How to Defuse Police Violence

As the crisis continues to unfold in Baltimore and in communities across the country, it becomes increasingly clear that hiring the right types of police officers is imperative to improving police-community relations. In the Winter 2015 issue of Ms.I outlined why hiring more women officers would go a long way to reducing police violence. Below, find out how women can change a law enforcement culture that currently relies too heavily on brute force and paramilitary-style policing. 

As the debate rages over what to do about police use of deadly force, a critical way to reduce police violence and improve police relations with communities has been wholly ignored: requiring police departments to have equitable numbers of women and men in their ranks, who also mirror the racial makeup of the communities they serve.

Unlike arguments over whether body cameras or better training or stricter policies will reduce excessive force, we don’t have to speculate whether increasing women in police ranks would make a difference. Studies over the last 40 years have already shown that women officers are less authoritarian in their approach to policing, rely less on physical force than men do, possess better communication skills and increase police response to violence against women.

Most importantly, women officers have proven to be better at defusing potentially violent confrontations with citizens before those encounters turn deadly.

One of the early studies, sponsored by the Police Foundation in 1974, found that women police “act less aggressively and they believe in less aggression,” even though they encountered “similar proportions of citizens who were dangerous, angry, upset, drunk or violent.” The report concluded that the “presence of women may stimulate increased attention to the ways of avoiding violence and cooling violent situations without resorting to the use of force.”

The root of these differences may be found in each gender’s attraction to policing. Various studies from the 1960s and ’70s found that “policemen see police work as involving control through authority, while policewomen see it as a public service.” The studies concluded that the “women’s orientation is more likely to result in better relations with the public.”

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Study after study in the U.S. and internationally reinforced these early findings, showing that women officers are more likely to follow a community policing model rather than a paramilitary one. They also found that male officers opposed women in the force because they feared women would expose secrets about corruption and violence within their ranks.

But such research remained largely buried in the academic literature until 1991 when, at the urging of the Feminist Majority Foundation, the Christopher Commission analyzed the gender of Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers involved in excessive-force incidents. Created in the wake of the Rodney King beating by LAPD officers and the officers’ subsequent acquittals, the commission found that “female officers are not reluctant to use force, but they are not nearly as likely [as male officers] to be involved in use of excessive force.” The commission also noted deep-rooted sexism within the LAPD, and concluded that the department’s discrimination against women can “contribute to the problem of excessive force” and create “a disdain for a more patient, less aggressive approach.”

The commission added that “many officers, both male and female, believe female officers are less personally challenged by defiant suspects and feel less need to deal with defiance with immediate force or confrontational language.” Perhaps if the police officers who confronted Michael Brown and Eric Garner had been women, the outcome of those encounters would have been very different.

Despite evidence that increasing women in law enforcement might be an effective antidote to police violence, the number of women in policing remains stuck at token levels. As of 2007 (the most recent data available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics), local police departments average just 11.9 percent women in their ranks, only slightly higher than the 7.6 percent of women in local departments 20 years earlier. Larger police departments average slightly higher percentages of women. Many of the smallest police agencies have no women, and the vast majority of all agencies have only token numbers of women in top command positions.

Most of the gains for women police have come about only because of federal court-ordered consent decrees that forced some large police agencies to hire more women and racial minorities. These decrees, dating from the 1970s and many of which are now expiring, were the result of lawsuits pursued by the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the NAACP. But discriminatory recruiting and hiring practices remain the driving factors behind the underrepresentation of women in policing.

Based on the outmoded assumption that strength and agility are key requirements for successful performance as a police officer, 89 percent of police departments, according to a Feminist Majority Foundation study, use some form of physical abilities testing. First introduced in the 1970s after discriminatory minimum-height requirements were no longer permitted, these tests favor upper-body strength and other components of physical ability, thus resulting in high failure rates for women and smaller-stature men. Yet physical strength has never been shown to predict a police officer’s general effectiveness or ability to handle dangerous situations. Indeed, as we saw so clearly in the Eric Garner case, an emphasis on brute physical strength can actually be a liability in terms of civilian protection. Instead, testing should focus on the applicant’s ability to defuse potential violence and maintain composure in situations of conflict.

What’s more, citizens have reiterated in surveys since the early 1970s that their communities would react more positively to a woman officer compared to a man. The public believes women are better able to defuse potentially dangerous situations, and women officers have declared themselves less cynical and more respectful in their view of citizens. Women police officers have also proven better at responding to violence against women, the largest category of 911 calls to police departments nationwide.

The U.S. Border Patrol recently secured a federal exemption to recruit only women for a major hiring push, as it has recognized that having just 5 percent women in its ranks impedes its ability to work with the tens of thousands of migrant women who cross the U.S.-Mexico border each year—many of whom suffer sexual assaults during their journey. Federal authorities should grant similar exemptions to local police agencies if we are serious about diminishing violence and building community trust.

Many police departments in the U.S., and the elected officials who oversee their operations and set their policies, have ignored the benefits gender balancing would bring to their police ranks. With demands for police reform echoing from the streets to city halls to the White House, we have a perfect opportunity to consider a dramatic, gender-based response.

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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.