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Fixing policing means recruiting, retaining more women, advocates say

Women comprise just 12% of all law enforcement officers nationwide.
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As communities reckon with deep problems in policing highlighted by the murder of George Floyd, some advocates are working toward what they say is one solution: achieving gender parity.

Research suggests women officers could fundamentally change American policing as we know it. They use less force – and less excessive force – and get better outcomes for crime victims, especially in sexual assault cases, than their male counterparts. They also are perceived as more honest and compassionate by diverse communities and are named in fewer lawsuits and complaints.

Yet women are sharply underrepresented in policing.

Across the Mountain West, women comprise just 4% to 8% of state policing agencies, according to a new Pew Research analysis. Nationwide, 7% are female. Meanwhile, across local and state police municipalities and jurisdictions, women account for just 12% of all law enforcement officers in the U.S.

Maureen McGough, head of New York University’s Policing Project, hopes to change that with a 30 by 30 initiative – a nationwide effort to achieve 30% representation of women in law enforcement agencies by the year 2030. So far, at least 115 agencies have signed on.

“There is a growing acknowledgment that the way things have historically been done aren't really an option anymore,” she said. “And I am optimistic that at this particular moment, we are going to see a lot of significant traction.”

In the Mountain West, participation in the initiative so far is paltry. Colorado tops the list with four agencies: Denver, Fort Morgan, Boulder and University of Colorado Boulder. Three departments in Nevada have signed on: Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Sparks. And one in Utah: University of Utah. No police departments in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho or New Mexico are part of the initiative.

Advocates say participation in the 30 by 30 project acknowledges that policing culture, for one, has to change if departments are to recruit and retain more women.

“At every stage, there are obstacles or barriers to women serving as police officers. And when you look at retention, promotion and recruitment, a male-dominated culture overlays all of that,” said Christine Cole, executive director of the Crime and Justice Institute and a member of the 30 by 30 initiative’s steering committee.

Cole used the example of recruitment videos that depict policing as a “paramilitary type of profession.”

She says agencies tend to use materials that highlight “the chase and force” aspect of policing versus the peacemaker, community guardian role that is central to the job. And once women enter the force, they face additional barriers to stay.

“The work doesn't end with recruitment because we need to keep them on the job,” Cole said. “Retention is very important and we see women leaving policing for a variety of cultural reasons. And we also don't see women promoted in police departments at the same rate that men are.”

Nationwide, women comprise just 3% percent of police leadership. Doreen Jokerst is among that small percentage.

The chief of police for University of Colorado Boulder remembered her first policing job with Parker Police, a south Denver metro agency. It was 1998 and there were just two other women in the entire organization. That kind of disparity helped to inform the culture she strives to create today within her force, where women comprise 17% of officers.

“In a male-dominated field, women, myself included, have gone into different meetings where you almost feel that you don't have as much to offer as your male counterparts in the room,” Jokerst said. “So we discuss and have those conversations: ‘You are here for a reason, you got hired on for your strengths, you bring forth a diverse set of skills.’ And so it's kind of walking people through that.”

Recruiting women from diverse backgrounds adds another challenge in building police forces that reflect the communities they serve.

Cole said the kinds of things women of color are disproportionately likely to experience could interfere with a successful background check and preclude them from advancing through the hiring process.

“This relates to any woman, but if you're a victim of domestic violence and have to relocate a lot, sometimes those are issues that come up with your background check and your psychological examination," Cole said. "So for people who are raised in nontraditional households or raised in poverty, those things could go against them in a way that is probably not appropriate.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I wear many hats in KUNC's newsroom as an executive producer, editor and reporter. My work focuses on inequality, the systems of power that entrench it, and the people who are disproportionately affected. I help reporters in my newsroom to also uncover these angles and elevate unheard voices in the process.