Increasing women police recruits to 30% could help change departments' culture
At the Police Training Academy in Madison, Wis., there are 46 recruits in two groups for the class of 2022. Nikki Acker, 36, is one of nine female trainees in the group who are new to policing.
Part of their training today is how to handcuff a person. Their shoes squeak on the blue floor mats as they practice.
Acker used to be a teller at a credit union and worked in property management. She's 5'4" and never imagined being a police officer until she got a job working as a clerk in the records department.
"I guess I had in my mind the stereotype of these big guys with military backgrounds," she laughs, "and once I started learning more and getting involved in reading reports and seeing the calls, I learned that they're so much more than that."
They're often people with good communication skills, she says, problem-solving skills — and she felt that type of job was something she could do.
Despite all the controversy surrounding policing, her husband and friends encouraged her to try it.
"And if I don't, who does?" she says.
Women in policing
Women make up just 12% of the law enforcement officers in the country and 3% of police leadership. One of the efforts to increase those numbers is called the 30x30 initiative.
The program aims to have women make up 30 percent of the recruits in police training classes by 2030.
Maureen McGough, chief of staff at the Policing Project at New York University School of Law, is one of the founders of the initiative.
"It's not just about getting women in the door," she says, "but on transforming police agencies by taking a deep look at policies, procedures and culture."
Nearly 200 agencies across the country have signed onto the project. Interest surged after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the protests that followed. The Madison Police Department was one of the first to pledge its support.
The agency already has one of the highest percentages of female police officers on the job — 28% of Madison's 509 sworn police officers. That's a distinction the department emphasizes in a recruitment video.
Several decades ago, a former police chief focused on creating a more diverse police force — convinced that it would be beneficial. Other leaders stayed true to the commitment.
"There's been a lot of scrutiny of the profession, understandably and justifiably so," says Madison Asst. Police Chief Paige Valenta, the highest-ranking woman on the force.
While many agree that police departments should reflect the communities they serve, critics argue that efforts to hire women and people of color can't eliminate longstanding bias and racism in policing.
Valenta says the challenging atmosphere has made recruiting difficult throughout the country.
"It's not traditionally been a profession that's been very welcoming to women," says Valenta. "S0, I do think there's a long way to go nationally, but I do think that we have been doing a lot of good things and are way ahead of the curve in Madison."
Bringing change started small
Some changes designed to improve the experience of women in the ranks are simple, low-cost steps, says Valenta — like using inclusive language and saying "patrol officer" instead of "patrolman."
Women can wear a load-bearing vest instead of a belt full of equipment around the waist. Sgt. Theresa Magyera, who oversees recruitment and training at the Academy, says despite changes there are still barriers.
"The really difficult part of the job revolves around kids and families," Magyera says. "I was in patrol when I got pregnant, and I stayed working until I was 14 weeks pregnant."
Pregnant officers can be assigned light duty and work inside. Madison police stations also have breast-feeding rooms for officers with infants.
Magyera did not return to a patrol assignment. Instead, she landed the 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift as the Academy's training director. New recruits are often assigned to afternoons or night shifts and that makes finding daycare for children challenging. Female officers with children who work a daytime shift often don't try for promotions so they can keep their family-friendly hours. Something a male officer rarely has to contemplate.
What can also be daunting are the physical aspects of the entrance exam. For example, applicants must be able to do 15 pushups to get in the door, then 18 at the beginning of training and 23 at the end. Magyera says the training team offers help to women and men who don't pass the fitness test on the first try.
"We allow them a second-chance opportunity," Magyera says. "We give them specific exercises to help them increase their pushup count or their sit-up count and they come back and they pass it and that's a huge win for us."
On her way to answer a dispatch call, patrol officer Nicole Schmitgen chuckles as she remembers her struggle. "I was still in grad school when I applied the first time. I couldn't get my pushups."
She succeeded the second time, after other recruits and her sister helped her train.
"I'm hopeful that people, especially women, can realize that this isn't just about the physical aspect of things," she cautions. "Does it help to be fit? Absolutely. But I would say that's only 10 to 20 % of my job."
Benefits and criticism of female cops
Nearly 270,000 people live in Madison. The crime rate is lower than the rest of the country and other cities its size like Fort Wayne, Ind., and Reno Nev. In 2020, there were reports of 738 violent crimes, according to FBI data.
Officer Schmitgen patrols solo — answering 9-1-1 calls and keeping an eye out for trouble in Madison's central district around the state capital and part of the University of Wisconsin campus.
Her patrol car is a rolling office. The dispatch radio is stationed low under the dash. There's a computer and also a rifle. This is Schmitgen's second year on the job. She has a master's degree in social work and says what drew her to law enforcement was Madison's record of community policing and its high percentage of female officers.
She adds while people think policing is about guns, drugs and driving fast — it's more about communication and helping people.
Almost on cue, there's a call on the radio — a dispatcher says officers need to check for a woman at her apartment. She's known to have dementia, and a worried friend says she left a hospital.
Schmitgen types on the computer — looking for more information — and an alert with a picture of the woman pops up. At the apartment, there's no answer but later, police find the woman — safe and sound.
Schmitgen is on to the next call. The summer is a busy time, she says, and the reaction she gets as a female police officer varies.
"I've had calls where the victim is a survivor of sexual assaults and they prefer speaking to a woman and that's my purpose. That's why I'm here," she says. "And then there's where I am being catcalled, I'm being called a bitch, I'm being called everything under the sun. It comes in waves."
University of Wisconsin Law Professor Keith Findley is a member of Madison's Police Civilian Oversight Board. He says a plethora of research shows that women on the force have a positive impact on police departments and communities. He says they are often better at communicating and de-escalating tense situations.
"They are sued less frequently than male counterparts, they make fewer discretionary arrests, especially of non-white residents," Findley says. "They use force less frequently, and excessive force less frequently, than their male counterparts."
Findley says research also shows female police officers are trusted more in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, both of which are policed more heavily.
Some communities say gender doesn't always bring change
But not everyone agrees. Brandi Grayson scoffs at the idea of gender changing the culture of policing. She's the CEO of the non-profit Urban Triage, a support organization for Black residents and Black communities.
She's also been at the forefront of protests over the deaths of Black men killed by police — including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 and George Floyd in Minneapolis two years ago.
There also have been protests in Madison over fatal police shootings, including the 2015 death of Tony Robinson, a biracial man. Authorities ruled the white officer involved had used lawful deadly force.
Less than 7% of Madison's population is African-American, but Blacks made up 47 percent of those arrested during the first quarter of this year. Police records show that in the nearly 30,000 calls to police during that time, force was used in .21% or 64 of the encounters. Assistant Chief Valenta says it can be complicated to determine whether there's less force used by males or females since it's often a combination of female and male officers responding to a call.
But Grayson maintains it makes little difference if a female police officer is in a patrol car. She says institutions train people to behave in certain ways and even though Madison's police department is already 28% female, it hasn't made a dent in the deep racial disparity when it comes to arresting and incarcerating African-Americans and specifically black youth.
"Maybe, they don't yell as much, but they still arrest us. Maybe they don't shoot us, but we still get arrested, we still get ticketed," she says. "And often times, when you are part of a vulnerable population — and I say vulnerable, I mean oppressed, women are oppressed as well, right? You have to conform or you're out."
It's that allegiance "to the blue," says Grayson, that makes it impossible for the addition of more women or people of color to change policing. She considers the 30x30 initiative more public relations than a reform.
"Until we are honest about what's needed — which means defunding police and investing in people, investing in resources and opportunities and the things we know decrease community violence and decrease arrests — then what are we talking about?" she asks.
Grayson adds there may be a few instances of female police officers acting compassionately, but she says that's just not enough because there are so many other instances of Black youth and Black people being harmed by police.
Ivonne Roman, a co-founder of the 30x30 initiative, argues that the project will make change. She's a former chief of the Newark, N.J., police department, and says while it is difficult to shift the culture of policing, 30% of marginalized people in any group is a tipping point.
"(That's) where they are able to say, 'This isn't right and this is affecting us negatively,' and they don't feel there will be negative consequences associated with it."
Roman says as the 30x30 initiative grows, the influence of a critical mass of women in law enforcement will be key in redefining what policing means.
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