By the time Pia Kinney James arrived as a trainee at the Madison Police Department in Wisconsin, women were no longer required to wear skirts and 2-inch heels to work. By then, they were even allowed to carry guns.
Despite the department’s advances toward diversity, James, a black woman with an Afro, said she became a target at the largely male police force in 1975.
“I had three strikes against me,” she said, listing her dark skin, gender and hairstyle -- all traits that her male training officer disliked.
Speaking at a recent Los Angeles conference for women in law enforcement, James -- now an investigator at the department -- recalled the tense, often silent hours in her training officer’s patrol car.
“You took some man’s job. How’s he supposed to support his family?” she recalled him saying.
Kinney, then a divorced mother, said, “How am I supposed to support my family?”
About 250 women, many of them high-ranking officers, gathered at the Wilshire Grand Hotel recently for a conference sponsored by the National Center of Women and Policing. Participants stressed their principal objective: increasing the number of female law enforcement officers in all ranks.
For years, police agencies have systematically kept women away, mainly by using agility tests that focus on upper-body strength, said Katherine Spillar, executive vice president of the Feminist Majority. Departments, especially those plagued with brutality complaints, have discovered that having more women is in their best interest, Spillar said.
“When women first came into policing, the concern was that we weren’t strong enough, we weren’t tough,” said Travis County, Texas, Sheriff Margo Frasier.
But as most of the women at the conference pointed out, physical strength is not essential to fighting crime.
“We’ve been learning our whole lives how to deal with things without having to resort to physical strength and physical violence,” she said. “I think the thing we most bring in is the ability to handle situations without having to ever lay hands on.”
After the 1991 Rodney G. King beating, the Christopher Commission, which investigated Los Angeles Police Department practices, reported that women officers did not employ excessive force as often as their male counterparts. Male and female officers interviewed for the report said they thought women were better skilled at defusing confrontations with suspects through verbal communication.
Mayor James K. Hahn, a guest speaker at the conference, said the LAPD has been trying to restore its reputation, which has been tainted by the high-profile beating and the Rampart Division scandal. Women, he told his audience, can help the department recover its good name.
“I think for too many years we were trying to fight the battle with one arm tied behind our back,” he said. “We weren’t taking advantage of the tremendous number of qualified women who could make that contribution to the department.”
The LAPD has increased its number of ethnic minority officers. But the number of women at the department remains disproportionately low when compared to that of men. According to department statistics, of the department’s 9,171 officers, 1,708 are female. That’s 19%. In 1980, 178 -- 2.6% -- of the 6,752 officers were women.
Of 8,670 sworn personnel at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, 1,330 or 15.34% are women, said a department official.
Police Chief William J. Bratton told conferees the LAPD plans to increase women in its ranks by 25% this year.
To do that, the LAPD will use various recruiting strategies, such as providing a more rigorous program to prepare for agility tests and offering a more flexible work schedule for women who want to spend more time with their families, Hahn said.
Bratton said showing that women working at the LAPD have moved beyond civil service jobs and into more coveted positions also can be an effective recruiting strategy.
“We are fortunate that we have a number of women in very significant positions in the department who are reflective that there are great opportunities for women,” he said.
According to department statistics, there are women captains, sergeants and detectives. There is one woman assistant chief and one commander.
Creating a welcoming environment with zero tolerance for sexual harassment and discrimination would help, said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation.
Liberal provisions for pregnancy leave also can help attract women, said Elsie Scott, director of training at the Detroit Police Department. Otherwise, at some point many career-oriented women have to choose between becoming a mother or a supervisor, she said. “Why can’t we have both?” asked Scott, who suggested offering child care at police stations.
The LAPD allows for a four-month maternity leave, plus a six- to eight-week leave granted by the state, said a department spokeswoman.
Women should learn to take positions traditionally held by men, even if it means making a few mistakes along the way, Scott said.
“We want to have a few scarred knees; we’re going to fall down few times,” she said. “We have a right to fail like males fail.”