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Police culture and women in law enforcement

As agencies work to increase the number of women in law enforcement, more attention must be paid to cultural behaviors that hold women back

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Women currently make up just over 12% of police officers nationwide.

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By Jenn Moss

A law enforcement agency’s most valuable recruiting tool is its people. For underrepresented minorities – more specifically, women – that can be even more true. Women currently make up just over 12% of police officers nationwide. There are even fewer women, currently only 3%, in leadership positions within police agencies. Efforts such as the 30×30 Initiative strive to increase the number of women in policing to 30% by 2030.

While agencies are thinking outside the box to adjust recruiting efforts and make changes to the hiring process to attract more candidates, it is time for individuals and leaders in law enforcement to take greater ownership of how we may be contributing to the problem and how we can make changes to become part of the solution.

Agency Culture

Let’s start with agency culture.

I believe most law enforcement leaders believe they support women within their agency, recognizing that research has suggested women officers are less likely to use force and are perceived by their communities as more honest and compassionate.

Many departments support families in a variety of ways such as expanded maternity and paternity leave, often providing paid time off for new parents. Other agencies have found ways to provide childcare at their facilities.

While these are welcome changes, they don’t tell the full story.

For example, consider what happens when a female officer chooses to start a family, gets pregnant and leaves her patrol assignment for a light-duty role (likely administrative) during her pregnancy. Shortly after returning from maternity leave, she decides to test for a supervisory position. What thoughts come to mind about her potential capability as a supervisor?

There are likely some who would start to question her capabilities, based on her lack of patrol tenure and experience. While she may technically be eligible to test for the supervisor position, she may not actually have the time in the field to show for it. Would leaders hold the same opinion of a male officer who spent six to nine months in a light duty assignment due to a work-related injury?

If women, who often want to have both a family and a career, believe they are going to be “punished” for having children, they are less likely to believe in their own abilities and are therefore less likely to pursue promotional opportunities. Administrative assignments do not make an officer less of a contributing member to their agency or a less capable supervisor. If we changed the narrative and saw administrative assignments as opportunities, perhaps the stigma would change.

Working in other areas of an agency provides perspective; with perspective comes insight. It provides the ability to see the entire field of play. Also, serving in other areas of the department provides the opportunity to look behind the curtain and see how the agency functions. These insights help make stronger leaders.

Investigating Opportunities

During my own career, when I had been working for the agency for approximately 12 years and a sergeant for the previous four, I decided to pursue an investigative supervisor position. I was ready to try something new and wanted to diversify my skillset. An opportunity arose and I asked to meet with the investigative section captain. During our meeting, I explained how I believed I would be valuable to the investigative unit and shared the skills and experience I possessed. He then commented that perhaps I wasn’t ready – after all, I hadn’t actually spent much time in patrol.

I was quite surprised to hear this comment from a captain whom I had never had the opportunity to work for up to that point in my career. Additionally, what he was saying was not accurate, and I doubt he had taken the time to review my personnel file to see where I had worked during the previous 12 years or what the quality of my work performance had been during my tenure. I politely corrected him and finished our discussion. Needless to say, I was not selected for that particular investigative assignment, but I did eventually get selected for a different one. However, his comments certainly made me realize that perception is reality. Also, I found myself wondering how many other women in law enforcement had similar experiences.

Women Face Unique Challenges

Law enforcement is a paramilitary profession. It involves shift work, working weekends and holidays, call-outs and overtime. The schedule can be unforgiving. We have all faced the difficulties of balancing work and family, missed birthdays and anniversaries, and juggling the simple stuff like school pickups. However, for many women, those challenges are exponentially more difficult because they are still the ones who take on more of the household responsibilities while men spend more time on paid work and leisure activities.

In a male-dominated profession like policing, women face increased challenges when attempting to balance work and family responsibilities. This is especially true when male supervisors project their own household experiences onto their female employees, creating greater expectations for women both at work and at home.

If a female officer decides to leave patrol (and therefore, leave shift work) to take an administrative assignment because the work hours make it easier to care for her family and small children, is she a less capable officer? What if, a few years later, that same officer decides to participate in a promotional process for supervisor? Based on my experience, there are often other officers, sergeants and commanders – both men and women – who question her capabilities. It is time we recognize that a culture that fosters this attitude is one where women will always struggle to successfully promote.

Whining and Dining

Like so many others in law enforcement, I went through a divorce. At the time, I had three young children who were all active in sports, which made balancing work life and home life challenging. I had recently been promoted to lieutenant and was working in an administrative assignment. One afternoon, my supervisor told me that if I needed to, I was welcome to take work home. After the kids went to bed, he told me, I could “have a glass of wine and get some additional work done.” While he may have thought the comment was helpful, it felt like a punch in the gut to me.

He had no idea what my evenings looked like at the time. The truth is, they were as far from “relaxing with a glass of wine” as anyone could get. We were eating today’s dinner, which I’d cooked at 11:00 the night before, out of Tupperware in the car on the way to the soccer field. And, when I got back home, got the kids showered, helped them finish homework, changed out of my work clothes and prepared tomorrow night’s dinner, it was finally time to go to bed just to get up the next day to wash, rinse and repeat.

While we all have struggles, women – especially single moms, but also those who are doing more than their share of the work at home – face different challenges that frequently go unrecognized.

How Women Treat Each Other

As a new female officer with just over one year on the department, I was asked by my patrol division captain to leave my patrol squad and move to a semi-patrol tactical squad assigned to address various patrol divisional quality-of-life issues. I turned him down, believing I needed more time in my patrol assignment to develop the skills necessary for a successful career moving forward. I also knew that, as a woman, I would be judged for leaving patrol “early” for an assignment that usually required a minimum of three years in patrol. I did not regret my decision. I still don’t.

A couple of years later, when I finally had enough time under my belt, a position in the same squad came open. This time, I decided I was ready for the challenge. Anyone interested was asked to submit a memo of interest. I decided to throw my hat into the ring, as did another female officer with less tenure than me. Prior to submitting my memo, I asked my then-sergeant, another woman, to review my memo and provide me feedback. She read through what I had written and told me it looked good. I submitted it feeling confident that with my tenure, and having been previously asked by the captain to move to the squad, I was a shoo-in. Imagine my surprise when I was not ultimately selected.

When I asked the captain for feedback as to why I was not chosen, he told me that my memo was severely lacking. What I didn’t know at the time – and what my sergeant failed to share with me – was that a memo of interest is supposed to be a written resume detailing your experience and qualifications. I felt as though my sergeant had sabotaged me by failing to provide me with the constructive critique I needed when she reviewed my memo draft.

How Women Should Treat Each Other

While I have been the target of poor behavior, I have also behaved poorly. Many years later, I was in the testing process for lieutenant. When the day arrived for our assessment center, I showed up in a new suit. I mean, who doesn’t want to look good and feel good when trying to present their best self when being evaluated for a possible promotion? Also in the testing process was another female sergeant. For much of my career, I must admit that I was never a fan of hers. Through the grapevine of police gossip, I had heard many disparaging things about her reputation and performance as a cop. I think we have all known someone whose reputation preceded them in this way.

Now imagine me on assessment center day, standing tall and confident in my new suit. Several of us were standing in a room waiting for our next scenario when this sergeant approached me. Apparently, in my excitement preparing for the assessment center, I had failed to cut the tack stitching off my suit. While this could be considered an insignificant detail, in my mind, it was huge. Here was a woman – who at the time I would not have considered a friend – not only telling me my tack stitching was still in place but also cutting it for me to help prevent me from looking like an idiot. There were people there that day who I considered friends and they either didn’t notice or chose not to say anything. Instead, she literally straightened my proverbial crown.

My opinion of her was forever changed. I have never forgotten that moment or the lesson it taught me. I should have never judged her based only on what I had heard about her. Rather, I should have formed my own opinion based on my own experiences.

Neither of us passed that assessment center (that is a story for another time), but I did successfully promote to lieutenant a few years later. She remained a sergeant and toward the end of my career, I had the pleasure of being her boss. She was an outstanding supervisor and had many strengths I had previously failed to acknowledge. What I realized is if we spend all our time focusing on each other’s flaws, that is all that we will see. Instead, we must focus on each other’s strengths and seek opportunities to help each other find success. Unfortunately, we all too often focus on what each of us does wrong rather than focusing on what we do well.

Mutual Support

As women, we expect other women to be supportive and understanding. In law enforcement, it can be quite the opposite. We tend to be judgmental of other women, especially those who may not have the greatest reputation since we must work harder to establish ourselves and our reputation as competent officers. We can also see each other as competition for the few spots “they” are going to give to us instead of to the men. However, this pervasive attitude must change if we truly expect to increase the number of women within law enforcement agencies and in leadership positions within those agencies.

I was fortunate to find an organization that promotes women in law enforcement, the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives (NAWLEE). Through that organization, I met some of the most incredible, smart, talented and supportive women in my career. Find your tribe or build your own. At the end of the day, as women in law enforcement, we share the responsibility of helping to create a supportive culture for our female peers within the policing profession. If we don’t, why would anyone else?

If your people are your most valuable recruiting tool, you should probably know what they’re saying about the culture of the profession. If they are sharing stories similar to those I shared above, then your chances of recruiting more women are likely diminished. If you think my experiences are an anomaly, take some time to review the Police Executive Research Forum’s (PERF) recent report on Women in Police Leadership as it provides some valuable insights. With a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion within law enforcement, agencies should not just focus on their communities, but also focus on their largest asset: their people.

NEXT: Why America needs more women leaders

About the author
Jenn Moss is a retired lieutenant from the Tucson Police Department in Arizona. She has over 21 years of experience in law enforcement and has served in patrol, investigations, emergency management, training and professional standards. She is a graduate of the Police Executive Research Forum’s Senior Management Institute for Police and holds a bachelor’s degree in public administration with an emphasis in criminal justice as well as a master’s in public administration, both from the University of Arizona. Jen now works as a content marketing specialist for Lexipol.