The Nation’s Police Have a Sex-Discrimination Problem

The death of 18-year-old Michael Brown at the hands of a Ferguson, Missouri police officer last month prompted the Department of Justice to launch an investigation into Ferguson’s policing practices. (This investigation comes on the heels of a separate federal probe into the killing of Brown). The new investigation will look at departmental practices that may have led to Brown’s shooting and to other civil rights violations in the last several years. Five current and one former Ferguson police officer are currently facing federal lawsuits alleging the use of excessive force.

Attorney General Eric Holder also recently announced a new federal initiative to study racial bias and reduce tensions between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.

While conducting its investigations, we implore the Department of Justice to also examine how the gross underrepresentation of women in the Ferguson Police Department—and in police departments nationwide—aggravates excessive use of force problems and deteriorating police-community relations.

As I’ve written previously, research nationally and internationally for more than four decades has found that women police officers not only do the job of policing equally as well as men, but are not as authoritarian in their approach, use force less often, possess better communication skills and are better at defusing potentially violent confrontations than their male counterparts.

More than 20 years ago, the Feminist Majority Foundation (publisher of Ms.) urged the Christopher Commission, formed in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating, to do just that. The Commission did investigate and made some astounding findings: Within the Los Angeles Police Department, there were no women officers listed among those with the highest number of use-of-force reports, personnel complaints and officer-involved shootings. Women officers accounted for just 3.4 percent of those involved in or at the scenes of crimes where police actions later led to lawsuits against the department.

The Commission also found deep-rooted sex discrimination and sexist attitudes within the Los Angeles Police Department, concluding that this discrimination aggravated the excessive force problems within the LAPD by creating a disdain for women’s less violent approach to policing. Further, that the discrimination was preventing women from achieving equal numbers and reaching the highest ranks within the department.

So, to really get at the problem of police excessive force, the Department of Justice must also, as it examines the impact of racial bias, look at how increasing the numbers of women in policing holds the key to substantially decreasing police violence while also improving police relations with the community.

Women’s underrepresentation in policing is a problem across the country: Nationwide, small law enforcement agencies employ an average of 4-to-6-percent women, while larger ones employ about 15 percent. These numbers are from a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey in 2007. The last time the Feminist Majority Foundation surveyed police agencies in 2001, we found similar overall numbers. Additionally, we found that women of color are virtually absent from small departments (1.2 percent) and represent only 4.8 percent of officers in the largest agencies. Many of these larger agencies have been under court-ordered consent decrees to hire more women and minorities, the result of a wave of sex and race discrimination lawsuits dating from the 1970s. Yet these numbers have hardly budged over the last 20 years. (Men of color have made somewhat greater progress, though also remain underrepresented in police ranks.)

To get at why there are so few women in policing, the DOJ must scrutinize police hiring and recruiting practices that are keeping women’s numbers in law enforcement artificially low.

One major cause of the problem is that many law enforcement agencies, when recruiting police officers, are looking in the wrong places—at gyms and on military bases—where more men than women can be found, rather than seeking out nurses, teachers and social workers who possess conflict-resolution skills that are critical in reducing the use of excessive force. Even a history of violent behavior on the part of police recruits is often ignored. Indeed, research has shown a marked gender difference between women and men recruits—women applicants are less likely to have histories of violence than male applicants. Screening for this type of behavior would result in increased hiring of women and decreased hiring of physically aggressive men.

A second major contributor to the lack of women in law enforcement is the kind of unnecessary physical testing police agencies use in hiring. Thankfully, the DOJ is already tackling these types of discriminatory hiring practices: Earlier this summer, the DOJ announced that it is suing the Pennsylvania state police for sex discrimination. The lawsuit, filed in late July, alleges that the police used a physical fitness test in hiring state troopers that disadvantaged women and included physical feats not required for the job. In fact, no studies have ever substantiated the use of physical testing in police hiring—women can do the job just as well as men and physical tests are simply designed to keep them out.

The DOJ won a similar sex-discrimination case in Corpus Christi, Texas, last year after suing that city’s police department under Title XII. In response to the suit, the police department replaced its physical abilities test with a Title XII-compliant procedure and offered back pay to women who had failed the test and been disqualified from positions with the agency.

Imagine a police department where there are as many women police officers as men, and where police officers reflect the racial diversity of the communities they serve. A balanced, well-trained force that would be more likely, when officers come upon a situation like they faced with Michael Brown, to diffuse rather than escalate the situation. That’s a police force a community can believe in.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user drpavloff licensed under Creative Commons 2.0



Katherine Spillar is the executive director of Feminist Majority Foundation and executive editor of Ms., where she oversees editorial content and the Ms. in the Classroom program.