They’re in Command : High-Ranking LAPD, Sheriff’s Officers Say Barriers Are Falling for Females

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

They started their law enforcement careers at a time when women were second-class police officers.

Carol Painter was a secretary for Pomona with three young children when she joined the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in 1969.

“When I came on, the women wore green skirts and white blouses. We didn’t wear pants,” she said.

Jan Carlson was a secretary, too, first in private industry, then with the Los Angeles Police Commission, where she became increasingly interested in police work.


The Los Angeles Police Department would not promote female officers past “policewoman sergeant,” but Carlson already had larger ambitions when she joined the LAPD in 1968.

“In the Police Academy you write a brief biography,” she said. “I wrote that I wanted to be a lieutenant some day.”

Barriers Give Way

Today, many of the old barriers have been removed. Painter and Carlson are among the highest-ranking women law enforcement officers in Los Angeles.


One of five women captains in the Sheriff’s Department, Painter commands 150 officers and sheriff’s stations in Crescenta Valley and Altadena. As a senior captain, she earns $74,000 a year.

Carlson, the highest-ranking woman in the LAPD, is the captain in charge of 180 patrol officers in the department’s Pacific Division. Newly appointed, her salary is $63,000 a year.

They concede that women still have obstacles to overcome in law enforcement. But they believe that conditions have changed dramatically in the last two decades.

No Comparison


“There isn’t any comparison,” Carlson said. “I always felt I had to work twice as hard to be given equal credit. I’m more relaxed now, and I really don’t feel that way anymore.”

In earlier days, according to Painter, some women “came on rather strong,” adding to the problems they already faced. Both men and women officers, she said, have become less competitive with each other.

“The woman who doesn’t make it most probably did not take seriously what people told them about the job, and wasn’t prepared to have the job come first most of the time,” she said.

“The ones who will make it--male and female--come in with a realistic approach that this is a not-nice job. . . . If they are doing this job just for the money, forget it. There isn’t enough money in the world to pay you for this.”


Painter’s office at the sheriff’s substation in the Crescenta Valley has a soft look. There’s a picture of a panda, some teddy bears, flowers and plants.

The feminine touches are deliberate--a reminder that there are differences between men and women, even those in command positions with the Sheriff’s Department.

“One of the good things about the Sheriff’s Department is that we have been able to retain femininity,” Painter said. “I’m a woman. I can’t be like the men. There is a difference in style. As corny as it sounds, it’s OK to hug.”

Painter, 51, does a lot of hugging on the job. Over the years, she has done some brawling, too. She estimates that she has been in more than 100 fights.


Like all new deputies, Painter was first assigned to jail duty, one of the guards at the Sybil Brand Institute for women.

“I was on the job about three weeks,” she said. “I nicely told one of the women to move to another area. She turned around and hit me in the face.”

Painter, who is 5 feet, 9 inches and weighs 154 pounds, won that fight and all the others in which she has been involved.

Painful Moments


“I have knees that will never be the same,” she said. “There are times when you’re down on the floor, you think, ‘What’s a nice girl from Claremont doing in a place like this?’ ”

The toughest part of her job today, however, does not involve fighting. Painter’s most painful moments are when officers are hurt or killed.

“People aren’t supposed to get killed. It’s the knowledge that they will that just wears you down. You have to keep your head up. You cannot cry,” she said. “That’s the fear for all of us--seeing a pair of big black boots on a gurney.”

When Painter joined the Sheriff’s Department, she was in a failing marriage with three sons, ages 3, 6 and 8. The marriage lasted three more years and Painter, who has since remarried, said the stress of her job was a factor in the divorce.


Painter’s second husband, Jim Painter, is also with the Sheriff’s Department and is now a division chief. She is especially proud that two of her three sons have also joined the department as deputies.

“They had every reason to resent the department,” she said. “It took a lot of hours away from them.”

After three years at Sybil Brand, Painter was assigned to a juvenile diversion program, then became involved in starting the Sheriff’s Department’s first child-abuse unit.

Her life was divided between taking care of her own young children--"going for hamburgers just to survive, not for fun"--and investigating cases of brutality against others.


“I have to tell you this: When I worked child abuse, I didn’t realize the toll it took until a few years ago when there were some kids screaming in the room next door and it all came back to me, the hopelessness and the heartache,” Painter said.

Bleed for Victims

“Broken bodies. Burned bodies. And people will report the next-door neighbor beating their dog before they will report beating a child. . . . You can feel good about yourself in terms of how you treat the victims. But you just bleed for them.”

Painter stayed with the child-abuse unit until 1981, when she was promoted to lieutenant. She spent a few months as a patrol officer and some time as a watch commander in Altadena before she was promoted to captain in 1987.


Looking back on her career, Painter conceded that there were times when she believed that she was a target of sexual discrimination.

“I can remember when I went through the academy, the training staff gives you a bad time. The women in my day went for seven weeks and the men for 16 because we couldn’t work patrol at the time,” she said. “It’s better now. We were the transitional group.

“All of the women had things that hurt, but you just kept marching,” Painter said. “I had a captain once who said any woman who makes it has to work twice as hard. When I first came to Altadena as a lieutenant, another (officer) said, ‘Oh, I thought we had a real lieutenant coming on.’ ”

Today, Painter said, opportunities for women in law enforcement have improved dramatically. The qualities required for success, in her view, are essentially the same for both men and women.


“If you come on because you really want to be a good police officer, that badge is the mistress,” she said. “We do live and breathe this job. The same dedication is required whether you are male or female.”

Jan Carlson joined the LAPD 20 years ago as one of 100 women who were confined largely to desk jobs or to work as juvenile officers.

“When I came on, our class wanted to work patrol, but they wouldn’t let us,” she said. “Back then, you could only promote if there was a spot open for a woman.”

Like many women officers, Carlson started out working sex crimes and child-abuse cases. The assignment lasted longer than she hoped.


“One time that was very frustrating was when we were going to team policing. I was working sex crimes and wanted to work robbery,” she said. “I was told I couldn’t because I was a woman. I remember getting angry. But I accepted it.”

In 1980, conditions for LAPD’s female officers changed dramatically as the result of a consent decree ordering the department to open promotional opportunities and move toward a hiring goal of 25% for women.

“I don’t like consent decrees,” Carlson said. “I think you can accomplish the same thing in other fashions. It throws a negativism into the department.”

Change Accelerated


Nonetheless, the consent decree accelerated change within the LAPD. In Carlson’s view, there has been equal change in recent years in the women who seek police careers.

“Women today have generally changed,” she said. “They are more athletic and we might be getting more of a career-minded person--one who aspires to high ranks. A lot of women are more assertive and aggressive, a little more adventurous.”

Not until the mid-1970s did men and women officers begin to work patrol together in the LAPD. Carlson worked patrol in Watts briefly, and now commands all LAPD patrol units from Venice to Los Angeles International Airport.

In her view, the years have proven that there is little difference in the way men and women officers handle themselves in the field.


“I think you still have people who will never change their minds about women officers, but there is no comparison in the attitude today compared to a decade ago,” she said. “As far as patrol goes, the whole thing gets down to good tactics.

“If you stop a car of gang members, it shouldn’t matter if you have two male officers or two female officers,” she added. “The tactics are the same.”

While Carlson is now the LAPD’s only woman captain, there have been two others in the department’s history. Carlson believes that there will be a woman deputy chief within the next 10 years.

“Women have reached the stage in law enforcement where we really do compete equally,” Carlson said. “I think this is a fantastic career.”


The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department today has 6,099 male officers and 794 female officers, who make up 11.5% of the department’s sworn personnel.

Of 54 captains, five are women. Of 270 lieutenants, 11 are women. Of 852 sergeants, 63 are women.

Among the 21 commanders, eight division chiefs, two assistant sheriffs and one sheriff, none are women.

“Historically we had one woman captain in command of the women’s jail,” said Duane Preimsberger, the department’s administrative chief. “The opportunity for women to advance has opened enormously in the last 10 years.


“I think with the next commander’s exam in 1990 we have some quality lady commanders in top positions,” Preimsberger added. “The future of women in management is unlimited.”

LAPD Is 11% Women

Among the 7,675 officers of the LAPD, there are 840 women today. They make up 11% of the department’s total force.

Of 66 captains, there is one woman. Of 322 lieutenants, five are women. Of 1,245 detectives, 67 are women.


There are no women among the LAPD’s 17 commanders, five deputy chiefs, three assistant chiefs and one chief.

“If we hadn’t had retirements by some women, we could have had a deputy chief by now,” said Cmdr. William Booth, the department’s chief spokesman. “It’s very clear to everyone now that there are no barriers at all for females. I don’t think there’s any risk to predict that in the next four to six years there will be a woman commander.

“How long before a woman chief? I think that will happen. But I don’t know when.”