Images 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.
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.