Women in Policing

Think about the officers involved in some of the recent high-profile incidents involving police use of excessive force. The officers involved in George Floyd’s death were Derek Chauvin, Alexander Keung, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thao. The officers involved in Tyre Nichols’s death were Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin, Desmond Mills, and Justin Smith. Walter Scott was shot by Michael Slager. These officers vary in age, race, and education. But they have one thing in common: they’re all men.

There aren’t many women in policing. At one level, it is not surprising that most officers involved in highly publicized use of force incidents are male, because most officers are male, period. Only about 13% of all law enforcement officers in the United States are female, according to this article by the Pew Trusts. 2018 data from the United States Department of Justice pegs the figure at 12.6%. There are plenty of reasons for that, including a history of male prevalence in the profession, personal appearance and grooming requirements that deter female candidates, the perception that policing is a physical job, and scheduling practices that may not be family-friendly.

Of course, those barriers can be overcome, and some agencies have more female officers than others. As evidence of what is possible, in the United Kingdom, the Home Office reports that 35% of police officers are female, including over 42% of recent recruits.

Female officers police differently. Each officer is an individual with his or her own approach to the job and way of dealing with people. But on balance, female officers seem to police differently from male officers. (The same point could be made in other professions. For example, female doctors seem to practice differently from male doctors.)

One salient difference is that female police officers appear to use force less often. There is a good deal of research on this point over the past couple of decades:

  • 2005 study: “The findings suggest that female officers . . . generally use less force in police-citizen encounters than do their male counterparts. . . . Overall, the findings support the original assertions that women and men perform policing duties differently and that hiring more women as police officers may help to reduce excessive force in some police departments.”
  • 2008 study: “Results suggested that female officers and same-gender female-female officer pairs used less force, and were less likely to use physical force, in police-citizen encounters when compared to their male counterparts.”
  • 2015 analysis: “[O]f the force cases OIG‐NYPD reviewed, 96.8% of officers involved were male while 3.2% were female. These numbers raise the specter that the gender disparity among uniformed NYPD officers has a bearing on the volume of force encounters in New York City,” given that 17% of officers were female.
  • 2018 analysis: “22 percent of [Washington, DC] officers are female, but female officers accounted for 16 percent of officers who reported using force.”
  • 2021 study: “Female officers also use less force than males, a result that holds within all racial groups.”

There are some important caveats here. These aren’t all regression analyses, and it’s possible that female officers are assigned to a different mix of duties than male officers or for other reasons are less likely to be in situations that call for the use of force. Furthermore, although reducing police use of force is a desirable goal, sometimes it is appropriate for officers to use force and agencies have many other important objectives to pursue at the same time. Finally, a few studies reach contrary conclusions, like this 2005 study that found “no statistically significant difference between male and female officers in the overall rate of force or in the rate of unarmed physical force.”

Having said all that, most studies on point suggest that female officers on average approach policing differently than male officers on average. I have also heard the view that having a critical mass of female officers changes the culture of an agency in a way that impacts how male officers work, though I have not seen quantitative research on this point.

Initiative to increase female representation. The 30×30 Initiative is “is a coalition of police leaders, researchers, and professional organizations who have joined together to advance the representation and experiences of women in policing agencies across the United States.” Its goal is for new hires at participating agencies to be 30% female by 2030. A number of agencies have signed on, including at least the following in North Carolina:

  • Chapel Hill
  • Charlotte
  • Durham
  • Elon
  • Fayetteville
  • Garner
  • New Bern
  • Raleigh

Recruiting more female officers may also be a way to address the recruitment and retention challenges that many agencies are experiencing.

Conclusion. It should go without saying that both men and women can be outstanding police officers. And having more women in the profession is not a guarantee against excessive force or any other kind of misconduct. Eric Garner was killed by Daniel Pantaleo, but the supervisor on the scene was a female sergeant who declined to intervene. One of the officers involved in falsifying the affidavit underlying the search warrant that led to Breonna Taylor’s death was a woman.

Even so, many agencies are working hard to welcome more women into their ranks. That may be partly in response to community pressures to diversify law enforcement. But it may also be driven by the evidence that female officers bring different skills and approaches to the table than their male counterparts. I encourage interested readers to check out this Washington Post article that takes a deep dive into the experience of one Nebraska department in trying to hire more women.