When Ivonne Roman first swore in as a police officer in 1995, less than one in ten police officers in the U.S. were women. Throughout her career, she has climbed through ranks to hold almost every position—including Chief of Police in Newark, NJ—but the number of women following in her footsteps remains mostly stagnant at 13 percent, with only 3 percent serving as police chiefs: a “dire situation,” according to Roman.
Roman, the founder of the Women’s Leadership Academy, proposed a solution: change the physical fitness test and its “arbitrary fitness standards.”
“We can reduce the disparity in policing by changing exams that produce disparate outcomes,” Roman said in a TED talk today.
She explains that respected institutions, like the F.B.I., U.S. Marshal Service, D.E.A. and U.S. Military—respected institutions “that law enforcement deeply respects”—“rigorously test fitness programs to ensure they measure fitness without gender-disparate outcomes.” But her peers in police have yet to look at their testing with the same scrutiny.
During her time as chief, Roman found that arbitrary physical examination policies were holding back between 60 to 85 percent of women recruits. She explains that the misguided and misogynistic measures used in most of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. “rely on a masculine ideal of policing that works to decrease the number of women in policing” and do not “mirror the realities of policing.”
“A majority of academies rely on a masculine ideal of policing that works to decrease the number of women in policing. [They] overemphasize physical strength, with much less attention spent to subjects like community policing, problem-solving and interpersonal communication skills.”
“Much of an officer’s day is spent mediating interpersonal conflict,” Roman says—speaking from more than 25 years of experience. “Well-trained women are as capable as their male counterparts in overall fitness, but more importantly in how they police.”
Decades of research show women are less likely to use force, be accused of excessive force, or be named in a lawsuit or citizen complaint. In fact, “the mere presence of a policewoman reduces the use of force among other officers,” she argues. They are also more successful in diffusing violent or aggressive behavior than their male counterparts.
Roman argues that physical exams overlook crucial skills such as communication, critical thinking and problem-solving. She notes that other nations—such as Canada, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand—have almost double the number of women in their forces. She urged the U.S. to stop lagging behind.
“There are vast advantages to women in policing,” she said, “and we are losing them to arbitrary fitness standards.”
“The law enforcement community is admittedly experiencing a recruitment crisis. Yet, if they truly want to increase the number of applicants, they can. … We have the research, we have the science, we have the law. This, my friends, should be a very easy fix.”