Sarah Smarsh | Longreads | July 2016 | 20 minutes (4,886 words)
Betty was in the bathroom dyeing her platinum hair black while the kids played with her teenage sister down the hall. Betty had recently left Bob. He’d beaten her, which was officially a crime, but there wasn’t any use in calling the cops. A hometown boy and typesetter for the Limon Leader, Bob knew everybody in their small Colorado burg on the plains, from the police station to the butcher. Betty, my future grandma, was a 23-year-old outsider from Wichita—a social challenge likely not helped by her unapologetic wearing of miniskirts in 1968.
Two years prior, Betty had blown into Limon, 90 miles west of the Kansas border, with her four-year-old daughter, Jeannie, and a pair of go-go boots. Her mom, Dorothy, and little sisters, Polly and Pud (as in “puddin’”) were along, too. Betty and Dorothy both had just washed their hands of Kansas men. Back in Wichita, Dorothy’s third husband, Joe, had strangled her. Betty’s jealous first husband, my biological grandfather, routinely beat her up and, Betty suspected, had paid someone to throw gasoline on her male friend’s face and set it on fire. So Betty and Dorothy piled the kids in a jalopy and headed west, destination unknown, to start over.
“Why Limon?” I asked her once.
“It was where our car broke down,” Betty said with a shrug.
Betty and Dorothy took jobs working in diners along the highway that cut through town. Betty waited tables, her mom cooked specials. Before too long, Betty hooked up with a customer named Bob. Then she got pregnant. She drove past the chapel the first time and left him at the aisle, but on the second try they got married. She gave birth to a son, Bo. Then Bob hit her and snapped his belt at Jeannie one too many times. After just a couple years of marriage, she moved out and filed for divorce.
Now Betty had a 6-year-old daughter with a dangerous Kansas man, a 2-year-old son with a dangerous Colorado man, and a divorce decree pending at the courthouse. Custody of their child, Bob had assured her, would go to him. He’d make sure the judge knew what kind of woman she was.
She had the dye worked into her hair when the phone rang. A voice warned that Bob was on his way over, and he was mad. There wasn’t time for Betty to rinse her hair. She wrapped a towel around her head. Dark dye dripped down her neck as she and Pud put the kids in the car. They rolled through town until the road turned into a highway.
Then, sirens and flashing red lights.
Betty pulled the car to the shoulder. A police officer approached her window. It was hard to see with blinding lights in the rearview mirrors, but Pud thought she could make out Bob sitting in the passenger seat of the patrol car. The officer took Betty’s toddler son from her car and drove away.
Betty was distraught that their son was with Bob but worried for her and Jeannie’s safety in Limon. She escaped to the Denver area for a while and finally returned to Kansas, where her mom and sisters were living again. She would spend the next five years fighting to get her baby back.
Bob’s attorneys used both her gender and her poverty against her—shaming her for being single with two ex-husbands in her early twenties, saying her numerous past addresses suggested an unstable environment and an unfit mother, rescheduling court dates once she got to Colorado after begging time off work and saving up gas money for the nine-hour drive from Wichita. A judge awarded custody to a violent man with small-town community standing rather than to a twice-divorced waitress with a court-appointed attorney.
Betty ached to hold her son. She sobbed over the custody papers she had been served. She had what people called a nervous breakdown. Then she got her act together, found a different lawyer, and fought again. Eventually her son barely knew her anymore. She stopped trying. She focused on raising Jeannie. She put pictures of Bo in a drawer—the great injustice of her life owed to a system that not only failed to protect her but kept her from protecting her own child.
Nationwide, according to Bureau of Justice statistics, three million incidents of domestic violence are reported to police in the United States each year. Ninety-five percent of them are committed by men against women. In most police departments, domestic abuse consistently ranks as the most common reason for calls—often more than half of them.
Meanwhile, about 88 percent of law-enforcement officers in the United States are male.
Men thus compose the immense majority of both women’s assailants and women’s official protectors.
This structure is so calcified that we tend to sense it as a natural order rather than a social one, even as it harms women around the globe. (Worldwide, 91 percent of cops are male, according to 2009 data.) The United Nations noted in a 2011 report on women and justice systems, “in rich and poor countries alike, the infrastructure of justice—the police, the courts and the judiciary—is failing women, which manifests itself in poor services and hostile attitudes from the very people whose duty it is to fulfill women’s rights.” As Betty’s story demonstrates, women in poverty endure that infrastructure’s worst effects, as do women of color and members of the LGBT community.
“The history of police is the history of state power,” political theorist Mark Neocleous wrote in The Fabrication of Social Order. State power for millennia belonged mostly to men, of course, societal beneficiaries of a biological evolution in which size meant control. Modern policing thus centers on armed males trained to subdue civil disruption—most recently and notably, mass killings by male shooters with histories of violence against women—with physical force. The 20th century was a crescendo of militarization, first by the state and then by a fearful populace. It brought us to our current, boiling-point moment in which mostly male cops kill innocent civilians and mostly male civilians kill innocent cops. Racism is often the undercurrent, but toxic masculinity is the force that makes it lethal.
Meanwhile, a modern officer’s work more often involves driving a homeless person to a shelter than it does tackling a perp or drawing a weapon. For a society that in recent decades has dismantled many of the public institutions that once cared for citizens in need—mental health care, welfare, after-school programs—today’s American cop is among the few remaining tax-funded administrators of public wellness. He is less called upon to be a soldier than a caretaker.
Often the person who needs his care is a woman. In that process, gender can be a detrimental divide.
One result of that divide is that women are often disbelieved when reporting assault. In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, ten officers in a Michigan police department—seven of whom were male—described their personal approaches to evaluating rape reports: “If there is no physical evidence and you said you got raped, did you get raped? …No,” one cop said. Other officers described giving alleged victims “a light interrogation” in the event that “there’s any inclination that there might be another motive” for the report. Such scrutiny of sexual assault victims deters reporting, of course. Unsurprisingly, the presence of female cops makes women more likely to report, according to United Nations research.
A police department’s treatment of domestic violence in its own ranks is telling of the culture it brings to work. In the Los Angeles Police Department’s handling of domestic violence claims against its own officers from 1990 to 1997, 227 complaints were filed, 91 were determined to be worth investigating—and just four resulted in a criminal conviction. The validated claims weren’t mentioned in performance evaluations more than three-quarters of the time, and over a quarter of accused officers were promoted while under investigation. Calling out bad cops is risky business, of course. When a legal consultant in a civil lawsuit noticed these scandalous mishandlings in LAPD personnel files and leaked the story to the press, he became the first person in U.S. history to serve prison time for violating a judge’s protective order.
An even more sinister outcome of a gender-lopsided police force: Sexual assault of female civilians by male cops. Last year, the Associated Press reported that, over a six-year period, about a thousand officers lost their badges for rape, propositioning citizens and other sex crimes. Victims—mostly young, poor females compromised by addiction or criminal records and unlikely to file complaint—included “unsuspecting motorists, schoolchildren ordered to raise their shirts in a supposed search for drugs… women with legal troubles who succumbed to performing sex acts for promised help, and prison inmates forced to have sex with guards.” The study doesn’t capture the size of the problem, as it only counted revoked licenses, thus leaving out untold reported and unreported offenses that went unpunished. (Nine states and Washington, D.C., including highly populous California and New York, didn’t provide numbers or have no state-level system for dealing with officer misconduct to begin with.)
High-profile cases of serial-rapist officers leveraging the power of their badges to assault women have brought recent arrests in Los Angeles and convictions in Oklahoma City. In March, an Alabama state trooper who raped a woman when responding to her call for help after a car accident was sentenced to just six months in jail. In June, Oakland, Calif., Mayor Libby Schaaf said of a scandal involving over a dozen male officers accused of having sex with a teenage girl and supplying her with money and information, “I’m here to run a police department, not a frat house.” In 2009 and 2010, sexual misconduct was the second most frequent complaint against officers, according to the Cato Institute.
The most frequent complaint: excessive force. This topic of broad public discussion for the last couple years has rightly centered on the race of victims, but relevant too is the gender of cops: Female officers are, in general, far less brutal. They are over eight times less likely than male officers to face sustained charges of excessive force, and two to three times less likely to receive complaints. This data, compiled by the National Center for Women and Policing (NCWP) in a 2002 report, also shows that female police officers favor—and succeed with—non-physical means of interaction with suspects, though they still use force when necessary. In 1991, an independent commission formed after the videotaped beating by white officers of black motorist Rodney King highlighted similar findings to little public notice.
Preference for nonviolence does not constitute physical weakness. The NCWP report cites studies indicating that women’s typically smaller stature doesn’t hurt their survival in the field. When physical force is required, training—not brute strength—better predicts success. Meanwhile, communication skills important for defusing dangerous situations, commonly measured as higher among female officers, are under-emphasized in officer-selection standards—hiring criteria that would encourage less violent male recruits, too. In these ways, a police force over-fueled by testosterone endangers not just women but people of any gender most likely to come into contact with police, including people of color or in poverty.
As someone who grew up with cops for family and friends, I’m sensitive to reactive discourse that casts every officer in a negative light—especially concerning so harrowing a job that I doubt most critics would perform any better. As recent killings of innocent black civilians by white male cops reveal, though, our police departments reflect the unjust power paradigms of our country.
In Ferguson, Missouri, the St. Louis suburb where a white male cop shot and killed an unarmed black teenager but was not criminally indicted in 2014, the police department was 55 percent more white than the community it patrolled—making for cultural chasms and fostering racist policing. Departments like these must rectify a dangerous racial imbalance, many have argued, to look more like the people in their precincts.
For similarly proportional representation, gender is easier to map than most demographics. Almost anywhere you go, about half the population identifies as female. Yet we have scarcely recognized the need for more female cops.
Our officers are the stuff of this country, no better and no worse. They are our prejudice, bravery, history, decency, and inequity sent down the street with a gun. Female cops carry these things, too—including, sometimes, bias against their own gender. But for a society in which the most common police call involves violence against women, half of all people are women, and almost nine out of ten police officers are male, there is no greater agent of positive disruption than a female cop.
In 1974, when she was in her late twenties, Betty got a government education grant—likely federal funds for women by way of Title IX—to attend a small business college in Wichita. A woman who had left school after ninth grade, she soon landed a job working for the state of Kansas as a secretary in the county court system.
There she earned $800 a month in a comfortable office, which struck her as a joke after years of making far less for grueling work in restaurants and factories. She got bored quickly, typing and filing documents while male coworkers came and went. So when she heard the county subpoena officer for the juvenile court was leaving, she wanted the job.
A judge told her that serving subpoenas was no job for a woman. A few years prior, though, the Civil Rights Act had been expanded to prohibit employer discrimination against women in state agencies.
“Check the law on that,” Betty told the judge. She got the job.
As a subpoena officer for the juvenile courts in Sedgwick County, Betty drove through Wichita’s rough neighborhoods to walk up crumbling sidewalks and deliver bad news. She told parents they had to show up in court for their children’s crimes, or that they were on the verge of losing custody of their kids. Sometimes they got irate. A drunk man with a gun said he would blow her away. A woman pulled a knife on her in a stairwell. Betty calmly talked her way out of such situations. She never got hurt on the job.
Emboldened by her success as a subpoena officer, Betty signed up for the Wichita Police Reserve. The Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 had opened doors for female officers, previously barred in many places from, say, arresting adult offenders or riding patrol after dark. They didn’t even have to wear high heels anymore. There was just one other woman in the mix when Betty joined the reserves, but she didn’t give it much thought. She enlisted to do a job, not to make a point.
When I was a kid, I found the blue spiral notebook Betty had taken to training classes: notes on chain of command, types of traffic accidents, how to identify pot, when to discharge a gun, the meaning of a “29.” What type of evidence goes to the lab? When can you enter a house without knocking? What is the differences between aggravated battery and battery? What do you do when the person you’re arrested is intoxicated? She’d never had to spell the word “detox,” but as the daughter of a violent alcoholic, she knew what it meant.
Drunk (taking into custody)
- Take custody of drunk
- Frisk, place in veh
- 10-15 to D-tocs
- 10-23 at D-tocs
- Take the drunk in
- Wait for arresting off or cut case—paperwork.
After long days serving subpoenas, Betty put on a blue uniform, got in a patrol car with a male partner who was a full police officer, and went out into the night. Mostly they put drunks in the tank, which she found satisfying. One night, though, she opened her car door outside a robbery-in-progress and heard the zip of a bullet. She and her partner ducked behind their car doors before they gave chase through a nearby graveyard. Betty’s heart pounded as she ran with her heavy holster. The man escaped.
“Was it at all a relief that he got away?” I asked her, since she’d admitted she was scared.
“No,” she told me. “I wanted to catch the bastard.”
Betty’s gumption with a badge was not unusual for her gender. The 2003 NCWP report delineates 20 years of research supporting the hiring and retaining of female police officers: They are more assertive, independent, flexible, and creative than male counterparts, and less authoritarian and prejudiced in their behavior. They receive more favorable evaluations and fewer complaints. They exhibit more empathy and respect. Based on studies by police departments in Mexico City and Lima in the late 1990s, female officers are less likely than male officers to take bribes. The greater the number of women in a department, the less sexual discrimination and harassment—on the whole experienced by 68 to 86 percent of female cops. They receive more favorable evaluations from domestic violence survivors and are less likely to blow off such crimes by failing to write a report. Their presence benefits men by decreasing a force’s emphasis on physical strength, which can create hierarchies among male cops. Male cops themselves receive higher marks in responding to some crimes when they have female partners.
Acknowledging the strength of the female cop is one thing. Recruiting and retaining her is another.
In 1975, a year before my grandma entered reserve training in Wichita, the Pittsburgh police department comprised just 1 percent female officers. Thanks to an affirmative-action court order that year requiring that half of new hires be female, by 1990 the percentage of women in the department was 27 percent—the highest in the nation. Once the hiring quota was lifted in the early nineties, female hires dropped to 8.5 percent, and the percentage of female officers fell to 22 percent by 2001.
If public policies not just tolerating but encouraging the recruitment and retention of female officers had existed when Betty put on her uniform, she might have spent her life as a cop. Instead, in the late seventies she moved up the judicial job ladder from subpoena officer to probation officer, tasked with keeping tabs on freed criminals.
It was no small emotional feat for a woman who herself had been victimized so many times. In 1969, my biological grandfather casually shot her in her living room with her own gun while my mom, then seven, played in the front yard. Now, as a probation officer, Betty’s job was to advise and help men who shot people. She did so with compassion.
“Thanks for being such a tough bitch,” her probationers would tell her when their parole ended.
“My pleasure,” she’d say.
While maintaining her course load, she was assigned a second position as a judge’s bailiff, until her retirement nearly 20 years after she began work for the courts. But she never stopped thinking of herself as a sort of cop.
Around 1991, when I was a sixth-grader living in Betty’s tiny house in a working-class neighborhood near downtown Wichita, her pair of golden Pomeranians disappeared from our backyard. The yard was separated from the alley by a flimsy chain-link fence; someone had stolen Feisty and Fancy, everyone agreed, since Pomeranians were valuable to breeders. They were Betty’s only indulgence, except the emerald ring she had bought herself when she got on at the courthouse, the first time she could buy a ring for herself if she damn well pleased. She had an idea about who might have taken the dogs.
One night during a party at our house, while she and the other adults were pounding beers and discussing the disappearance, Grandma told me to grab a flashlight and get in the car.
She slid behind the wheel of her small Toyota with the full ashtray. She tossed a heavy fold of shiny black leather into my lap. I opened it, and silver shone in the glow of the streetlight near our driveway. A thrill ran through me as I touched her old badge—probably illegal for her to use now but a means of self-protection she’d kept all those years in a drawer with a gun.
She drove slowly for a few blocks and turned onto a side street. As on our own block, gutters sagged, sofas decorated porches, flower beds were full of weeds. She parked at a house with its lights turned off. I handed her the badge. We spent the next half hour trying to glimpse her kidnapped dogs: quietly entering an enclosed porch, shining the flashlight around, jiggling doorknobs, crouching down to basement windows.
Betty finally whispered, “Let’s go,” but I knew the search wasn’t over. She’d write down the license plate number of the car parked in the driveway. She’d run the number through the computers at the courthouse to look for a criminal record, the way she had done with the number I wrote down after a man in a truck followed me around the block one afternoon. Back in her car she lit a cigarette, teared up, and tossed the badge back into my lap.
“I hope whoever snatched ’em gave ’em a good home.”
In 1910, Alice Stebbins Wells, a Kansas minister new to Los Angeles, talked the LAPD into giving her a job. She sewed herself a floor-length dress and pinned to it a badge, designed by the department to be distinct from those of her male colleagues and therefore carrying the number “one.” She wore it for 30 years. (Nationally, she was preceded by two women who had joined the Chicago and Portland police in 1891 and 1908, respectively.) In 1915, Stebbins founded the International Association of Women Police, through which she traveled widely to promote the hiring of female officers. The organization celebrated its 100th anniversary last year and now has members in more than 60 countries.
During that century, progress for women in police departments was slow and intertwined with American history. In the early 1900s, on the heels of the abolitionist, suffragist, and prohibition movements, female officers tended to be upper-class, white, educated and motivated by social reform. After World War II, class dynamics changed, and working-class women of all races vied for policework. It wouldn’t be until 1968, though—half a century after Stebbins began her campaign, the same year Betty fled a violent ex with her children while hair dye ran down her neck—that two female cops in Indianapolis would be the first in the nation assigned to patrol cars. During that period, from 1960 to 1980, the percentage of female cops doubled, according to the NCWP, due largely to the Equal Employment Opportunity Act. However, women remained mostly at lower department ranks, as they do today.
Finally, in 1985—75 years after Stebbins got her badge and two years after we sent the first woman to the moon—came the first female police chief of a major city: Penny Harrington in Portland. The first black female police chief, Beverly Harvard, took charge in 1994 in Atlanta. The next year, Harrington cofounded the NCWP with Katherine Spillar of the Feminist Majority Foundation. In the last 25 years, though, as women have entered many professions in historic numbers, the national percentage of female officers has risen wanly from 5 to 12 percent. You’d never know it from television criminal procedurals, bursting with female agents; even sexist Hollywood is ahead of reality in representation, if not in accurate portrayal.
Countries around the world are addressing gender in law enforcement. Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Ghana, India, Kosovo, Liberia, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Uganda and Uruguay all have established specialized units or local stations for female cops—problematic professional gender segregation in countries with highly discriminatory laws and cultures, in some instances, but an effort that makes way for female officers. In 2009, the United Nations launched an initiative to recruit more women into national services and UN police operations. Last year, Ukraine undertook sweeping police reform with two women at the helm as first deputy interior minister and national police chief; the country has since seen a fast increase in female officers in spite of vast gender inequality in the country at large.
Such integrations will not pass without strife. This year in Querétaro, Mexico, female officers filed complaints for being forced by senior male officers to submit to inspections of their attractiveness. The chief of that department had previously formed a unit of female officers who worked in high-heeled boots and tight, frilly uniforms in the state of Aguascalientes.
As for the United States, 21 percent of city and county law enforcement agencies had recruitment efforts directed at increasing female hires in 2008, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. (The number for state agencies was much higher at 83 percent.) Sluggish gains for women have as much to do with retention as with recruitment, though. Once hired, as female cops have attested for decades, they face sexual harassment or even assault, doubt about their ability to do the job, general hostility, ostracizing, and discrimination in salary and promotion. The disadvantage is compounded for female officers of color, who contend not just with sexism but racism; according to a 2001 survey by the NCWP, women of color are nearly absent in small departments, representing about 1 percent of employed officers, and account for just 5 percent of officers in big-city agencies.
Amid protests over police brutality in black communities, in 2014 President Obama created a taskforce on “21st-Century policing.” The president of the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives, Barbara O’Connor made the case for gender parity during a panel discussion on diversity. Some of the $120 million funneled from the Department of Justice produced research recommendations for improving response to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, especially among LGBT communities, racial and religious minorities, and immigrants. Oklahoma law enforcement agencies received support for a summit addressing, among other things, gender sensitivity in hiring practices. But gender diversification of the police was not a direct goal of the federal initiative.
A female cop herself might be reluctant to bring gender into focus. Perhaps, like trailblazing women in many professions, she’s kicking ass at her job and would prefer that speak for itself. Perhaps she has worked so hard for respect that the best she can hope for on the job is that her gender be forgotten altogether. For that matter, she may scarcely resemble our stereotypes about what a female is. She may be physically faster and stronger than her male colleagues. She may be cold when assisting victims. She may have no children or any intention to do so. She may have a temper and punch her locker. She may have defied every social construction and resent conversations thus framed. A female cop’s performance is not for being female, it is for being herself.
A female cop’s life experience, however, has everything to do with being female. Women, people of color, members of the LGBT community, and other oppressed groups can’t put on the uniform without embodying a particular truth: Their presence diversifies a mostly male, mostly white institution that historically has harmed people like themselves. Just as there is necessity in acknowledging gender to reduce the number of female victims, surely we must acknowledge it to increase the number of female cops.
A serious effort to do so might involve affirmative action in hiring, department education and training, federal improvement of childcare and family-leave options, accessible police-station facilities, and even increased access to police equipment, which is designed and constructed with the male form as a model. Before policy and politics, though, we must acknowledge what that male form has represented, with a gun on his hip—power in the form of both gender and threat of violence. We must say loudly that women, both most vulnerable to victimization and least likely to draw an unnecessary weapon, are not only qualified for a sound police force but essential to it.
Women like my grandmother may be no more innately qualified for good police work than men are, but by merely walking through the world as females they have gained a valuable empathy for patrolling it. In this way, women are unequivocally the stronger sex. Give them half the badges and let them protect this country.
This story was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
Sarah Smarsh is a journalist who has reported on public policy and socioeconomic class for The New Yorker and Harper’s online, The Guardian, Guernica, and others. Her essays have been published by Aeon, McSweeney’s, The Morning News, Creative Nonfiction, Vela, and The Texas Observer. Smarsh’s book In the Red, on the American working poor and her upbringing in rural Kansas, is forthcoming from Scribner. She lives in Kansas and Texas.
Editors: Julia Wick and Mike Dang; Fact-checker: Matthew Giles