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In the Wind

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Breaking and Entering the Thick Blue Line ~ Where is the
Women's Movement?

Having exhausted judicial avenues to try and save her career, ex-police officer Debra Hartley is exasperated, tired, and miffed; but she's nowhere near giving up! On July 3, 2009, she set out on foot from her home in northern Pennsylvania to walk 225 miles to the White House. Debra couldn't win justice for herself, so she's trekking the distance to spotlight the rampant sex discrimination in law enforcement that dooms the careers of so many other good female police officers, and robs our communities of the immense benefits women bring to policing.  Contact and Support Debra Hartley at dlh304@psu.edu 

Two decades of research makes clear, female officers have dramatically lower rates of excessive use of force and citizen complaints than do male officers. Female officers are also better at de-escalating volatile situations, at handling cases of violence against women, and in carrying out the goals of community policing. In short, female officers overall bring with them exactly the improvements that so many communities across the country say they are seeking in their police forces. (See links at end of article.)  

Yet despite the proven benefits, and despite the fact that ever more women are entering policing, the nationwide percentage of women in policing is actually going down, from a mere 14% females in the year 2000 to 12% today. The pattern is disheartening. Women get hired on, chewed up, and spit out in what Debra Hartley so aptly refers to as "the revolving door". Studies also provide a window on the problem. The number one on-the-job stress for female officers, studies show, is not the criminals, nor the rigors of the work. It's the attitudes of the male officers.  

 It's Not Working Anywhere

Here on the west coast, frustrated by years of our own attempts to increase the number of women in our local Sonoma County police departments, we cheer Debra on.  For the last 15 years, we have gathered statistics, launched over a dozen lawsuits, put together task forces, made the rounds of city councils meetings, organized protests, gathered thousands of signatures, flown in police experts from across the country, held town hall meetings....and look!  

By our most recent tally in November, 2008, out of a total of 666 officers on our ten local police forces here in progressive Sonoma County, there are only 8% female officers, a mere couple of percentage points gain since starting our push 15 years ago. Worse, there are only a total of 7 female officers in the ten departments who hold the rank of sergeant or above. Worst of all, as of the same November tally, only five percent of the upcoming cadets in our local police academy are female.  

Whether going at it from the inside, as Debra Hartley and so many other female officers have done, or hammering at it from the outside, as we have, it's not working. If anything, male control of police powers in our country is being consolidated.  

So here are a couple of our thoughts as to why it's not working and what we all can do about it.  

Most people make a gross underestimation of the force needed to bring about change in law enforcement. Unlike many other professions that have seen a slow, but steady, softening of barriers, and corresponding gains for women, law enforcement has remained an insular haven of hyper male culture trending more toward digging in their heels and galvanizing forces to drive women out. A revealing 2003 study by the National Center for Women in Policing found that the major gains for women in policing often come only under court ordered consent decrees resulting from lawsuits. Most disturbingly, the study further found that once the time period of those decrees has lapsed, there is a swift erosion of progress and a rapid wholesale loss of female officers.  

The details of individual women officers' lawsuits add to this picture, showing time and again that the top brass, right up to the chiefs, are often actively involved in driving women out. Once a women complains about discrimination, male officers often join together up the ranks in retaliating against her. There is also a sickening, but very common pattern of perpetrator officers being promoted rather than being punished. Much as it happened in Debra's case.  

This entrenched unwillingness of police to change with the times and open the doors, despite a steady barrage of lawsuits, means a whole lot more pressure needs to be coming from the outside -and not just in a couple of counties, nor with just one woman walking.  

So Where is the Women's Movement?  

The women's movement, most notably the violence-against-women arm of the women's movement, has been conspicuously absent from the fight. In fact, it's shown a decided antipathy for the task. There are a couple noteworthy exceptions. The National Center for Women in Policing, for example, in the late 1990's and early 2000's was making monumental strides to promote women in policing. But even their efforts have waned in recent years.  

There are any number of reasons why women's groups have shied away from this fight, some more obvious than others. The willingness of police to abuse their enormous powers to retaliate against any group that challenges their status quo is well known - and daunting. Indeed, police agencies have succeeded in crushing a number of women's crisis centers that dared to criticize law enforcement practices. Unless a group is seriously focused on the task, with strategy and resources sufficient to match the inevitable powerful police back-attacks, not too many organizations can withstand the blows.  

Another reason there is so little focus on increasing the number of women in policing is that people in general, including women's groups, don't realize just how critical improved, non-sexist policing is to obtaining women's freedom. The women's movement has done a phenomenal job of passing a full spectrum of legislation to deal with violence against women. But there's a hugely mistaken belief that once a law is passed, police automatically have to enforce it. The reality is that police have enormous discretionary powers in deciding which crimes to treat seriously and which to ignore.  

The reality is, despite police rhetoric, their sexism in enforcement decisions prevails. Far too many police choose to ignore, disregard, under-investigate, and, in any other of a hundred ways, blow off victims of violence against women, and blow off the laws that were passed to protect women.  If police can't even work with female officers, imagine how they treat the victims of violence against women, especially when it's up to the individual officer's discretion.  

With rigidly male dominated police forces standing as the arbitrary gatekeepers to so many women's safety, justice, and freedom, breaking up this patriarchal stronghold should be at the top of women's agendas. 

Follow the Money

But alas, there is one other little discussed, but significant reason that the women's movement has neglected this critical task. To understand it, one need only heed the maxim, 'follow the money'.  

In 1994, when the federal Violence Against Women Act infused the system with big money, as so often happens, it all came with some sinister strings attached. In the beginning, in order to obtain a share of this money, rape and domestic violence centers in most states had to show evidence of their cooperation with their local law enforcement. Usually this was carried out by requiring that the women's centers obtain signatures from their local police chiefs and DA's on a 'memorandum of understanding' between the law enforcement agency and the women's center.  

And, voila! Just that fast, police and district attorneys had effective veto power over the violence-against-women movement's core funding. All police had to do was refuse to sign, or threaten to refuse to sign. or put conditions on signing, and women's centers either fell in line or they fell. Since then, things have only gone from bad to worse.  

Over the last 15 years, rape and domestic violence centers have become increasingly entangled in contractual relationships with law enforcement; such as having advocates' offices in the police department, obtaining grants together, interweaving all manner of policies, programs,and finances. Along with some obvious benefits for victims, the downside has been just as predictable. The U.S. violence against women movement has become increasingly embedded in the very institutions we most need to change. The feminist rape and domestic violence centers of yesterday have become morphed into the quasi governmental service agencies of today. The leading edge of the struggle to change law enforcement and end violence against women has been blunted. The once vibrant feminist violence-against-women movement has been reduced to endlessly mopping up the human debris left in the patriarchy's wake.    

It's All Doable

The tasks ahead for fully integrating women into law enforcement are fairly clear and they're all do-able. Police sex/race statistics need to be monitored up into the ranks and down into the academies - and publicized. Police recruitment tactics need to be challenged, as do hiring, retention, and promotion practices. Communities need to be educated to the importance and benefits of women in policing. Other social justice and police watchdog groups need to be joined in the task. Women activists have to revamp their toolboxes. And individual female officers have to be supported.  

It is all do-able. But, before any of it can make real headway, we need to re-invent an independent, feminist, violence-against-women movement that can stand the fight. This doesn't mean dismantling the service organizations we have now. But it does mean directing  considerable effort to fomenting independent women's groups to the task.  

We also need a women's movement overall that puts the goal of increasing women in law enforcement on their national agendas. Police power and culture are too powerful and galvanized for individual groups to succeed in isolated efforts. But even igniting a national focus on the issue is unlikely to happen unless the violence-against-women movement takes the lead.  

Contact Debra Hartley at dlh304@psu.edu

Meanwhile, too many women's pleas for help are being met by hostile, sexist police officers who know they can turn their backs and get away with it. And ex-police officer Debra Hartley, who we desperately need back on the job, is walking alone to the White House. "I'm hoping that doing something remarkable like this" says Debra, "We can draw enough attention to this problem, and get people talking and involved, and get enough media interest in the issue, to get some policies changed."  

Clearly, Debra Hartley cannot, and should not, be doing it alone. For a powerful first step, contact Debra and offer any support you can give at dlh304@psu.edu.

National Center for Women in Policing Studies and Publications
More Women in Policing Articles, Stats and Lawsuit Documents

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Women's Justice Center,


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