Jurisprudence

The Hiring Practice That Could Dramatically Improve Policing

A female police officer wearing a helmet, safety goggles, and a protective vest
A female police officer outside a football game in Charlotte, North Carolina. Reuters/Mike Blake

“We’re not the ones out there shooting,” says Janeé Harteau, former chief of police of the Minneapolis Police Department. “This is really about gender at its very core.”

A growing number of police reform advocates say the way to fix the policing problem in America might be to hire more female police officers. In fact, they say gender parity was a key item missing from the conversation when, in the wake of a series of high-profile police shootings of Black Americans in 2020, a federal police reform bill made its way this year to the halls of Congress. That bill tanked in September.

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Despite decent female representation on popular policing dramas, the nation’s 18,000 police departments are not teeming with women. In fact, only 12 percent of the nation’s police officers are women, and that number has remained unchanged for more than 25 years. Yet decades of research has proved what anecdotal evidence has demonstrated for half a century, that compared with their male colleagues, female police officers use less excessive force, are named in fewer complaints and lawsuits, are perceived by communities as more honest and compassionate, see better outcomes for crime victims (especially in sexual assault and domestic violence cases), and make fewer discretionary arrests, especially of Black and Latino people. And, most important, when female officers do stop or arrest people, they are more likely than their male peers to actually find guns or drugs.

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“If we could have put a strategy out there in the last 50 years that could have guaranteed outcomes like these, every agency would have implemented it. But it’s not a specific strategy, it’s just about changing who you recruit,” says Maureen McGough, co-founder of the 30x30 Initiative, which launched earlier this year and seeks to increase female police recruit classes, nationally, to 30 percent by 2030. Thirty percent is the target number because representative bureaucracy theory says that a marginalized group can effect cultural change once it has reached a critical mass of about 30 percent.

Advocates say increasing the number of female police officers cannot be dismissed as simply a women’s rights issue. “This is about improving public safety outcomes for communities,” McGough says. While millions of dollars have been spent to reduce violence by police officers, including body cameras and training programs, not much has changed, she adds. Reports show that the number of people killed by police still hovers around 1,000 a year.

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Two new studies released this year have reinforced earlier findings about women in policing from the ’90s and the early aughts. Despite studies showing that women have better outcomes, the overall pool of policing research is thin. Researchers say the dearth can be attributed to a lack of transparency by police departments over the last several decades.

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A study of traffic stops by the Charlotte (North Carolina) Police Department and the Florida Highway Patrol published in May found that female officers minimize negative interactions while having just as many, if not more, effective outcomes. The authors of the study write that while female officers are less likely to search drivers, they “are more likely to find contraband and they confiscate the same net amount of contraband as male officers. These results indicate that female officers are able to minimize the number of negative interactions with citizens without losses in effectiveness.”

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The same holds true for use of force. A study of the Chicago Police Department—which in 1970 was 99 percent male, and is now 22 percent female—found that there is a direct correlation between greater diversity and less excessive force used. The authors of the study, published in February, write, “Within each racial and ethnic group, female officers use significantly less force than male counterparts.”

The improved outcomes are mostly a matter of perspective, says Harteau, who resigned from the Minneapolis Police Department in 2017 after two well-publicized shootings of unarmed individuals by male police officers. “Women receive the same training, they’re in the same police academies, yet they’re not using force,” she said. Female officers are “not part of this culture which is this ‘us versus them’ attitude.”

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This difference has profound consequences. Earlier studies concluded that “the average male officer is over eight and a half times more likely than his female counterpart to have an allegation of excessive force sustained against him,” and that “female officers are less personally challenged by defiant suspects and feel less need to deal with defiance with immediate force or confrontational language.”

During her three decades as a police officer, Harteau says she saw these differences play out time and again. Male officers respond to what they perceive as their loss of control with a “panic reaction … grabbing people and pulling them out of cars.” But often it’s not defiance, she says. In the commotion of a police incident, individuals may not always understand what an officer is telling them to do. Harteau has channeled these insights into the creation of the Vitals app, a technology that helps people with invisible conditions, such as PTSD, autism, and dementia, communicate with first responders.

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Women are more inclined to see policing as a “public service,” says Kathy Spillar, executive director of the Feminist Majority, a nonprofit working to advance nonviolence and women’s equality. “They see problems in their communities that they think they can help, while men say policing is about using force to gain compliance with the law.” A 2017 study supports these anecdotes, suggesting that “helping people” is the key reason female officers got into policing. The study also found that female police officers felt “they offered special skills that would provide solutions to the police legitimacy crisis … to prove to citizens that police officers are good men and women.”

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With more female police officers, “the brand of policing would change,” says Sheryl Victorian, chief of police in Waco, Texas. More women on patrol will help police to be “ ‘peace’ officer[s] as opposed to just relying on a guardian or warrior mentality,” adds Victorian, who holds a Ph.D. in administration of justice and has been a police officer for 28 years.

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The vast majority of police across the country aren’t trained for the service aspects of their job. Most police recruits spend about 60 hours on how to shoot a gun and only eight hours on how to de-escalate situations. Yet the majority of interactions police have do not start off as violent. A new study published in July analyzed why people call 911. According to the researchers who studied 4.3 million calls across nine agencies, mental health incidents made up 1.3 percent of the calls, while the largest percentage of calls, at nearly 17 percent, were traffic-related. Roughly 16 percent of the 911 calls were for “disorder,” and almost 13 percent were about suspicious activities. Calls for violent incidents specifically were much lower, around 6 percent.

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The training mismatch means the police operate more like a paramilitary group that is trained to use violence against people in the community. Yet 80 percent of what police officers do is social work, says Spillar, who serves on the Los Angeles County Women and Girls Advisory Commission to assess police hiring and training policies. But 88 percent of police officers are men, while 83 percent of social workers are women. Therefore, changing the way police departments think about their job could help change their recruitment strategy, bringing more women into the force

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But that’s not an easy proposition. There are 18,000 police agencies across the country. Each has the freedom to interpret the role and function of the police differently. And no single agency exists to provide oversight and regulation of police departments. So there is no uniformity in training and no requirement to reshape the curricula to better address the fact that the vast majority of police work is more akin to social work.

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Advocates say that to better equip officers for the job, police departments need to get rid of old hiring practices that focus on physical prowess and physical use of force when recruiting police officers. The emphasis needs to be on critical thinking skills and communication. Women on the force have a leg up here too. The researchers who studied the Florida Highway Patrol and Charlotte Police Department noted a difference in education levels of male and female officers. Women are more likely to come in with a bachelor’s degree or to have some sort of college education. Men are more likely to come in from the military. Studies on education have, in turn, shown that education is correlated to higher levels of social capital and social empathy.

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The 30x30 Initiative, co-founded by former Newark Police Chief Ivonne Roman, is trying to address the training disconnect. Through the initiative, Roman has already recruited more than 100 police departments, including the NYPD, Miami Police Department, Philadelphia Police Department, and Seattle Police Department, since launching in March. The goal is to build a network of departments with shared values so the best practices can be easily replicated across departments. Despite initial success, the group admits the process could take years.

Part of the problem is entrenched police culture. Police unions have routinely blocked reforms that would make it easier to discipline or fire officers accused of corruption or misconduct. Whistleblower officers are routinely pushed out of the force. Departments respond to criticisms or calls to reduce their funding with work slowdowns. “In this type of culture, many ‘good’ cops fear the repercussions of reporting misconduct is greater than the repulsion of the misconduct itself,” Roman says.

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The culture of policing is keeping women out too. Pew research shows that female officers perceive the culture in most police departments supports masculine values, which negatively affects women’s experience in policing and makes them reluctant to stay in policing or even go into the field in the first place. Moreover, the few female police officers already in the ranks rarely rise into leadership positions as a result. Roughly 9 percent of first-line supervisors are women, and 3 percent of chiefs or executives were women, according to Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics.

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Hiring more female officers may also improve the frayed relationships between the police and the communities they serve. Communities respond positively to the idea of more female police officers, says Kelsey Shoub, lead author of the traffic stop study in Florida and North Carolina. Her research shows that residents have a more favorable impression of their local police departments, especially with respect to accountability, when they believe the department has a great number of female police officers.

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Additionally, while there is no current research on female police officers and implicit bias, a study from the ’70s suggests that “male officers were more likely than females to be aggressive because of some quality in the citizen, such as race or socioeconomic class.”

Just adding women won’t “fix” the police, Shoub says. Still, “doing so may decrease the rate of negative outcomes and interactions.” Early research on women in policing shows that female police officers have a “calming effect” on male partners, which, in turn, results in fewer civilian deaths at the hands of the police.

“I would say the worst-case scenario for increasing gender diversity on the forces is that nothing changes,” says Shoub. “Best-case scenario is that we get police forces with attributes that the public is actually asking for, which is that more like suburban-style policing, which is more hands-off or community-oriented, rather than aggressive and in your face.”

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