Could more female police lead to safer communities?

Slain Orlando officer was community activist
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Story highlights

  • Women make up just 13% of the police force in the US, according to the National Center for Women and Policing
  • On average, female police officers are less likely to face excessive force complaints than male officers

Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv.

(CNN)Vera Bumpers, the first female chief and first African-American chief of Houston's Metro Police Department, remembers one of the first calls she went on shortly after joining the force right out of college.

An irate passenger on a bus was threatening people. Bumpers, who has been in law enforcement for close to 40 years, was the first one to respond. When she arrived on the scene, she approached the door and saw people exiting the bus.
"From where I could see, he looked like he was about 7 feet tall. Of course, I'm 5-foot-2," she said. The bus driver took notice of that size disparity and told Bumpers, "You are going to get your ass whooped."
    Bumpers proceeded to enter the bus while the man continued cursing her and acting like he was on something, she said. "I just started to talk to him and I said, 'You appear to be upset about something. I think we can work through this.' As I talked, he started to calm down and in my mind, I'm thinking, 'Where is backup? Where is backup?' "
    The man, who didn't have a weapon in his hands, eventually walked off the bus with her. By the time her backup finally arrived, she had him in handcuffs.
    "And the guys are like, 'Wow, how did you (do it?)' " she said. "I think that is one of the times where I saw the importance of how you respond verbally to a situation without using any of the tools on your belt, especially when the person doesn't have any weapon in their hand. ... When it's those situations that you have to use your verbal skills to de-escalate a situation. ... I think women are excellent at that."
    At a time of tension between law enforcement and civilians across the country, especially after a wave of police-involved shootings of African-American men, could more women in blue help keep the peace? Could more women on the force lead to safer communities?

    A different set of skills

    Those were some of the questions an all-female panel of law enforcement leaders, including Bumpers, took on during the recent Generation W conference in Jacksonville, Florida. The annual conference, now in its sixth year, features newsmakers from across the country tackling some of the issues women care about most.
    "Women are not being given the credit for having skills such as being strategic and good planners and being able to mediate rather than resort to physical force," said Sheriff Sadie Darnell of the Alachua County Sheriff's Office in Gainesville, Florida, and a member of the Generation W panel. "I think the numbers definitely show there's less brutality complaints when you have women more integrated with the public safety force."
    There are certainly fewer women than men on the force -- with just 13% of women in the overall police force today, according to the National Center for Women and Policing -- but there still appear to be fewer complaints against female police on average versus male police, Jay Newton-Small reports in her book "Broad Influence: How Women are Changing the Way America Works."
    An all-female law enforcement panel at a recent women's conference.
    The average male officer is 8½ times more likely to have an excessive force complaint against him than a woman, according to an analysis by the National Center for Women and Policing. (PDF) When it comes to excessive force liability lawsuits, the average male officer costs between 2½ and 5½ times more than the average female police officer. The average male officer is two to three times more likely to have been named in a citizen's excessive force complaint.
    Newton-Small, in a story for Time magazine, said that studies show women "tend to draw their weapons less, look for nonphysical solutions and are much better at community outreach."
    This doesn't mean female officers never use excessive force. A case in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last year received national attention after a white female police officer was charged in the shooting death of an unarmed black motorist. But the overwhelming majority of police-involved shootings involve men.
    When Darnell started on the force in the late 1970s, she was 5 feet 4 inches and 100 pounds. She definitely got the feeling that people around her thought she could find herself in a dangerous position more often because of her slight frame.
    What she quickly learned is she might not have the size, but she could use her emotional intelligence as one of her biggest sources of strength to avoid increasing the level of tension and violence.
    "I had to be more a mediator and someone that could find common ground," she said. "And most times, offenders like that, someone who is having a mental health crisis certainly wants that. They want someone who is going to come in and not be aggressive and violent toward them.
    "And so having more women on the force is going to help (law enforcement) be seen in a more nurturing way," she said.

    'Policing is social work at its finest'

    But getting more women to go into law enforcement remains a challenge. In 1971, women accounted for just 1.4% of all police officers. More than 40 years later, that number has only grown to 13%.
    Michelle Cook, director of patrol and enforcement for the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and a member of the Generation W panel, said one way to attract women is to reframe what law enforcement is all about.
    "Women are drawn to social work and policing is social work at its finest," said Cook. "There's no other true social work like there is in police work."
    If more women could start thinking of how they could make things better and safer by joining the force, they might be more likely to enroll, said Cook. If they started thinking of policing, working in law enforcement, as social work, they might be more attracted to the profession.
    "I think we have to frame it that way," said Cook, a mom of four who began her career riding patrol in 1992. "It makes natural sense if you just stop and think about it. I also think it's never been presented that way."
    Instead, too often, the portrayal of police work is as "run and gun and shoot 'em up, which rarely, rarely, if ever happens," said Cook. "Most of what we do day to day is just dealing with people that are having a crisis or having a challenge and then helping them get through that crisis or challenge."
    Maj. Annmarie Cardona of the North Miami Police Department, who also participated in the Generation W panel, wholeheartedly agrees. "We are our worst enemy," she said. "Any ad that you see for a law enforcement position is going to show you all the toys that we have available, the SWAT, running through the streets, jumping over fences. ... Yeah, that's part of our job, but that's not what we do every day.
    "Every day we're responding to calls and we're educating people. We're providing social services to people. That's what we do on a day-to-day basis and that's what we have to start showing the community. We're not jumping out of the helicopters every day."
    Both Cardona and Cook said dramatic changes in recruiting and marketing need to be made. Cook has been thinking about the best ways to recruit more women as she's moved up in the ranks over the last 15 years. She says she considers herself "very creative" in her recruiting style and yet nothing was changing, so she approached Jacksonville University to help redefine the best way to recruit.
    The university is now in the middle of a study, which involves interviews with young officers, she said.
    "One of the things we're learning is young people want to know about experiences, 'What am I going to get to experience if I take this job? What are the different things I can do if I take this job?' " said Cook.
    No longer are they attracted to the poster of the police officer with the shotgun, touting the starting salary, she said. "It's about telling them about all of the cool things they'll get to do ... and we've never recruited like that. We've always recruited talking about pay and benefits, a take-home car and you get a uniform. What we're learning is that doesn't matter to young people, so we have to take a step back and really rethink how we recruit to the millennial generation and what they want to know about this job to get them to come into the door."

    Shunned by male officers

    The challenges of joining a profession that remains overwhelmingly male is another big obstacle to overcome, female law enforcement leaders said. Darnell said she experienced that firsthand when she started in law enforcement in 1978. She said she was shunned by male officers.
    "I had people, predominantly white males, who didn't want to sit next to me and didn't want me on their shift," she said. "They would take my lunch. They would take my gear and ... what was egregious is they refused to back me on calls. They were trying to scare me off."
    She said it was the African-American officers who started showing up on her calls because they knew what she was going through. "They had felt it. They had had that experience themselves. They knew how dangerous and hurtful that was."
    Darnell said that experience changed her as a person and as a leader in law enforcement. "I'll never let that happen. I'll never tolerate it because it's wrong and we all bring strengths to this profession if we're doing it for the right reasons and in the right way," she said.
    Having leaders with a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination will help bring more women into law enforcement, these female leaders say. So will having female leaders who mentor women coming up the ranks as they juggle child care with unpredictable work schedules.
    Bumpers, the Metro police chief in Houston and mother of two grown children, said she has had a couple of situations with new mothers who struggled with being separated from their babies. One of the women was a supervisor who worked the evening shift and wanted to switch to a day shift to be home with her child.
    Bumpers said she had to sit her down and let her know that "it can be done" and that you can have family time and still be a force in the workplace. She helped her explore options, including paying her daughter, who was living at home while she attended college and looking for a part-time job, to care for the baby during the evenings while she was at work.
    "I could not give her the shift that she wanted because I had to share with her that I have to be fair and I can't be partial because you are a mother and you have a small child," she said. "I was just able to share with her what I did as a mother on the police force and some of the options that I had and shared that information with her and she was able to see differently because she couldn't see it at first."
    Child care remains a huge obstacle, said Darnell. She wanted to implement a 24-hour day care facility at the sheriff's office 10 years ago, but then the recession hit and she hasn't been able to bring the concept forward again. "Having 24-hour child care to help recruit women ... would be a tremendous asset and a tremendous benefit to offer," she said.
    What's also necessary, these female law enforcement leaders said, is being transparent and candid about the mental and emotional impact working in law enforcement will have on your private life.
    "Whether you're a single woman who ends up getting married down the line or whether you come into this job as a married woman, it's going to impact your personal life and you need to be prepared for that," said Cardona, of the North Miami Police Department, who said she has been married and divorced during her police career.
    "You need to realize that there's support out there, professionals that you can talk to that can help you along the way," she said. "That's going to be an added challenge that first you didn't even think about."
    Darnell called it "fighting the demons," based on what women in law enforcement are exposed to and sometimes how they are treated. "It does create a situation that is emotionally and psychologically damaging that we do need to talk about and be up-front about."
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    Bumpers, the Houston Metro police chief, said she experienced the challenges, both as a single parent and then when she married someone in law enforcement.
    "It's important that we're transparent and women coming into this profession understand that you have to find a way to balance and still take care of yourself because you're giving at work, you're giving to your spouse and then you're giving to your children," said Cook.
    "You're giving, giving, giving and you have to find a way to take care of yourself, because when you go down, nobody is replenishing you, so it's important to understand the balance and taking care of yourself mentally and physically and spiritually."