Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership

Why We Need More Women Working in Law Enforcement

Women account for a small but growing percentage of police officers (11.6% nationally, up from just 3% in the 1970s). However, the need to recruit, train and promote more female officers is receiving far more attention than ever before.

The encouraging momentum toward creating a more balanced public safety force is fueled in part by a growing appreciation of certain unique and valuable professional qualities that women often bring to law enforcement. Such qualities (the three most important are described below) are believed to enhance the ability of law enforcement agencies to make a positive impact on the communities they serve.

Primary Benefits of Recruiting More Women in Law Enforcement

While most departments and law enforcement agencies are aware of the need to hire a diverse workforce, diversity initiatives often 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.

This despite considerable evidence that women are having “a profound impact on the culture of policing,” according to Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, who told the Associated Press that “they bring their own set of skills to a traditionally male-dominated culture, and that is very helpful.”

Citing research that women are skilled at using communication to help diffuse potentially volatile situations, a practice that is increasingly being emphasized in many police and sheriff’s departments, Wexler said, “departments who have had a lot of experience hiring women recognize how invaluable they are in diffusing contentious situations.”

Here are three ways women are having a positive impact on law enforcement practices.

1. Women officers are less likely to use excessive force.

One of the two most widely acknowledged benefits of recruiting more women for careers in criminal justice is the fact that, according to an article in The Atlantic, “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.”

This is especially important during a period when police use of force is under increased scrutiny, often causing heightened tensions between police and the communities they serve.

2. Women officers are skilled at addressing violence against women and sex crimes.

One of the most critical areas where women in law enforcement can make a difference is in addressing violence against women and sex crimes.

“It is absolutely critical to have women working in criminal justice,” said Jennifer Montoya, a criminal investigator with the Department of Defense and now working toward her M.S. in Law Enforcement Leadership at University of San Diego. “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.”

3. Women officers can help improve police-community relations.

The Washington Post shared findings on women’s aptitude for communication and restraint in using 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.”

“The dedication to ethical conduct and compassionate service is what law enforcement is, or should be, all about,” said Tiffany Townsend, a San Diego sheriff detective who earned her master’s degree in Law Enforcement Leadership from University of San Diego. “I believe I provide a public service every time I go to work.”

Encouraging More Women to Pursue Careers in Law Enforcement

If women have such a positive impact on the profession, why aren’t there more women working in law enforcement agencies today? The reasons vary, from stereotypes to recruitment campaigns targeted at males to physical ability tests that favor male upper body strength.

Along with the growing awareness of their potential to make a positive impact, more needs to be done to encourage women to enter the field of law enforcement. One example of a recruiting effort aimed at women comes from the U.S. Border Patrol and a hiring push focused exclusively on women. According to Katherine Spillar, co-founder of the National Center for Women & Policing, “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.”

Besides recruitment campaigns aimed at women, 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. … 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.”

Advice for Women Seeking Career Advancement in Law Enforcement

Asked what advice she would give to girls and women considering a career in the criminal justice field, Montoya said, “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.”

There is also a new generation of women being promoted to law enforcement leadership and command roles, with a growing number of police chief positions across the country being filled by women.

“We may be gaining in presence. But I think we have a long way to go in developing future leaders,” said Jennifer Tejada, a law enforcement veteran now leading serving as chief of police in Emeryville, Calif., while pursuing her master’s degree in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership at University of San Diego.

“What I like best (about the USD degree program) is that it’s extremely relevant to my position as well as current issues in law enforcement today,” said Tejada, who believes advanced education is “very important” for police leaders of any gender. “I would really encourage people to do this,” she said, “because it really gives you the foundation you need to be the best that you can be in law enforcement.”

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The USD master’s degree program differs from a traditional criminal justice degree by offering a more extensive curriculum that goes beyond the basics and teaches the contemporary skills that are in demand at both federal and local agencies.

Montoya, the DoD investigator and USD master’s degree student, is also a firm believer in the value of advanced education in her line of work. “The law enforcement field is constantly changing and evolving on a daily basis. Criminals get smarter and technology is always advancing,” said Montoya. “There is so much that this master’s program has taught me — not only the professors, but the other students in the program.”

The USD program’s unique online format, which stimulates interaction with fellow law enforcement professionals from all over the country, is designed to be flexible so students can complete their degree in less than two years while continuing to work full time and manage family obligations.

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“Programs like this one reinforce the emotional, academic and ethical practices of what is considered ‘good policing’ by teaching the importance of professionalism, open-mindedness and the framework of ethical community policing,” says Jazzma Rainey, a Customs and Border Protection agent who recently graduated from the program. “Learning about cultural and social issues that create a need for organizations like Black Lives Matter from an academic standpoint enables law enforcement personnel to engage with cultural and political movements with emotional intelligence and good moral conduct, even in the toughest situations.”

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