Female Cops: Fighting for Respect in a ‘Boys Club’ Culture 

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Photo by Carl Wycoff via Flickr

A barbed comment by a soon-to-retire Illinois State Police lieutenant gave Cara Rabe-Hemp both the title and the theme of her new book.

Observing that the lieutenant, who had joined the force in the 1980s, was just completing a 25-year career in the policing, Rabe-Hemp asked her, “Do you think anything has slowed you down?”

“Policing is a boys’ club,” came the quick reply, “And if you haven’t noticed, I’m not a boy.”

policingRabe-Hemp, a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice Sciences at Illinois State University, set about exploring the complex and frustrating reality behind those words. Her book, “Thriving in an All-Boys Club: Female Police and Their Fight for Equality,” focuses not only on the careers of women who have been trailblazers in what is traditionally considered a “male” occupation─but on why, like the Illinois police lieutenant, they still feel like outsiders in police culture.

In a conversation with TCR’s Megan Hadley, Rabe-Hemp described how law enforcement agencies in the 1990s and 2000s began to open their doors to greater numbers of women, how in the process female officers have changed the practice of law enforcement across the U.S., and why—despite the changed climate─recruitment of women appears to be declining.

THE CRIME REPORT: You write that police culture in the 1980s was “accepting and protective of sexually harassing and discriminatory behavior.” What has changed?

CARA RABE-HEMP: Women in the 1980s faced a lot of sexual harassment and discrimination, but what was interesting about that was they expected it. So most of the women I interviewed from the 1980s knew when they went into policing that it was going to be a male domain. They knew they would have an uphill battle in being accepted.

One of my favorite stories is about a male officer who insisted on opening the car door for a female because that was a part of the culture at the time. In the 1990s, there were so many more female police officers, and there was a change in the culture. Women were taking on many more responsibilities in policing and in the work culture and things got better.

What I was really surprised about was the women who entered policing in the 2000s. I assumed that we would find harassment had fallen off the radar, but that has not been the case. Women in the 2000s describe fairly heinous experiences with sexual harassment and discrimination. Covert, yes, but still experiences we would associate with the 1980s. I think (that’s) one of the reasons that the number of women in policing is actually starting to drop now. We’re not re-hiring female police the same way we once did. Women are again finding themselves in a token status and really struggling through that.

TCR: One significant problem you highlight in the book is mental health and, in particular, the difficulty officers have coming forward to talk about depression, anxiety, and PSTD. They see this as a sign of weakness. Do women play a role in changing that perception?

RABE-HEMP: We know there is a potential for women (and people of color) to bring about change in police culture. Women have different socialization experiences than men do, and at the end of the day, we raise women differently than we raise men. Those experiences can influence how they do the work that they do.

We know when women enter organizations, they challenge the way things have been done. This results new policy and new, creative ways of problem-solving. In policing, we see this illustrated by organizations with female leadership and greater female representation. Women are more likely to have family medical leave or light duty, maternity leave, and more likely to have inclusive leadership in their organizations. Women entering police organizations have the potential to change how police do their jobs on the street.

TCR: So why have the numbers of women police officers decreased?

RABE-HEMP: There are a couple of things that we know are holding women back. There is a problem with recruitment. There is also a problem with retention. Those are two different problems. Recruitment in policing emphasizes upper body strength, and typically men win that battle. Biologically, we know that upper body strength is a way in which women are disadvantaged, specifically in recruitment practices. But here is the frustrating part about that: there is no research that connects upper body strength with the ability to police. We know this because most police agencies don’t require the repetition of that test. It’s not necessary to do the job, but because of that rule, we see a lot of women disqualified right off the bat because of recruitment policies for policing.

We also see continued resistance to women in police culture. Today we still have police agencies who have never had a female officer, ever. In those agencies the resistance to women can be pretty strong. Finally, police agencies have to start looking at family-friendly policies, they have to follow the business world that have women returning to work in mass. Police families would be much more accommodated if we looked at family-friendly policies in policing.

TCR: What kinds of recruitment tactics would draw more women into policing?

RABE-HEMP: The number-one predictor for having a diverse pool is spending money on recruitment. Agencies that put their money where their mouth is and lay out a recruitment strategy for hiring diverse applicants actually end up with a much more diverse pool. There are manuals out there for police agencies who are looking to diversify. One thing that is helpful is having diverse recruitment tools─(for instance) flyers that show people of color and women doing different jobs.

TCR: The lack of trust between police and community is a major issue in law enforcement today. Can female police officers play a role in changing that?

RABE-HEMP: In the book, the point I am trying to make is that we know we are in the middle of a legitimacy crisis in policing. Making police agencies more representative of the communities they serve could be a solution to this crisis. As police departments look for a new breed of police officers more likely to use communication skills and problem-solving skills, people who define policing through service to community members, the evidence that women bring many of these positive benefits to policing make it an argument to take a better look.

We know that women are great communicators, and they are less likely to use force. So their increased representation in policing means more peaceful citizen interactions. They are less likely to be named in citizen complaints and lawsuits, which saves agencies and taxpayers millions of dollars each year. Female officers are more likely to take (seriously) reports of domestic violence and sexual assault cases. Women bring positive benefits to policing, and they have the potential to alter the way police officers police.

TCR: Do you need to strike a balance between male and female police officers?

RABE-HEMP: Yes, definitely. More than just a balance. My book celebrates the positive attributes of female police officers but it in no way takes away from celebrating the success of male officers. The argument I’m making in the book is that women make a unique contribution to policing as well.

TCR: How can female officers help deescalate police violence? 

RABE-HEMP: I think the big point is communication. There are a lot of stories in the book about how female police officers talk suspects into cop cars instead of going hands on. The suspect will literally put themselves in the back of the car. So increasing communication skills and problem-solving skills is one option.

TCR: One interesting point you make is that it may actually be safer for female police. You write that “sex norms may also dictate that potentially violent citizens may feel it is heroic to attack a policeman but cowardly to attack a policewoman.” Can you expand?

Cara Raber-Hemp

Cara Rabe-Hemp

RABE-HEMP: In our analysis of police-citizen interactions, we found that women were at no greater risk than male officers at being assaulted except in a very small subset of cases, and in those cases, the perpetrator was involved in domestic violence and alcohol. In those situations, women were more likely to be assaulted or attacked by a community member, but other than that, there was no greater risk between male and female officers.

TCR: You discuss at length the important role women play in addressing crime victims, specifically, victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse. You quote one patrol officer stating “I don’t want the guys to tell the girl she deserved to be raped” and further re victimize the individual? Should women be the ones to respond to these calls of sexual abuse?

RABE-HEMP: This is a great debate within the research world, and the truth is I don’t have the answer to that. Recent research [from the University of Illinois in Chicago showed] that agencies with more female officers were (more) likely to take cases of sexual assault, and they were also more likely to clear those cases. One [possible] reason: when agencies look like the communities they police, citizens are more likely to report those crimes to the police. So it might just be having that image for the community changes the likelihood of them reporting crimes.

We need more research before we can answer that question. But right now, what it looks like is having agencies that are more representativem and having more female officers, may encourage community members to come forward, especially with crimes of sexual assault or domestic violence.

TCR: What do you think the future holds for women in policing? 

RABE-HEMP: In the book. I tried to not shy away from the challenges faced by women police, but those obstacles are no match for the women who wear the uniform today. I met the bravest women who are absolutely dedicated to their occupations, families and communities. In 2015 women were heading the DEA, the Secret Service, the D.C Metropolitan Police Department, the Washington field office of the FBI, and the Amtrak police. Within large agencies today, woman are breaking those top command spots and these are all indicators that women are making great strides and promotions. It seems that simply by doing police work the way they do every day, women are inspiring the next generation of female police officers to step up and follow in their paths.

TCR: What about the high reported rates of domestic abuse involving police? What needs to be done to address this issue?

RABE-HEMP: Domestic violence is a pervasive problem in our society and it is not unique to policing or to any type of occupation. We see domestic violence in all types of families. One thing that can be done, is for us to be aware of the signs and make help available, and encourage those who need assistance to get the help they need.

TCR: Do you see policing changing in the near future? And will women police officers play a role in that change?

RABE-HEMP: Policing is an old institution and the more things change the more they stay the same, but I do see that right now police are attempting to be more community- friendly and more community-focused. I think our consumer model in our society is driving policing as an institution to have that focus. Women are making great strides within policing, and they are going to influence not only how we do police work, but will act as catalysts for change within [police] organization. That is inspiring other women to step forward.

Megan Hadley is a staff reporter with The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.

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