Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership

Criminal Justice Careers for Women- Why We Need More

Female police officers make up a small fraction of the police force and the numbers have not changed for close to two decades. According to an article published in NY Magazine, “Policing remains one of the most male-dominated professions in America: in the 1970s, about 97 percent of American cops were men, and in 2013, that had fallen only to 88 percent, meaning that the police force is, even more, gender imbalanced than the active-duty military, which was 84.9 percent male as of 2014.”

Currently, women account for about 20% of all law enforcement professionals, and this number is far lower in many departments and agencies. Despite these low figures, research has shown that more female law enforcement officers could positively affect communities and individual citizens, especially during a period of intense law enforcement scrutiny where police use of force is coming into question and community-police tensions are at an all-time high.

Why Criminal Justice Careers for Women Matter

While most departments and law enforcement agencies are aware of the need to hire a diverse workforce, often times their diversity initiatives focus more on ethnicity than gender. That’s a problem because, with women making up such a small minority of law enforcement, almost half of the population has been excluded from a career in which they could affect significant and positive change. Multiple studies have proven that criminal justice careers for women can affect positive change. As the Atlantic wrote, “…research into the specific impact of women police officers is clear: Women officers are less likely to use excessive force or pull their weapon. They are defendants in lawsuits far less often than men, saving municipalities millions in legal fees. Their greatest potential impact is in addressing violence against women and sex crimes, which are not small in number.”

Jen Montoya, a graduate student at the University of San Diego and a Criminal Investigator with the Department of Defense, remarked, “It is absolutely critical to have criminal justice careers for women. When I received my first assignment I was the only female out of 10. But it is so important to have a female presence. For example, with sexual assault cases, the victim might want to talk to a woman. But that can’t always happen because there aren’t enough females in the department and it ends up affecting the mission. These are human beings we are dealing with. Sexual assault is an extremely sensitive issue and we need to be able to act humanely.”

Not only do female officers have a positive impact when it comes to violence against women and sexual assault cases, but studies have also shown that women are vital components of improving community-police relations. The Washington Post shared findings on women’s aptitude for communication and lack of force, reporting that  “over the last 40 years, studies have shown that female officers are less authoritarian in their approach to policing, less reliant on physical force and are more effective communicators. Most importantly, female officers are better at defusing potentially violent confrontations before those encounters turn deadly.”

So, while departments across the country are wise to seek a diverse workforce, they should ensure that their diversity initiatives include outreach to women, an often overlooked, yet crucial minority.

Encouraging More Women to Enter Law Enforcement

If women have such a positive impact on the profession, why aren’t there more female law enforcement officers or more criminal justice careers for women? The reasons vary, from stereotypes to recruitment campaigns targeted at males to physical ability tests that favor male upper body strength.

But as the research and figures show, more needs to be done to encourage women to enter the field of law enforcement. One positive example of a recruiting effort aimed at women comes from the U.S. Border Patrol that launched a recent campaign to recruit only women for the next wave of hires. “The agency recognized that having just five percent women in its ranks impedes its ability to work with the tens of thousands of migrant women who cross the U.S.-Mexico border each year, many of whom suffer sexual assaults during their journey,” reported the Washington Post. Yet overall the effort to bring more women into law enforcement is slow.

Besides recruitment campaigns aimed at women, Jen Montoya says encouraging young girls and offering mentorship is another way to bring more females into the field. “I started in the Police Explorers program when I was 15 and stayed in the program until I aged out at 21. It was more than volunteer work for me, it was a little family. I had such amazing mentors. The Explorer program changed my life entirely – it was my first taste of law enforcement. If it wasn’t for the Explorer program it would have been so much harder for me to get where I am today.”

The Explorers program is a community service based youth development program aligned with local law enforcement organizations. Volunteer youth work with law enforcement professionals, participate in ride-alongs, wear the uniform and even act as decoys. “The Explorers program had diversity in mind. It was pretty split, half girls and half boys. And we had two mentors, one of which was a male and the other a female,” said Montoya.

Despite these mentorship and recruitment efforts, women still have a long road to walk when it comes to finding equity in employment within policing and law enforcement. But as Montoya remarked when asked what advice she would give to girls and women considering the profession, “Don’t be afraid – you can do anything you want. Don’t let anyone tell you can’t because of your gender – it’s completely irrelevant.”

To help support female law enforcement officers wishing to advance within the field of law enforcement, the University of San Diego created a 100% online Master of Science in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership degree. This unique degree program differs from a traditional criminal justice degree by offering a more extensive curriculum that goes beyond the criminal justice basics and teaches the contemporary skills that both federal and local agencies seek.  “The world and the law enforcement field is constantly changing and evolving on a daily basis,” said Montoya. “Criminals get smarter and technology is always advancing. There is so much that this master’s program has taught me — not only the professors but the other students in the program.”

10 Great Reasons to Get Your Master's in Law Enforcement

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