51% #1660: Women In Law Enforcement
On today’s 51%, I ride along on-shift with a County Sheriff’s Deputy and her K-9. And we’ll speak with a female FBI agent who tells us what not to believe on TV.
SARATOGA COUNTY SHERRIFF NIKKI VOEGLER
A Sheriff k-9 is tracking me.
Specifically, a 2-year-old German shepherd named Neeka who, although allowing me to throw her toy over and over, could rip me apart in seconds.
Neeka’s human is 31-year-old Sheriff Deputy Nikki Voegler. A native of her jurisdiction in Saratoga County, New York, Voegler says she has wanted to be in law enforcement since fourth grade. Voegler says she and her K-9 handle everything from people refusing to wear masks in a public place, to residential alarms and burglary, to threats of self-harm and mental health calls. But Voegler says her most common call is domestic violence.
“They range anywhere from a verbal domestic between, you know, a mother and a daughter, you know, all the way up to like a physical domestic between, you know, girlfriend / boyfriend or husband / wife,” Voegler said. “We get those a lot.”
She says as a woman, it’s tough to see a scared woman s wearing the bruises of abuse. But she says she feels empathy for both parties.
“I think a female presence on a domestic scene is great,” Voegler said. “Not only for the fact of helping the victim, or the female, who's on site, they're more comfortable talking to us. But also, if a male is being aggressive towards male deputies, sometimes me just walking in will kind of bring that down a little bit, whether it's, you know, they think of their mom or their daughter or whatever. You know, I think it makes a difference.”
According to the FBI’s census on full-time law enforcement employees, about 12% of law enforcement officers in 2017 were female.
In the era of Black Lives Matter and national movements to reimagine policing, one of the greatest issues between communities and those in law enforcement is trust. Voegler says women have something to offer that maybe some men in uniform are lacking in the moment: empathy.
“Whether it's because we're daughters, we’re wives, we’re mothers – we’re nurturing,” Voegler said. “So I always try to, even though somebody is fighting with us, or you know, they just did something terrible to their significant other -- Maybe they're struggling with something. So, you know, do what we have to do but then also try to look past that and see if there's a way you can help them.”
Voegler says a good example of compassionate policing is how the sheriff’s department handles substance abuse calls.
“Our department is very good about how we handle overdoses, and how we handle substance use problems,” Voegler said. “You know, we have programs if somebody overdoses. We check on them a couple days later. And then, you know, if a child overdoses or you know, a teenager, we have a program where we're giving the parents Narcan so that if it happens again, you know, they can give Narcan immediately after, and then we can still be on our way and still get them to the hospital. So just trying to find out, maybe the root problem of what's going on. And maybe there isn’t one.”
Voegler, who is white, says this has been a hard year to be a cop.
“Law enforcement isn't perfect,” Voegler said. “But at the same time, you know, a lot of us are trying to do the best we can, you know, we got into this job for a reason. And it's for the good reasons for the right reasons. So just try and stay positive. And, you know, hopefully, things go through where we can all get along again and make everybody happy.
Me: You know, one of the phrases that we keep hearing is community policing. And the other thing we're hearing is mistrust. And one thing that I've noticed is people just tend to trust women a little bit more. So, do you think that women have a special role to play here in kind of like rebuilding trust with the community?
“I would say absolutely, yeah,” Voegler said. “We try to do a lot of community policing in the fact of, you know, when we don't have a lot of calls going on, we'll stop and we'll say hi in the business owners and we’ll drive to residences or residential neighborhoods, and we'll say hi, and people will come up and start up conversation. And I think that's what really helps people. You know, seeing [that] we're human, we want to hang out with you guys, we want to say hi, we want to make sure everything's good with you. And we're stopping, you know, we want you to tell us, you know, ‘Oh, there was a suspicious car, recently?’ Absolutely, we're definitely going to take that up and we're gonna start patrolling the area more. We want people to feel safe in their homes and their businesses.”
Voegler says one thing that’s happening during Black Lives Matter is people are starting to spot the “bad cops,” and the good ones are trying to hold on, and prove that they’re good.
“Growing up, I always want to be a police officer,” Voegler said. “And my mom begged me not to. You know, moms always want their babies to be safe. She's like, ‘Well, don't you want to be a vet or something?’ I'm like, ‘No, Mom, I want to be a police officer.’ So, she said that for years. And she's like, ‘Oh, don’t you want to do anything else?’
And for good reason. Almost 200 police officers die in the line of duty each year. In 2020, that number jumped to about 300.
“And now with, what's going on now, it's funny, because I've seen her change. She's like, ‘I know it's hard for you. But I don't want you to leave it because I know it's important to you.’ So it's funny seeing here going from, ‘I don't want you to do it,’ to, ‘Well, now's the time they need people like you in policing. To stick with it, do the right things, and be there for the community,’” Voegler said.
When Voegler’s mom says, “do the right things,” she means showing the public that they don’t have to be afraid of cops. But the numbers are hard to fight.
According to The Washington Post, about 1,000 people have been shot and killed by the police in the past year nationwide. A chief complaint about the police is a lack of transparency. In 2014, an investigation by the same paper found that the FBI undercounted fatal police shootings by more than half. Reporting by many departments has been voluntary, so many departments don’t.
Voegler says she faces sexism on the job, but never from her own team.
“I had a rookie with me,” Voegler said. “So I was his FTO, which is a field training officer. So, he was brand new out of the academy and just kind of learning the job. And we showed up at an accident scene. And it ended up being a DWI. And one of the witnesses came forward and they were talking to us, although they weren't talking to me, they were talking to my trainee. He was a 6-foot-1, you know, Marine vet, huge guy, great guy. But he had no idea what he was doing. And he kept referring the guy back to me. He's like, ‘Well, if you ask my partner here, well, if you talk to my partner,’ and I didn't even notice it, I thought maybe because they were eye level or what have you. And my rookie after the fact he was like, ‘Man, that must get super annoying.’ I'm like, ‘What do you mean?’ He's like, ‘Well he kept looking at me ‘cuz I'm a dude. Right? Not you.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I don't know, I guess maybe.’
Voegler says there are about 200 Saratoga County Sheriff’s Deputies. That includes school resource officers, family court officers, a deputy assigned to the sex offender registry, traffic division, a criminal investigations unit, and of course – the K-9 unit.
According to the FBI’s census on full-time law enforcement employees, cities with populations of over 1 million people employed the highest percentage of female officers, at about 18%. Voegler says this could be because those departments have more specialty units women are interested in, like K-9. But those openings are rare, and harder to get.
Oh, Neeka You’re So Fine
Voegler says Neeka is more than a partner. She’s a family member.
“Neeka works with me eight hours a day, and she lives with me,” Voegler said. “So, she's home with me. She hangs out with my family. She sits on the couch. We go on walks together out around the neighborhood. But she is attached to me 24/7. So if I'm in the shower, she's right outside the shower, if I'm brushing my teeth, she's right there. She's constantly right there. You know, the few occasions where I have to leave her and go somewhere else, it hurts. I miss her.”
Voegler says Neeka is a dual purpose canine. She can do explosive detection, patrols, and tracking.
“Whether it's for suspects who ran, or we do a lot of missing persons, whether it's elderly, the vulnerable elderly, who wander off or missing children, they kind of wander off from their parents,” Voegler said. “We track a lot of suicidal people. Sometimes they find out the police are coming, they obviously want to leave. So we do a lot of tracking.”
How does Neeka track them?
“They're trained to track the most recent human scent,” Voegler said. “So, a lot of our canines, they have triggers. So you know, when I show up to a scene, I'll go in the back and I'll get her tracking harness along with her tracking lead. And I just give her cues like, ‘All right, we're gonna find them, we're gonna find them,’ then she gets all excited. She's like, ‘Yes, I'm gonna work! And I know I'm gonna track ‘cuz you're putting a tracking harness on me!’ So you know, I get her out, put on the tracking harness on and if we have a good last known location, it's super easy; we just point to the ground and say, ‘Track,’ if we kind of don't know then you kind of just cast her out and she does her thing.”
Neeka is also trained in “apprehension.” Voegler has a button on her vest called “the door popper.”
“If I'm outside of the vehicle within eyeshot of Neeka and I'm in trouble -- somebody starts getting aggressive with me or whatever, or another officer -- I just hit the door popper, it pops open, and she's trained to come find me,” Voegler said. “And then at that point, I'll give her a command. Whether if it has de-escalated to the point where I don't need her anymore, I just tell her, you know, to lay down, or I tell her to do her job.”
Neeka has never had to apprehend.
Voegler says after countless civil service exams, lots of waiting, physical tests, background investigations, and running (which she hates) she went to the training academy in Schenectady for six months.
“And there you learn everything from how to do proper push up to penal law, how to respond to calls, you've learned how to drive -- emergency vehicle operation course, firearms, street survival. So it's a lot of fun,” Voegler said. “It's hard, but it's a lot of fun.”
Voegler says there were about 30 people in her academy class. Half a dozen were female. She says camaraderie forms.
“We used to have, you know, to do the buddy system,” Voegler said. “You'd have to go to the bathroom together. So you know, typical girls bathroom, you know, gossip and hang out. And then you go out of the bathroom, and you're in serious mode again.”
Voegler says she’s still good friends with the women she met at the academy in 2015.
What You Don’t Know
Voegler says there’s a lot of misinformation flying around about law enforcement right now. She says she can’t speak for every department, but at least in hers, she says they’re just people who want to help and don’t want to get hurt.
“Cops have this, you know, we have this urge to like, to defuse bad situations,” Voegler said. “We want to get there. We want to fix it. We want to fix it for the people who are scared.”
But a common complaint is that police lie about their actions, are too violent, and cover up facts that are never known unless a bystander records it.
According to the Pew Research Center, about 62% of police officers say they fill the roles of protector and enforcer equally.
Voegler says there’s a big gap between how the public sees police officers and how they see themselves.
“Everybody thinks that when we show up to the scene we're just looking for a fight,” Voegler said. “And, you know, [that] we're just kids who got picked on as kids and we're trying to get back at all those bullies -- and that’s totally not true. All the guys I work with, they're sweet. They're good people. And all the other girls like, we go to a scene and we really, we really are trying to help you. Like, I promise you. You know, nobody wants to fight. You know, I'm 31, I don't want to roll around with somebody and get hurt. You know? Once you're hurt, you're out of the job for a while. We want to show up, and we want to fix whatever's going on. And we want to do right by the victim as well. You know, whether that be somebody stole something, you know, we want justice for that person, we're going to arrest the person if we have enough probable cause and get a warrant to get them their justice. Or if it's something crazy, like an assault or, you know, harassment. You know, we're out there to help people.”
Of course, there is also a long history of white police officers shooting Black civilians in this country, and Black people are incarcerated at a disproportionate rate.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, at the end of 2018, about 1.5 million Americans were in prison in the United States.
According to 2018 census data, there were about 40 million Black people in the U.S. and about 250 million white people. So about six times as many white people. But according to the Bureau of Justice statistics National Prisoner Statistics Program , in 2018 about 51,000 white people were in federal prisons and about 67,000 Black people were in federal prisons.
The imprisonment rate of Black males was 5.8 times that of white males, and the imprisonment rate of Black females was 1.8 times the rate of white females.
Voegler says parents sometime foster mistrust with the police.
“So one of my pet peeves as a law enforcement officer is when I'm in a store
pumping gas and parents are like, ‘Oh, you better be good or they're gonna take you to jail.’ It's like no, don't tell them that! Make them want to come to us if they have a problem,” Voegler said. “I want all little girls and all children — I want them to see us and know that we are there to help them. 100%.”
Another common complaint from the public is that police officers are asked to wear too many hats, to fill the role of first responder, mental health counselor, and enforcer.
About 76% of police officers in a Pew Research survey say that responding effectively to people who are having a mental health crisis is an important role for police. 11% disagree.
Voegler thinks her department has struck a good balance. She says Saratoga County has a response team called “mobile crisis.”
“So when we go to a mental health call, a lot of them can be scary, a lot of them have weapons, or they're threatening to harm themselves or someone else and they have a knife or they have a gun, those sorts of situations -- those should be police initial response only,” Voegler said. “In my opinion, you want to keep everybody safe. But once we de-escalate it enough to where it's safe, it's secure, you know, EMS, or, you know, other services can come in. We've been using mobile crisis a lot. So they come in, we basically give them a background story of what's happening. And they kind of take it from there. And they're the professionals, they talk to these people, do they need to go to hospital to get a mental health evaluation? Or do they just make a safety plan with the other people in the home or with just themselves? So we've been using that a lot more. And I think a lot of people really like it. I think they like the fact that it's not just police showing up and bringing them to the hospital to get checked out. You know, we're not mental health professional, so we can't determine whether you're gonna go to the hospital or not, or whether, you know, even just to go to bed. You know, if you made the statement that you're gonna kill yourself, how do I know? You know? So the mobile crisis is huge.”
Voegler says another problem most civilians don’t think about is that law enforcement officers need to talk about what’s happening to them on the job. And some of them don’t.
Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins said on WAMC this year that officers are only required to get a mental health evaluation upon entering the force.
Voegler says she’s lucky that her husband is also a police officer, in the New York State Park Police.
“So I can go home, and I can talk to him now about it,” Voegler said. “So the big thing with policing is you get a heavy call, or somebody is kind of bothering you, the most important thing to do is find someone to talk it out. It helps your brain process whatever happened. You know, some guys here or some girls here, they either don't have a significant other, or you know, they're a teacher or a nurse, or, you know, anything -- daycare provider, and they don't want to give the bad images in the brains of their wives or husbands. They kind of keep it in. So I'm lucky in the fact that I can go home or I can call my husband's like, Oh, my God, this is what's happening. This is going on. And he'll kind of talk me through it.”
Voegler says she has never been stick-thin. And in her line of work – she doesn’t want to be.
“I've always struggled with weight my whole life,” Voegler said. “I've always been like a bigger girl. You know, I've done diets and -- But it's almost to the point now, at a point in my career, you know, I'm married. I'm not looking to impress anybody. So, I'd rather be strong and have beef behind me. You know, if I'm gonna rustle a dude, that's, you know, 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, you know, that's not gonna be easy if I'm 150 pounds, 130 pounds. So, of course, when I'm in my civilian clothes, I'm like me, and I wish I wish I was skinnier. Like, I liked wearing leggings instead of jeans. But when I'm in my uniform, like, no, this is this is what's safer for me.”
Voegler says it’s hard when you’re young, but try to love yourself.
“We're always our worst critics. For sure,” Voegler said. “You know, I stand in the mirror. And, you know, I don't want little girls to do what I do. I don't want them to look in the mirror and say, ‘Man, I wish I was skinnier.’ You know, I want them to be comfortable in their bodies. And we see magazines and celebrities who are thin and beautiful and perfect. And that's not real life. It's Photoshop and it's paying thousands of dollars for a trainer and a nutritionist and you know, just take care of your body, take care of yourself and learn to love yourself.”
Voegler says if you want to go into law enforcement, there are some things you can do right now.
“One, be careful on your social media, please, for what you post now can definitely alter your future,” Voegler said. “Be careful who you hang out with try to stay out of trouble. One bad mistake and it's over.”
Voegler says another tip – jiu-jitsu. Not just if you want to be a police officer but just to protect yourself in every-day situations, especially young women.
“You know, if somebody starts attacking you, they're trying to punch you, once the fight gets to the ground -- You know, if you learn jujitsu, you learn how to control that person with your body until somebody can get there to help you. You can subdue that person,” Voegler said.
Voegler says lastly, one thing kids might not expect: Pay attention in English class.
“There is so much report writing in law enforcement,” Voegler said. “All the shows where, you know, chasing people and arresting people -- that's the fun stuff. They don't show like the hours and hours of paperwork that follows that! And you have to you know, your spelling, your grammar, you know, being articulate in in the way you tell your side of the story is all super important.”
Voegler says she inherited her strength from another strong woman: her mom – who wasn’t any kind of law enforcement officer, by the way. She was a hair dresser. But Voegler says her mom’s influence has made her a better deputy.
“My mom has something about her that I wish that I had,” Voegler said. “So when she walks into a grocery store, or Walmart, or the mall, people just gravitate towards her. They just -- they tell her the most random things, you know, they do! And it's because she's so inviting. And she's so friendly, and so nice. And I think I got a little bit of that, which helps with my job. But people just -- they'll tell her about their entire life story in five minutes. So she's just, she's a great person.”
Voegler says if she could go back in time and give her 15-year-old self some advice in the halls of Saratoga Springs High School: Be less boy crazy, and worry more about your own goals.
“You go through like, the ‘boy crazy’ phase where you like, all you're all about is your 15-year-old boyfriend. And gosh, I wish I could just take all that time back and went studying instead,” Voegler said. “I wish I had worked harder at whatever I was doing, as opposed to being boy crazy. Because your 15-year-old boyfriend is not gonna be the one you marry most likely. And you're gonna change so much. I changed so much from age 15 to age 17. And 19. I mean, I always knew who I wanted to be, but getting there is obviously it's a process. And you’ve got to do that on your own.”
Voegler has been in law enforcement for about six years. She says when she first started with Saratoga County there were maybe five women. That number has nearly tripled.
Voegler says, most importantly, don’t let anyone tell you can’t be a police officer because you’re a woman.
“Women in policing, we're a fast growing breed around here, you know, a lot more females are doing this job,” Voegler said. “And I think we're making a huge impact.”
BUFFALO FBI AGENT LAURIE JOHNSON
Laurie Johnson is an FBI agent in the Buffalo, New York office. She’s 36 and has three German Shepherds: Sabir, Winter and Marvel.
Johnson has been in the FBI for 12 years. She came in as an intelligence analyst, and became an agent in 2012. She has worked at the Washington field office, headquarters division out of D.C., and now Buffalo. She was just 23 when she started. Johnson says she just always knew she wanted to be an FBI agent. Johnson says the FBI has given her opportunities to travel across the country and meet people she never expected to meet.
“I've given presentations and briefed superintendents of the military academies across the United States, I briefed executives, I briefed other executives in my agency and other government agencies,” Johnson said. “I think the world is your oyster when you come into an organization like the FBI, and you're able to go out and you never know where your day is going to take you. You know, you could start on the metro, you know, you started on the metro in D.C. in the morning, and then you could end up you know, by the end of the day, you need to fly somewhere across the United States. So, I think it's really interesting, if you're this job can take you anywhere. It's all about what you make it.”
Johnson says when she meets someone for the first time and tells them she’s in the FBI, they normally look at her name, then register that she’s a woman – in her 30s – and then the pressure is on to prove herself.
“Coming in, I always tried to make sure I was a subject matter expert in my field, I always wanted to make sure that I was well rehearsed,” Johnson said. “I was well spoken, I wanted to make sure I could prove my worth and knowledge because I knew I was going to be going to brief some of these executives. I come in, I'm not sure what they're thinking – ‘This this is a young female agent, I hope she knows her stuff.’ But then as soon as you get into the briefing and you know, talking about whatever I happen to be briefing them on that day, I think they realize that, ‘Wow, she's really knowledgeable. She knows her stuff.’”
Johnson says women in law enforcement often assume that they need to be the best in order to be “good enough” compared to the men. She says she aims to just be herself. At Quantico, for FBI training, or now in her career as an agent, she’s not trying to beat all the guys on a run, she’s just trying to do her job well.
“You don't have to be the fastest,” Johnson said. “You don't have to be the strongest. Everybody's always comparing themselves to the males in the field, because this is a male predominant field. But I think that as long as you're proving your worth, you know. The one thing you have I learned throughout this career is you just have to be yourself, you're going in there, you're doing the same work at the end of the day that all the other male agents are doing. And you're doing it just as well.”
Johnson says there have been men in the FBI who felt threatened by her and tried to intimidate her.
“And rather than looking at my accomplishments and my achievements, and my overall reputation, they’ve looked at me as a young female in a dominated career field,” Johnson said.
But she says she just lets her work speak for itself, and those issues tend to resolve themselves.
To handle the stress, Johnson says there’s nothing better than exercise.
“Going for a run at the end of the day, going for a bike ride,” Johnson said. “I'm a fitness advisor here at the FBI. So, fitness is very important to me. So I think that stress relief is very important to your overall mental well-being especially. So you know, going on that run making sure you make time for yourself, you know, playing with the dogs, things like that, talking to family, talking to friends, making time for those important things is just as important as you know, making sure that when you're at work during the day, you're 100% on.”
Johnson says there have been times in her career when she was truly scared. She says she’s on the Evidence Response Team in Buffalo -- or ERT as the agents call it.
“And that's where we go out and we basically, we're collecting evidence from crimes that have happened,” Johnson said. “So, whether they whether that crime had happened Washington, or whether it happened here in Buffalo, there have been times going out on those kinds of searches that you just there's an unknown with this job walking into a house, you never know what you're going to find, you know? Is there going to be something dangerous in that houses are going to be someone dangerous in that house. So I think going on those searches, going on those arrests and things like that your adrenaline definitely gets, I would say it's more of an adrenaline rush. Maybe you're scared, but you're not thinking about it at that moment. It's the adrenaline of going into the unknown going into the house where somebody could be in there that wants to hurt you. So it's an adrenaline at first, and then I think you look back on it, you're like, wow, that was really a scary situation.”
As Seen On TV
Johnson says there are a lot of misconceptions about what FBI agents do.
“I think there's a new show, ‘Clarice’ that's talking about like the, you know, the older, older school Bureau. But I think a lot of people think that we're out there, and everybody gets sent to the Behavioral Sciences unit, and they're working ‘Criminal Minds’ cases. And, you know, they're working these crazy cases right off the bat. There's a criminal branch, there's the counterintelligence branch, there's the counterterrorism, there's the cyber, there's so many vectors, once you become an FBI agent, and get into the FBI, that you could branch out into. People hear FBI, and they're like, ‘Oh, you know, they're, they're arresting us for, you know, drugs, or they're chasing serial killers.’ And that's not necessarily what's going on behind the scenes, you know, we're working lots of cases that are furthering and protecting our United States and the United States intelligence community. So I think they don't always have an idea of what FBI agents are actually doing.”
So what is Johnson actually doing? I’m still not 100% sure. But she says if you turn on the TV and watch the news, they usually mention a new perceived threat from China or Russia. She says those are basically the countries she’s analyzing.
“One of my duties, one of my jobs, is protecting the United States intelligence community,” Johnson said. “Protecting advanced technologies and the critical assets and then countering the activities of foreign spies. When I say I work counter intelligence, I usually say watch a show like ‘The Americans’ and then you'll know what I'm doing, you know, something like that. That's what we're doing. We're just protecting the United States intelligence community and making sure our technologies that we create here in the United States and our assets are controlled and then protected and then we're countering the activities of those spies.”
I ask Johnson if she is a spy. She says she is not.
For little girls and young women who may want to be an FBI agent, Johnson says the best way is to diversify your activities, because agents come with all different skills and backgrounds.
“If you are, you know, a little girl that has an interest in becoming an astronaut -- go with that, do your research on it, watch those astronaut TV shows, you know, ask your parents to go to space camp,” Johnson said. “Basically, just trying to do things that you know, interests you and making sure that if you are interested in something that you think may be against the grain, or maybe not something like little girl can participate in -- that's not true. You can, you can do anything you want to do anything to your heart's desire. Just be yourself.”
Johnson says women have a lot to offer the FBI. She says women who go into law enforcement have an extra drive to prove themselves, knowing all eyes will be on them. And another trait: compassion.
“I do think that we are striving to be our best we are striving to, you know, move up the ranks in a male dominated career field,” Johnson said. “So, I think that those are some things that like, you know, whether it be us talking to victims of crimes, or us going out on interviews, it's a softer, I don't want to say it's a softer side, but sometimes, you know, individuals may be more apt to talk to us over some, you know, some of our male counterparts just because, ‘Oh, you know, it's a female, she'll understand,’ you know, those kinds of things. So I think those are some things that we bring to the table, for sure. And that's going back to even 1972, when the first FBI female Special Agent came into the FBI. I think it's kind of interesting to look back at our history, and like what we've brought to the table from then until now.”
According to FBI spokesperson Maureen Dempsey, at the close of 2020, approximately 21% of the special agent population was female and there were nearly 640 Black special agents. Approximately 76 percent of Black special agents were male and approximately 23 percent were female.
In an official statement, Dempsey adds:
The FBI is committed to building a high-performing, diverse and inclusive workforce and we recognize the current numbers of minority special agents, including female agents, are not proportional to the general population. For this reason, we are actively seeking to increase the diversity of qualified special agent applicants because we know it is important that the FBI represent the people we are sworn to protect and serve. The better we know our communities, the better we can protect them.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 1998, 16% of FBI agents were women. In 2008 that number had increased to 19%. In 2016, another small increase to 20%.
But in 2016, the Bureau of Justice Statistics Federal Law Enforcement Census reported that the number of full-time female federal law enforcement officers in the United States is decreasing. In 2008 almost 16% of federal officers were female and in 2016 that had dropped to about 13%.
The news is disheartening because experts are starting to argue that the answer to a less violent, more understanding system of policing may be hiding in the gender gap.
According to the Pew Research Center, in a sample of over 8,000 police officers, a third say that in a given month they would have physically struggled or fought with a suspect who was resisting arrest. But 35% of male officers report this versus 22% of female officers. Which could indicate that women are more likely to de-escalate a situation or reason with the suspect. And the report finds that male officers are about three times as likely as female officers to say they have fired their weapon while on duty – 30% of men versus 11% of women.
The problem might simply be that police officers are normal people who are given an abnormal amount of power, and there isn’t always a way to screen for their flaws.
If women might be the answer to building a greater trust between the police and communities, why are there still so few women in law enforcement? According to Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown and the author of “Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City” the answer is obvious: advertising.
Brooks says recruiting ads frequently emphasize images of SWAT teams battering down doors, and recruiters go to job fairs for veterans or male-dominated university criminology programs. She says police academies overvalue physical strength while undervaluing communication skills and emotional intelligence.
And lastly, what’s even harder to fix: she says a “locker room atmosphere” prevails in many police precincts. That doesn’t appeal to women. Nor do the rotating patrol shifts if you’re a mother.
So it appears that until law enforcement agencies correct their culture, the needle on their gender stats just isn’t going to move that much. And without more women in the field, systemic change may yet be a long way off.