POLICE USE OF EXCESSIVE FORCE: TAKING GENDER INTO ACCOUNT
A Report by The National Center for Women & Policing
A Division of The Feminist Majority Foundation
The Feminist Majority Foundation and The National Center for Women & Policing have conducted extensive research, including a review of the literature and interviews with specialists nationwide on women in policing and police violence. The research has profound implications for this Conference's work in examining and proposing solutions to the problem of excessive police violence. Police excessive use of force is costly to communities - in lives lost and damaged - and costly to taxpayers in money now paid out in settlements in police violence cases.
Research both in the United States and internationally shows that women police officers are less authoritarian and use force less often that their male counterparts, are better at defusing potentially violent confrontations, possess better communication skills, and respond more effectively to incidents of violence against women - a crime that accounts for as much as half the incoming calls to police departments.
Until now, the integration of women into the police agencies has been seen in terms of creating potential problems and costs. Policemen feared more women would compromise the department's toughness and competency, and thus lead to decreased morale. But after nearly 30 years of exhaustive research, the consensus of opinion is that women not only can do the job of policing equally as well as men, but in fact hold the key for substantially decreasing police violence and its cost to the taxpayer, while improving the ability of the police to respond to violence against women.
The full integration of women into policing is an opportunity for a constructive solution to the costly problems of police violence. These questions must be asked when examining the problem of police excessive use of force:
Studies on Police Use of Force by Gender
Research over the past three decades indicates that women police officers have a less authoritarian and aggressive policing style and use force less often than their male counterparts.
Lewis J. Sherman, in his research in the 1970s on women in policing, observed that "America's police forces remain bastions of male supremacy and American-style machismo," and he postulated that if more women were hired:
Sherman stressed that a greater number of women would lead to fewer violent confrontations between police officers and citizens: "The experiences of women in other hazardous work, the performance of police women in America and abroad, plus the social psychological research evidence all suggests that women tend to defuse volatile situations and provoke less hostility than men."
In an extensive review of the research on women in policing, Joseph Balkin reports that "policemen see police work as involving control through authority, while policewomen see it as a public service. The women's orientation is more likely to result in better relations with the public and a better image of police departments." Balkin went on to suggest that "...in some respects at least, women are better suited for police work than men... not all women are able to handle all police jobs - but neither are men."
Balkin concluded that although policemen continue to believe that "the women's relative lack of physical strength...could be a problem in dangerous and violent situations," the reality is that 80 to 95 percent of policing involves non-violent or service-oriented activities. And in defense of policewomen, Balkin points out in his review of the research in this area:
"...physical strength has never been shown to be related to police functioning
(Sherman 1973). No research has shown that strength is related to an individual's ability to manage successfully a dangerous situation (Bell 1982). There are no reports in the literature of bad outcomes because a policewoman did not have enough strength or aggression (Charles 1981)...Lehtinen (1976) observed that the ability to defuse a potentially violent situation is preferable to the use of strength. Rogers (1987) argued that coolness and skill are more important than strength in conflict situations."
An expansive 1974 study by Peter Bloch and Deborah Anderson sponsored by the Police Foundation concluded that introducing a substantial number of women officers would positively impact police operations:
"A department with a substantial number of policewomen may be less aggressive than one with only men. Women act less aggressively and they believe in less aggression. The presence of women may stimulate increased attention to the ways of avoiding violence and cooling violent situations without resorting to the use of force."
The men and women studied for this report performed patrol work in a generally similar manner. They responded to similar types of calls for police service while on patrol and encountered similar proportions of citizens who were dangerous, angry, upset, drunk or violent. According to the study, there was no difference in the number of injuries between male/female patrol teams....In fact, the study found that the female officer is more likely than a male officer to calm a potentially violent situation and avoid injury to all of the participants. Chief Oliver Thompson of the Inglewood Police Department testified that "if I had my druthers, I would hire a greater number...of women officers than I would of men officers because of the less[er] number of citizen complaints,...confrontations, the less[er] number of challenges that you have out there in the field."
Studies in the 1980s and early 1990s, have shown women to be more effective in many facets of the policing discipline: Women police officers rely less on violence and more on verbal skills in handling altercations, they are less likely to be involved in "serious unbecoming conduct," and they are more effective in handling female victims of violence.
In his 1983 study of the performance of women in the Los Angeles Police Department, Kenneth Hickman made similar findings. Hickman noted that women had superior communication skills, field tactics, initiative and self-confidence, and were more adept at public relations. The 1990 Claremont Graduate School study on the selection, recruitment, training, appointment and performance of women and minorities found that "females on probation were the subject of significantly fewer citizen complaints than either male or minority officers."
The Christopher Commission, which studied use of force in the Los Angeles Police Department in 1991, stated:
"Virtually every indicator examined by the commission establishes that female LAPD officers are involved in excessive use of force at rates substantially below those of male officers. There were no female officers among the 120 officers with the most use of force reports."
The Christopher Commission also looked at the top 10% of the LAPD officers ranked by the combined use of force reports, personnel complaints and officer-involved shootings and determined:
"There were no female officers among the top 132 officers. Only 3.7% of the 808 LAPD officers with the highest number of incidents were female officers. The statistics indicate that female officers are not reluctant to use force, but they are not nearly as likely to be involved in use of excessive force... Many officers, both male and female, believe female officers are less personally challenged by defiant suspects and feel less need to deal with defiance with immediate force or confrontational language."
Studies show that because of their less authoritarian personalities, there is less likelihood of escalation of potentially violent situations with women police officers than with men. Researcher Carol Ann Martin found that "Women have proven that they have excellent communication skills which can be extremely helpful in police-citizen encounters where there may be potential violence. Quite often if the male officer is of the John Wayne-type he will provoke a fight or violence, instead of calming down the situation."
In sum, adding equal numbers of women police officers will reduce incidents of police violence and enhance the ability of police agencies to modify their policing styles in line with societal needs and realities. The lack of women police officers reinforces and exaggerates the authoritarian and traditional personalities which thrive on violence. Composed of people who have a common background and a common set of social attitudes and values, police departments reflect a "male fraternity" where unacceptable behavior not only receives little peer scrutiny but is actually reinforced by other members of the group.
Beyond Tokenism: The Need for Gender Balance
Since its inception in early 1995, the National Center for Women & Policing has been a leading force behind increasing the numbers of women in policing. The positive impact of women in policing, including the reduction of police brutality, increased efficacy in police response to domestic violence, and the increased emphasis on conflict resolution over force, mandates that we strive for gender balance in policing.
Yet, our research shows that the increase of women in law enforcement remains stuck at an alarmingly slow rate. Women comprise only 13.8% of all sworn law enforcement positions nationwide-a paltry increase of one-half of one percent from 1997 and only 3.2 percentage points from 1990 when women made up 10.6% of officers.
The data are clear: at the present rate of growth, women will not achieve equality in law enforcement agencies for several generations. Furthermore, the data shows that there has been progress only when women law enforcement officers and women's organizations have taken legal action to fight the discriminatory hiring and promotion practices and when court ordered consent decrees have forced agencies to increase the numbers of women or minorities hired and promoted.
The full integration of women into law enforcement departments must be seen as an opportunity, and policewomen themselves can only be seen as an asset to policing. Simply stated, the integration of women into law enforcement is a solution to the costly problem of police violence.
The goal must be a police force that reflects the community's entire population. But in order to increase the numbers of women in police departments across all police functions, it will be necessary to have formal plans and administrative structures for mandated change and gender balance.
Experts emphasize the need to create a "formal administrative structure" established specifically to achieve social equity for women in policing. Susan Martin, in Women on the Move, recommends police departments:
To this must be added: alter hiring requirements to eliminate criteria that are irrelevant to performance and thus are non-job related. That is, to hire more women, police departments must overcome the serious problem that police work is still "perceived as a male oriented profession with a major emphasis on physical strength."
This Conference should call on law enforcement agencies nationwide-federal, state, and local-to move rapidly in achieving equal numbers of women and men and racial parity in their ranks if police violence is to be reduced. We must again call attention to the lack of real progress over the past 20 years in bringing women into policing in significant numbers. Clearly, what has been done historically to integrate police departments is inadequate and is costing Americans a high price - in human suffering and taxpayer dollars.
Resources on Police Excessive Force and Gender
Testimony of Katherine Spillar, National Coordinator, Feminist Majority Foundation Before the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department. May, 1991
Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department, Report of the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department (Los Angeles, 1991)
U.S Commission on Civil Rights, Briefing on Racism and Sexism in Local and State Law Enforcement Agencies, Executive Summary. October, 1995.
National Center for Women & Policing, a division of the Feminist Majority Foundation Equality Denied, The Status of Women in Policing, April, 1999
A Report of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, Racial and Ethnic Tensions in American Communities: Poverty, Inequality, and Discrimination, Volume V: The Los Angeles Report. May, 1999.