 to nearly 12% in 2007.
- In 2007, the Detroit Police Department had the highest percentage (27%) of female officers among the largest police departments, followed by Philadelphia (25%), DC (23%) and Chicago (23%).
- Of federal law enforcement agencies with sworn officer, the Offices of Inspectors General had the largest percent of female officers (25%).
Overall, not to bad, but still much room for improvement. Women are often deterred by the perceived physical demands of the job. In reality a person with average physical skills and abilities can be a very effective police officer. While fitness is important, the notion that policing is about force and strength is an old-fashioned notion. Modern policing requires critical thinking, problem solving skills, and a strong desire to make a difference – characteristics that defy traditional gender stereotypes.
When Alice Wells pinned on her badge with the LAPD, she declared, “I don’t want to make arrests, I want to keep people from needing to be arrested…” An interesting notion, one that still holds today.