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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

145 N Street, N.E.
Washington, DC 20530

March 2019 | Volume 12 | Issue 2

As National Women’s History Month, March is an excellent time to acknowledge the many achievements of our female law enforcement officers and leaders, who now account for nearly 13 percent of those who serve throughout our nation and include about 300 women who are chiefs of police. Since Portland, Oregon, swore in the first female officer in 1908, these dedicated women have joined their male counterparts in making public safety their number one priority.

Notable examples are Officers Moira Smith and Kathy Mazza of the New York Police Department—who lost their lives while rescuing victims from the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center—and, more recently, Officer Nicole Battaglia of the Alexandria (Virginia) Police Department—who, under fire, helped her fellow officers shoot the gunman who wounded five congressman during a baseball practice in 2017.

These heroes are just a few among hundreds of women who put themselves in harm’s way to protect the public, strive to reduce violent crime, and build strong relationships with the communities they serve. However, women in the workforce are still underrepresented. Recognizing their contributions, departments across the country are making efforts to recruit more women. According to Kym Craven, the executive director of the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives (NAWLEE), raising their numbers is especially important today, as the challenges facing law enforcement have changed. 

“The policing model has evolved,” she says, “requiring more personal interaction. It’s become more of a caretaking role, which women tend to be better at. . . . A few decades ago, policing was focused on the cocaine wars, and after 9/11, [on the] response to terrorism. Today, the more common challenges are opioid abuse, mental health issues, violent crimes, and homelessness. For example, instead of just arresting drug addicts, officers now carry life-saving naloxone to counter an opioid overdose.”

Moreover, creating a police presence that reflects the makeup of the community leads to better relations, which in turn leads to increased public and police safety. A 2018 study by University of Virginia economics professor Amalia Miller found that female representation in police departments significantly increases reporting of violent crimes against women and decreases domestic violence. Miller suggests that this is because women feel more comfortable reporting sexual assault, domestic violence, and other crimes to a female officer—or even to departments that have female officers on staff.

But recruiting women is not easy. Mary Ann Viverette, the former chief of the Gaithersburg (Maryland) Police Department and past president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, points out that most recruiting communications focus on the “warrior model” of policing, featuring male officers with guns.

“More importantly,” she says, “women don’t see many female [officers] in leadership positions, and in some departments there are few women at all, which discourages them from wanting to join.”  Yet advancement to a high level of management is difficult without the support of leadership and opportunities to work in various areas of the department. 

“Too often, women get locked into juvenile services or community outreach positions, but they can do so much more,” she says, citing the example of Cathy Lanier, who was Chief of Police for the Washington (D.C.) Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) for almost 10 years. Mentored by a previous chief of police, Charles Ramsey, Lanier earned an advanced degree in national security studies and became Commander at the MPD Office of Homeland Security and Counterterrorism before becoming chief. During her tenure, violent crime in Washington dropped by 23 percent. Today, Cathy Lanier is an executive with the National Football League with security responsibilities for the entire league.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, about 53,000 additional law enforcement officers are expected to be hired between 2016 and 2026. We hope that a good many of those will be brave, skilled, and compassionate women who will continue to make history for American law enforcement, both in the ranks and in leadership positions. I call on all the law enforcement leaders to make concerted efforts to increase the number of women in the ranks of their respective departments, expanding roles and opportunities to advance women in policing.

– Director Keith

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