Policewomen’s Battle to Serve and Protect
The LAPD was already in its fourth decade of existence when it was forced by city ordinance to accept its first woman--one only--as a sworn officer in 1910.
It would be six decades and then some before women in blue were finally issued holsters for the guns they had been carrying in purses, and badges that called them police officers instead of policewomen.
Male officers called them a “necessary evil.” They were assigned to clerical work, switchboards, women’s jail wards and juvenile and sex crime cases--period.
Perhaps most outrageously, they were, in 1972, judged for their looks in a “Miss Fuzz” hot pants beauty contest sponsored by the union devoted to police welfare.
In 1910, when Los Angeles had a force of 250 officers, Alice Stebbins Wells, a Pentecostal minister from the Midwest, became the nation’s first sworn policewoman. She got the job only after lobbying for a city ordinance that created her unique position on the force.
If Wells was seeking guns and glory, she got none, even though her beat was livelier than that of the police matrons. She was issued a first aid book and a badge and assigned to enforce laws on loitering at dance halls, skating rinks, penny arcades and picture shows.
There were still only four policewomen in 1914 when the LAPD organized the world’s first juvenile crime prevention program and called it the City Mother’s Bureau. The city mother was Aletha Gilbert, appointed to counsel children and elicit confessions--sympathetically--from young criminals. It wasn’t until 1963 that the City Mother’s Bureau was disbanded, with its duties taken over by new social welfare agencies.
Only months before 15% of the police force would begin enlisting for World War I, Georgia Ann Robinson, 37, set aside her civic work to volunteer for the LAPD in 1916; she became the city’s first black policewoman three years later when she was hired as a jail matron. Before her retirement in 1928, she worked on juvenile and homicide cases.
In 1925, five years after the nation’s women got the vote, Police Chief R. Lee Heath decided it was time to expand the training for the city’s policewomen. He wanted them to become “quick on the draw and to shoot straight"--not an easy task when their department-issue .45-caliber revolvers were tucked inside their purses, as ordered.
Out on the shooting range, “jail matrons” whose duties had been confined to monitoring female suspects had to compete with policewomen from the juvenile crime prevention department--the only two police duties women were allowed to undertake.
When the gun smoke cleared, Stella Wallen had scored 75 out of 100, and the competition became an annual event. In 1937, Mable “Dee” Stevens--wearing the white nurse-style uniform the department ordered for its 39 policewomen--won the competition.
When her scores were compared to those of the top male contestants, Mable Stevens had outpointed them too and was declared an arms expert.
As World War II pulled men out of the force, five women aviators, among them the legendary Bobbie Trout, were issued badges and hired “for the duration” to fly air support above the City of Angels.
The war ended in 1945, the same year the “policewoman sergeant” rank was created. A year later, 20 women--still in civilian dresses; a woman’s police uniform wouldn’t appear until 1947--posed for photos as the first all-female graduating class of the Police Academy.
In their semi-military uniforms--skirts and high heels, and purses serving as holsters--policewomen were finally assigned to radio cars and night-watch foot beats.
But their new assignments were short-lived. After acting Police Chief Joseph Reed read in the paper how two officers (male and female) were caught out of uniform and in flagrante in a police car, he decided this “unseemly and foolish” behavior would cease.
It did--because he took every policewoman--but not any men--off patrol. It would be almost three more decades before male and female officers were allowed to work together again.
In 1972, still unable to protect, only to serve, more than a dozen female officers changed their uniform skirts for hot pants and paraded before a table of judges by a hotel pool for the title of “Miss Fuzz.”
(A newspaper story, which listed the winner’s measurements, called the beauty pageant “an arresting sight.”) The contest was sponsored by the Los Angeles Police Protective League, both to humanize female officers, it said, and to promote a movie.
One year later--and perhaps because of such stunts as “Miss Fuzz"--women in the LAPD had had enough. Women could not be promoted beyond sergeant or take on “full duties” of street patrol. Police Chief Ed Davis said he didn’t think the department needed them, and that he would hire a female police officer when the Los Angeles Rams hired a female linebacker.
But the LAPD already had its own linebacker in the making.
A 1973 sex discrimination lawsuit filed by 23-year veteran Fanchon Blake evolved seven years later into two historic consent decrees ordering the LAPD to recruit more women and minorities for “full-duty” policing, and lowered women’s height standard by two inches, to 5 feet, 6 inches.
Even before the consent decrees, the City Council had ordered Davis to open up higher ranks to women, and to hire more women.
Davis called his solution “unisex”: All LAPD cops were henceforth referred to as “officers.”
Patricia Berry was the first to take up Davis’ offer; she graduated with four new female recruits. In 1975, Connie Speck became the first female lieutenant, scoring the highest of all 285 applicants. By 1980 she was the LAPD’s first female captain.
Behind every Speck and Betty Kelepecz--the LAPD’s first woman commander, in 1997--are generations of trailblazing female officers, and a few Mark Fuhrmans, whose attitudes and resistance the Christopher Commission and Police Commission are committed to change.