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

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

March 2021 | Volume 14 | Issue 3

Like many organizations around the country, the Newark (New Jersey) Police Department is facing hiring pressure. Generational turnover, understaffing, and shortages that date to the financial crisis of 2008 mean that the competition for a shrinking pool of candidates is fierce. One solution is to recruit from less commonly recruited applicant pools. Women, despite making up half the population, only make up 12 percent of sworn officers in American law enforcement, and these numbers have remained stable for two decades.

Captain Ivonne Roman was monitoring data on recruits in the academy when she noticed that between 65 and 80 percent of the female recruits were failing to graduate. Specifically, recruits were required to pass the physical fitness exams within three weeks of starting the academy, and large percentages of female recruits were falling short. In order to address the issue, Roman stood up the Women’s Leadership Academy (WLA), an organization for the Newark Police Department that helps female recruits prepare for the rigors of the academy prior to entry. It also advocates for adopting testing standards that do not discriminate by gender.

Captain Roman was invited to give a TED Talk about physical fitness testing barriers. She also lent us her time and expertise for a brief interview. Answers have been edited for length and/or clarity.

Ted talk

What are some of the “invisible obstacles” to recruiting and retaining and promoting female candidates within law enforcement that wouldn’t occur to a non–law enforcement audience? What are the invisible obstacles that might not occur to a sympathetic male colleague?

The assumption is that women opt out of law enforcement careers because they aren’t interested. In my experience with the WLA, I learned that there are a myriad of barriers that keep women out of policing. Because those barriers are usually pre-employment, they aren't captured in government statistics.

I assumed that the physical fitness test was the biggest barrier to women passing screening test. Though these pose significant challenges to women, I have also found that the background investigations pose their own challenges. I had a woman detail repeated inquiries into her domestic violence victimization, though she was never named as a suspect. This was highly discouraging to her and caused her to consider withdrawing from the process.

Some women find the psychological exam to be a barrier. Many of the women who struggled with psychological assessments were of color, raised in nontraditional household, and often were raised in poverty. There was extensive questioning about frequent moves, parents with criminal histories, and credit problems. We learned that women had failed the psychological exam at three times the rate as their male counterparts. After bringing the matter to the attention of elected officials, this group of women were allowed an opportunity to retake the psychological exam. During their second assessments, they all pass the exam, which brings into question the potential for bias in the screening mechanism or screener. This is a barrier I had never considered, because this is data not routinely captured and reported.

The WLA has been incredibly successful by working from a specific focus of helping recruits pass the exam. What comes next?

The WLA merely trained women to pass the exam. It was the quickest method to address a significant barrier. However, the better policy option would be to ensure that fitness exams are validated as being work-related. With that being said, I found that women are able to pass the standards within three months. This means that academies could greatly increase their recruitment pool by taking into account the fitness goals that will be achieved through academy training. Research has found that women make the biggest improvement in strength during a fitness program within an academy. If fitness exams would concentrate on improvement and culminating in a final fitness exam, the number of graduating recruits would greatly increase. This is especially needed during the ongoing recruitment crisis.

We addressed the most obvious obstacle for women, but the same could be applied to other applicant pools with very little resources required. This was a voluntary program, run by off-duty officers who saw value in increasing the number of women completing police academy training in New Jersey. This is easily replicable in motivated agencies, or through other interested groups and organizations looking for ways to diversity the police workforce.

Newark is a large, diverse, and urban jurisdiction and force. Is the WLA replicable for smaller departments or other law enforcement agencies (such as a sheriff’s office or a correctional setting)? What are some takeaways that could apply specifically to small or rural agencies?

The WLA required a motivated person willing to take the lead in addressing the attrition rates of women in policing. This was not a police organization effort, it was the effort of one person willing to organize a handful of officers to mentor applicants. Police departments with much more resources than individuals could easily put together such an effort. Many officials I spoke to worried about liability if someone engaging in physical exercise was injured.

We only covered the exercises that would be performed in an academy, as those have been approved. In addition, we had each mentee sign a document acknowledging that we were volunteering our time to assist them in achieving their career goals. By participating, they were agreeing that the program was not connected to the police department and was not a requirement for their consideration in a police career. I felt comfortable with that. Surely, police departments can figure a similar arrangement since many already engage in police auxiliary, cadet, or [Police Athletic League] programs. Where there is a concern, there is always a solution, if they are willing to invest the effort in overcoming the challenge.

Sarah K. Estill
Social Science Analyst
COPS Office

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