May is Law Enforcement Appreciation Month, and we would like to dedicate this post to celebrating women in policing. Women have played an important role in law enforcement since the very beginning of the U.S. policing system. But when we think of police officers, we don’t always think of these women. This trend, however, is changing. Strong women are leading the charge to play a greater role in how our communities are policed.
The History of Women in Policing
The history of official police departments in the U.S. dates to the nineteenth century. And by 1845, women had become an important part of the new policing system. Though limited to the capacity of jail matrons, which entailed cleaning cells and supervising inmates, this paved the way for the future.
Less than 50 years later in 1891, the Chicago Police Department swore in their first female officer, Marie Owens. During her career with the department, Owens worked with the women and children of Chicago and assisted detectives in cases involving these populations. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 1906, Owens said the following regarding her career choice:
“I like to do police work. It gives me a chance to help women and children who need help.”
This desire to help other women pushed others across the country to break the gender barrier in their own communities. In 1905, Lola Baldwin became Portland, Oregon’s first female police officer. Her duties initially consisted of protecting women working at the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition, a large fair held in Portland to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of Lewis and Clark’s famed trans-continental trek. Baldwin proved so adept at these duties that, in 1908, the city promoted her to the full duties of an officer, including the ability to make arrests.
Thanks to these trailblazers, and so many more who came after them, the history of women in policing has continued to evolve.
Current State of Women in Policing
Though women have always played an important part in law enforcement, only 12% of current law enforcement officers in America identify as female, and only 3% of law enforcement leadership roles are held by women.
Sadly, this number has remained steady for some time, as women cite feeling discouraged by stereotypes and fitness tests designed for men. Through the efforts of female officers across the country, however, the tides are slowly turning.
One such officer is Sgt. Jenna Clawson Huibregtse of the North Dakota Highway Patrol. As reported by PEW, Huibregtse became just the second woman in the history of her state’s highway patrol to be promoted above the position of trooper. After finishing graduate school in 2014, Huibregtse ultimately decided to apply for the position of state trooper to help improve the policing of her state and make her community a safer place.
“There was a rise in headlines and issues between minority groups and police. And I took issue with that,” she told PEW. “I decided, ‘Well, I think I’m capable of becoming a cop. I want to fix that issue from the inside out.’”
Due to efforts of women such as Huibregtse, five states and over 20 agencies have instituted the 30×30 initiative. The goal of this plan is to have female officers make up 30% of their state’s or agency’s law enforcement personnel by 2030. Housed under the NYU Law School’s Policing Project, the initiative is working to not only grow the number of women in policing but also to “ensure police policies and culture intentionally support the success of women officers through their careers.”
Why We Need More Women in Policing
Though women make up a small percentage of the current police force, initiatives such as 30×30 and the example set by female officers like Huibregtse are bringing change.
There is now a new generation of women breaking the gender barrier to obtain leadership positions in law enforcement, with an increasing number of female officers taking the helm of their department. The hard work and dedication to thoughtful policing by generations of female officers has paved the way for this movement.
A more balanced police force that takes advantage of the unique and valuable competencies that women bring to law enforcement will only serve to better the reputation of departments and increase trust in police forces.
In fact, research has shown that female officers:
- Are less likely to use excessive force than their male counterparts
- Produce better outcomes in response to violence against women
- Are less likely to be the subject of citizen complaints
- Reduce issues of gender discrimination and police harassment on calls
- Produce better outcomes for victims of sexual assault
All of the above equate to the community having a significant amount of trust in female officers. Due to this community trust, research has found that community policing techniques, which rely on establishing relationships and working in tandem with community members, work better with a more gender-diverse police force.
Celebrate Female Officers During Law Enforcement Appreciation Month
Women in policing are setting the standard for what it means to be an effective police officer. Not only are they creating better opportunities for the next generation of female officers, but they actively make their communities safer.
Since the days of Marie Owen, women in uniform have worked to ensure the safety and better access to care for other women in their communities. Today’s female officers continue this legacy as they regularly create better outcomes for female victims of assault and other crimes, while also expanding what it means to be a woman in the police force by pushing for gender equality within policing.
This Law Enforcement Appreciation Month, make sure to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of the women in policing, both in your community and across the country.
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