Where Are the Women Police in Ferguson?

14938226361_0cd7e907bf_zImages from Ferguson, Missouri, have filled TV and computer screens around the country since the tragic killing of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson—everywhere we’ve looked we’ve seen vulnerability and anger, chaos and peaceful resistance, tragedy and triumph. But we couldn’t help but notice there seems to be one thing missing in the deluge of photos and videos: There are next to no women law enforcement officials on the streets of the St. Louis suburb.

We called the city’s police department and, according to a spokeswoman, just five of the city’s 53 police officers are women. Only three of the 53 are African American, in a town that’s 67 percent black.

This matters. Had more women been on the scene during the demonstrations following the 18 year old’s death, things might have looked very different.

“Women tend to talk, to reason, to try to deescalate violence,” Penny Harrington, former Portland chief of police and the first woman head of a major U.S. police department, told the Ms. Blog. By contrast, “men have been taught—through sports, through the military—that you use physical force to get situations under control. Those are two hugely different approaches.”

Harrington is right: Women police differently. A 2002 study by the National Center for Women and Policing—a program of the Feminist Majority Foundation that Harrington helped found—examined data from seven major U.S. police departments and found that, “The average male officer is over eight and a half times more likely than his female counterpart to have an allegation of excessive force sustained against him.”

If more women officers had been on hand during the Ferguson protests, we might have seen fewer rubber bullets fired and tear-gas canisters launched. Instead, there might have been a productive conversation between a community that’s deeply wounded and a police force that desperately needs to rebuild trust.

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Building coalitions to solve problems is what women do best, Harrington asserts:

This is where women shine—working with the community and trying to listen. You can’t go in and just say, ‘This is the way it happened and this is the way it’s going to be.’ You have to go in and you have to listen. You have to let people vent. … You’ve got to show that you understand how they feel. You have to have empathy for what’s happened. Then you have to bring them around [to talk about] how to make sure this never happens again.

It’s going to take a lot for Ferguson’s residents—black, white and otherwise—to trust their city’s police officers again. While the black community is understandably angry—residents have lost a son to police violence and have watched those meant to serve and protect them threaten and intimidate them instead—Harrington says non-minority residents have also lost faith in Ferguson’s police:

The police department needs to be out not only in the minority communities, but in all the communities. Because it’s not just the minority communities that are angry about what happened. Everybody wants to know, ‘What if that were my son?’ … The whole community needs to be reassured that things are going to be looked at closely and improvements are going to be made.

To move forward, Harrington suggests engaging women in any way possible:

Community leaders can help, but the police department also has to have someone out there that the community is going to listen to. I sure haven’t seen anybody on television that they’re going to listen to. If they have women who have these kinds of skills and training, they should take advantage of that and [send them out to talk to] any group they can find. … [The police also] have to look at their entire training program, their shoot/don’t shoot policies. Are they even teaching deescalation? … Are they trying to recruit school teachers and nurses—people who come with these kind of skills? Or are they going to gyms [and military bases] and trying to recruit people that are big and strong and brave? They have to look at their department from top to bottom. They have to increase the numbers of women.

A change from the top down is exactly what this police department needs. The BBC spoke to a black female officer (who asked to remain anonymous) in the St. Louis area—one of few women on her force. She said she feels “very much” like an outsider on her team and that, before she was a police officer, she was often targeted by local law enforcement for offenses she didn’t commit:

It’s almost like a fear-based society. You’re told this certain type of people [African Americans] behaves in a certain type of way, and it sticks with you throughout your life. They never take the time to find out if it’s true. … Maybe [when these non-minority officers were] growing up they didn’t have a lot of interactions with African American females from the inner city—they’re uncomfortable with it, but instead of trying to address it, they avoid it, even fear it.

Indeed, better training for police, more affirmative recruiting of African Americans and women of all races, and rebuilt trust with the community will be the keys to a renewed Ferguson. And maybe then, justice will be served.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user Shawn Semmler licensed under Creative Commons 2.0



Stephanie Hallett is research editor at Ms. Follow her on Twitter @stephhallett.


  1. “Women tend to talk, to reason, to try to deescalate violence,”

    We need more women as police to assert the right of women to public spaces but we also need to be hiring men who can talk, who can reason, who can try to deescalate violence. And we also need to train all our police officers in those skills because they are learned.

  2. I’m afraid that my direct experience with women police officers during siege conditions contradicts the assumptions of this article. Between August of 1988 and the mid-90s, I was part of a large number of demonstrations on the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan (NYC) as neighborhood activists protested for affordable housing and the rights of homeless people to be treated with dignity. There was a somewhat larger proportion of female officers in our precinct than there are in Ferguson–and some were directly assigned to police us, the demonstraters. What I saw were police women who acted even more tough and aggressive than their male counterparts–they were often the first to threaten us with arrest and jail and were well known amongst us for being “some of the worst.” After some thinking about this, I realized that BECAUSE they were women, they were under enormous pressure to “prove” to their male colleagues that they weren’t “wimps,” “sissies” or the like–and therefore they were the LAST people from whom we could expect a “better deal”. I think that much more will have to change in police departments before the police brutality will stop–particularly the function that police are expected to play in quelling protest (such policies come down from the top, often the highest levels of government). Another critical issue in police brutality is the militarization of the police–if you have all these ‘toys’ to play with, chances are you will use them. Just putting women on the streets is not the answer. Women, like other people, tend to adjust to the rules of the culture they find themselves in. Remember Abu Ghraib.

    • patricia win says:

      You know what, I think you are correct about this. I worked with police for four years doing child abuse work. I was truly shocked to see female cops who were out-machoing the guys… really disgusting. And I think most of us would accept that MOST male police are not these violent, cowboys who are just plain dangerous, esp. to minorities but also to most men. I think the women that Penny Harrington is talking about are females who are more mature, better educated, more wise about how to handle people. And I believe more feminists are this way. I’m 74 and have seen this. So, we need more quality police men and women…but females GENERALLY do prefer communication to asserting their will on others. (and pride) So, I think a better balance would be a good way to start, just as having more African-American men helps .

  3. Huck Finn says:

    The paucity of female and African American police officers in Ferguson derives from each demographic’s reluctance to behave in the same way as the force’s white male super majority. SWAT teams, replete with military equipment and tactics they want to employ, do not want anyone who will defuse the tension. Even a superficial glance at the confrontations will confirm police pointing weapons at unarmed protesters and the copious use of tear gas, a weapon that has been banned in warfare since 1993. Given that ethos, small wonder the few females on the force are relegated to desk jobs, and the African American officers posted “behind the lines.” Independent thought, recognition of a common humanity, and alternatives to armed conflict have no place on Ferguson’s militarized force. Yes, a change is due, but don’t hold your breath waiting for it.

  4. Are wymin and African Americans choosing to apply for law enforcement jobs (local, regional, and national) at the same rate as men and Caucasian Americans? Any group in America who wants better representation (cultural, political, or economic) has the freedom to flood any profession with more of their members. Something tells me that one of the very important reasons why wymin and African Americans are underrepresented in our society is their unwillingness to step forward, be counted, and make the kinds of sacrifices men have been making for centuries to continue to be counted over the long-term.

  5. I found this article as I was looking for the gender makeup of the Ferguson Police Department. I was able to find that information in this article, but I was really disappointed in the writing. The point should be that the force is not representative of the community, as in most departments around the world. The reason isn’t that the female police officers would be better at listening, it’s because when equal representation is given to a population all of the population has a stake in how it is run. Just as the black officers on the force may well engage in profiling blacks in Ferguson, women who work in law enforcement may use excessive force – the way to get the culture to change is to get the whole force, top to bottom, to look like the whole community. I agree with the author that the problem is recruiting the right people, and would add that making the changes needed to retain the people after recruitment is also necessary, as in any other sector where the workforce makeup needs to change.
    Thanks for the gist of the article, but I would ask you to reconsider using gender stereotypes to make the point in the future. Also, please reconsider the word ‘Women’ before any profession, as in the title of this article. It’s ‘Female’ you want to say, just as you would say ‘Male’ police and not ‘Men’ Police. Subtle bias in language like this doesn’t help us advance.

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