LOS ANGELES – When Anne Kirkpatrick took the helm at the scandal-ridden Oakland Police Department, she inherited an agency that the city’s mayor likened to a frat house.
The former Spokane police chief knew she inevitably would be asked what it’s like to combat the culture as one of a growing number of women heading police departments, many struggling to repair their public image.
“What I will tell you is that I am a leader,” she said at a news conference announcing her appointment, listing qualities Oakland wanted in its police chief.
“Those character traits are not gender-based. Those are leadership-based,” Kirkpatrick said.
Female police officers tend to use wits over brawn to de-escalate potentially violent situations, experts say, and as departments shift their focus to nonviolent techniques, it’s natural they would tap more women as leaders.
“A lot of police chiefs say women had a profound impact on the culture of policing,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank. “They bring their own set of skills to a traditionally male-dominated culture, and that is very helpful.”
Still, the number of women leading police departments pales in comparison to their male counterparts. Of the nation’s 50 largest police departments, only five are led by women. A 2013 survey conducted by the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives found just 169 women leading the more than 1,500 police departments, sheriff’s offices and other law enforcement agencies across the U.S. that responded.
“It’s very pleasant to see some of these female chiefs across the country,” said Dawn Layman, the group’s president and a major in the Lenexa, Kansas, Police Department. Still, she said, there’s much work to do.
“There are still a lot of agencies that you see there are no females in even supervisory or command-level positions,” Layman said.
But as major cities continue to promote women to their top cop posts, Layman believes others will follow suit.
“I think females just bring something different to the table,” she said. “The goal is to diversify the table. We don’t want a cookie-cutter. We learn more, we bring more to the table when it is diverse.”
Decades ago, female officers faced a much different atmosphere – there were public protests over them, men refused to ride with them and many were forced to file lawsuits to ascend the ranks. While the protests have long subsided and the culture has changed within police departments, women still represent only a fraction of the country’s police officers.
“If you go back, policing for a long time was predominantly male and predominantly white,” said Wexler, of the police think tank. “Over the years, we’ve seen a tremendous increase in diversity and a tremendous increase of women officers.”
He added research shows female officers tend to use communication to help defuse potentially volatile situations.
“For women officers, this tends to come to them naturally,” Wexler said. “I think departments who have had a lot of experience hiring women recognize how invaluable they are in defusing contentious situations.”
The first generation of female chiefs was in smaller police forces, including several university police departments, said Dorothy Moses Schulz, a professor emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of New York. In the past few years, she said, there appeared to be an uptick in women rising to the top of larger departments. The public expects many of them to be able to reform departments with poor public images just because they’re women, she said.
“They are supposed to be the healers. It’s a terrible burden,” said Schulz, whose work includes two books on women in policing. “I don’t think that’s based on any solid research; I think that’s based on a feeling that it is going to set a different tone.”
Schulz added more female officers are applying for upper-level jobs today than years ago, and they have a better chance of being selected.
“Mayors don’t have to feel like they are going out on a limb. Even if it is not common, it’s common enough you’re not risking your reputation,” she said.
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