L.A. County has seven female police chiefs. They’ve brought different skills — and set an all-time high

Over three decades, Jacqueline Seabrooks rose through the ranks to become chief of the Santa Monica Police Department.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Lisa Rosales met Spooky in the 1980s when she was a 25-year-old police officer in Pasadena.

He was a shy teenager, a gang member with a shaved head who always wore a white tank top and blue jeans.

At first he and the other gang members were suspicious of Rosales; they would run away when she approached and were hesitant to talk.

But Rosales, who grew up in a tough Highland Park neighborhood, was interested in their lives — and took a particular interest in Spooky. She wanted to learn about gang affiliations in the area, but her approach was non-confrontational; they chatted about things they had in common.


“I knew that they respected their mothers and grandmothers, so I told them to be protective of them. I shared stuff about my family and upbringing in a pretty rough area, and it broke barriers. They took an interest in my life,” Rosales said.

Rosales became a police officer at a time when few women joined law enforcement. And while her unorthodox policing style might have raised eyebrows, she rose through the ranks to become chief of the Glendora Police Department.

Rosales is one of seven female police chiefs in Los Angeles County, an all-time high. Women lead departments in Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Claremont, Hermosa Beach, Alhambra and Manhattan Beach.

Several of the chiefs gathered recently at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy for a panel discussion on female leaders in law enforcement.

Amid the growing national debate over aggressive policing tactics, the presence of women in high ranks of law enforcement raises the question for many of whether their perspectives and experiences might lead to reforms in police culture.

Clockwise from left, Hermosa Beach police chief Sharon Papa, Claremont police chief Shelly Vander Even, Glendora police chief Lisa Rosales, Beverly Hills police chief Sandra Spagnoli, Alhambra police chief Jackie Gomez-Whiteley and Manhattan Beach police chief Eve Irvine.
(USC Price School of Publice Policy)

While there’s no scholarly consensus that female police officers hold a different philosophy on policing than men, evidence suggests that diversifying leadership could improve policing tactics and community relations by exposing police officers to different viewpoints, said David Sklansky, a law professor at Stanford University.

“Female police chiefs bring more than their gender,” he said. “Policing was and in many ways is held back by a culture of insularity and machismo, and diversity brings new and more creative thinking about what policing should look like.”

Sklansky’s research has found that women bring to the table different problem-solving tactics in cases involving domestic violence, excessive force and race relations.

Rosales said her style of policing encompasses listening, empathy and patience — qualities she said have helped de-escalate potentially volatile situations.

“I love to talk to people, and that has helped my career,” she said.

Sharon Papa was sworn in as chief of the Hermosa Beach department in 2013. She learned as a young officer in the late 1970s that her presence and that of other women helped change the culture within the force.

“If you have a male-dominated culture, they will say anything about women because no one is in the room to hold them accountable. It will go away quickly if you introduce women to the mix,” she said.

As a young officer in the Los Angeles Police Department, she found that her male counterparts frequently made comments about working with a woman.

“They would tell me, ‘I’m not going to work with a female officer,’ and I would respond and say ‘Well, it’s not up to you,’” she said.

Papa oversees 40 police officers. When issues arise in the community, she encourages them not to retreat — she wants them to engage.

“I have a program where I have a map of the entire city and I tell my officers to walk every block of their area by the end of the year to get to know the community,” she said.

Like other female police chiefs in L.A. County, Papa believes that diversity in the department more accurately reflects the communities they serve, helping to build bridges to the outside community.

Police violence and race relations reached a boiling point in Los Angeles in 1992. Riots erupted across the city after a jury acquitted officers who had been captured on video beating Rodney King, who is African American.

The Christopher Commission, an independent citizens panel, was formed to examine police brutality and operations of the LAPD. A key recommendation was hiring more female officers.

Over the years, the LAPD has tried to recruit diverse pools of applicants, including women, according to the department. Its goal is to have women represent at least 20 percent of its 9,900 sworn officers; however, the number hovers at 18.5 percent, according to a 2016 LAPD report.

Gender diversification in police departments began to increase nationwide in the 1970s and ’80s when it was driven by affirmative action litigation, according to Sklansky, but that growth appears to have stalled in recent years.

While cities such as San Diego and Oakland have female police chiefs, gender discrimination still hampers many women from entering law enforcement and advancing.

A 2013 survey conducted by the National Assn. of Women Law Enforcement Executives found that women make up 13 percent of all officers in the U.S. Only one percent of police chiefs are female.

The first female police chief in a big city was Penny Harrington, who was appointed in 1985 to lead the Portland Police Bureau in Oregon.

When she took the reins, Harrington sought to reduce use of excessive force in her department. She offered training in stress reduction and assertiveness for her officers, she said, as other police departments focused on use of force and military tactics.

While there’s no clear correlation between gender and policing styles, Harrington and other police chiefs share a similar emphasis on community outreach.

“I met with community leaders to find out what the issues are and to work with them instead of being just focused on enforcement,” said Harrington, now 75 and retired. “I listened to people; it came natural to me.”

In 1986, Harrington resigned as police chief and a short time later filed a federal sex discrimination suit. She claimed that some members of her squad embarrassed her so that she would resign.

In Santa Monica, Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks said her experience has shown that women tend to have more patience and the ability to talk things out.

And her leadership style, she said, is a reflection of such principles. Seabrooks has encouraged her officers to have a series of conversations on race and equity with Santa Monica residents.

“You have to understand and listen to alternate perspectives,” she said.

Seabrooks said she learned early on to confront discrimination.

“People made sexual overtures and I dealt with that as a black female. I had to find my voice as a woman in a male-dominated field,” she said.

Follow me on Twitter @melissaetehad