It was a moment that captured national attention and revealed an important lesson about police reform.
A Fort Lauderdale, Florida, policeman, facing off against a line of yelling demonstrators, sticks his finger in the face of a protester. He then turns toward a kneeling woman, her hands raised in protest. The officer suddenly lunges and shoves her.
Then, a female officer appears. She swats her male colleague back toward a line of patrol cars, waving her arm and appearing to upbraid him for what he did.
“Thank you!” a protester shouts at Officer Krystle Smith, who won praise for her actions on social media and from police leaders around the country.
Neither Smith nor Officer Steven Pohorence, who is suspended pending an outside investigation, were allowed to comment on the incident.
“I was proud of her,” said Ivonne Roman, the former police chief in Newark, New Jersey, who has been fighting for years to push her profession to hire more women. “That is why we need more women in policing. Statistically, they do not escalate; they de-escalate.”
As protests over the police killing of George Floyd have refocused national attention on police abuses and use of force, law enforcement experts and leaders say one powerful reform would be simple: Hire more women.
Women make up only about one out of every eight sworn police officers nationwide, according to federal statistics.
Law enforcement agencies do not recruit, retain or promote women at the same rate they do men – even though research suggests that if they did, the nation would see far fewer tragedies like the killings of Floyd, Laquan McDonald or Eric Garner.
Research has shown that women cops are less likely to face sustained allegations of excessive force than their male colleagues, and that women officers cost cities less in civil lawsuit settlements for such incidents and are the subject of fewer citizen complaints. Another study found that women police injure suspects less.
When it comes to routine use of force, studies have come to varying conclusions about whether gender is a factor. CNN analyzed data from four of the few metropolitan police departments that publish data about the gender of the officers involved in use of force incidents. In all four cities – Cincinnati, Indianapolis, New Orleans and Orlando – female officers were involved in a smaller percentage of incidents than their share of the department.
But more than a dozen experienced cops, law enforcement professionals and researchers told CNN that women in police departments face obstacles, from fitness tests that emphasize brawn over people skills, to pervasive harassment from some male colleagues.
“Policing – everyday policing – is about social services: domestic violence cases, dealing with people’s mental health problems, getting victims to open up, negotiating,” said Maureen McGough, the Chief of Staff for the Policing Project at New York University Law School. “But recruitment ads you see for police are still using that macho guy with a gun. And the physical fitness tests to get into the police academy still favor upper body strength, something that has nothing to do with how good a cop you’re going to be.”
If the United States is serious about police reform, experts said, then law enforcement has to finally make equal room and opportunity for women.
“Policing as an institution was constructed and run by men, so the system in which we are still operating, what we value, the people we recruit, it still reflects that male culture,” McGough said. “I don’t think most Americans understand that.”
How women handle policing
For at least two decades, the percentage of women serving as officers in local police departments has slightly increased to around 12%. There are even fewer women in police leadership: In 2016, the most recent year for which national data is available, less than 3% of chiefs and 10% of first-line supervisors were women, according to the federal government-run Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics survey.
Among 20 of the largest 25 police departments in the country that provided data to CNN, the percentage of sworn women officers ranges from 10.6% in San Antonio to 25.2% in Detroit. Large metro law enforcement agencies tend to have higher rates of women officers than small local departments, many of which employ no women, according to federal data.
In several other western democracies, officers are far more likely to be women than in the United States. Recent figures show women represent more than a third of police in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. In England, Wales and Australia, women make up over 30% of police; in Canada 22%.
Thirty years of research suggests that the dearth of American women with a badge could be exacerbating excessive use of police force.
Women officers are the subject of fewer citizen complaints and sustained allegations of excessive force than their male colleagues, according to a study in 2002. That research, considered by experts to be a landmark look at the differences between genders in policing, also shows that women cost municipalities and agencies less money in civil liability payouts compared to men. The latter finding has been supported by additional research that shows women use less force and local investigations examining lawsuits. In Minneapolis, for example, only three of more than 50 officer conduct lawsuits settled between 2010 and 2014 involved women accused of excessive force, a Minnesota Public Radio investigation found.
Research also indicates that when male officers are paired with female officers, they use less force, and women paired with each other are the least likely to use extreme force. While 30% of male officers have fired their weapon while on duty, only 11% of female officers have, a 2017 Pew Research Center survey found.
While every person is different, women generally tend to be socialized to talk rather than shout, negotiate rather than bully and empathize rather than order, police leaders and researchers said.
“I was on the street for many years, involved in all kinds of critical incidents, and force was never my first response,” said Janeé Harteau, who served as the Minneapolis police chief between 2012 and 2017. “I would much rather not fight my way out of a situation. I’ll do it if I have to, but if I can get the cuffs on and we’re done, great.”
“Women invented de-escalation,” Harteau said. “It’s called communication.”
On the long list of high-profile police killings that have sparked protests around the country, the vast majority of officers accused are male – from Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis to Darren Wilson in Ferguson to Daniel Pantaleo in New York.
One of the few fatal incidents involving a woman officer that received national attention in recent years was the 2018 killing of Botham Jean, a Black man who was shot in his apartment in Dallas by Officer Amber Guyger, who said she thought she was entering her own apartment. Guyger is serving a 10-year prison sentence after being convicted of Jean’s murder last year.
What the data reveals
CNN’s analysis of data from four cities supports the idea that women officers use less force. Women officers in Orlando carried out 8% of the uses of force between 2009 and May 2019, while they make up 17% of the department. In Cincinnati, women officers carried out 13% of episodes of use of force from 2000 through September 2018, while they currently comprise 23% of the total officers.
In Indianapolis, women officers carried out 9% of uses of force from 2014 through last month, while they currently make up 13% of the officers. And in New Orleans, women officers carried out 10% of uses of force from 2016 through November 2019. They made up 22.5% of the department in 2016, the latest year for which federal data is available.
There’s also some evidence that women officers used more serious force at lower levels than their male colleagues. For example, in New Orleans, which ranks use of force in four levels by seriousness, women carried out just 7.5% of police uses of force at the highest level, which include discharging their firearm, putting someone in a neck hold or striking a handcuffed suspect.
Women in policing tend to have different skillsets, said Liana Perez, the director of operations for NACOLE, a national group of civilian police oversight agencies.
“Sometimes they benefit from de-escalation skills or the ability to talk people down,” Perez, who previously worked as the independent police auditor for the city of Tucson, said. “And on the flip side, for the most part, suspects or individuals they are encountering are less likely to get into a physical confrontation with a woman than with a man.”
Where are the women?
Police departments face two problems in increasing the number of women with a badge: Recruiting them and keeping them on the force.
That starts, experts said, with the way some departments advertise for new recruits – with commercials that predominantly feature men and deliver a more “Die Hard” than “Officer Friendly” image of policing – guns blazing, men repelling down buildings, and high-octane car chases.
Ads that highlight big guns and militaristic standoffs have been used to recruit new officers in cities from Alexandria, Louisiana to Brunswick, Georgia to Melbourne, Florida, and even places like Palo Alto, California – a wealthy Silicon Valley suburb that had 90 incidents of violent crime in 2017, the year the ad was released.
In Gainesville, Florida, the police chief stopped using a 2014 recruitment ad that depicted scene after scene of men shooting guns over heavy metal music, a spokesman said, because he decided it didn’t represent day-to-day police work. Though the department stopped linking to it on its website and airing it locally in the fall of 2015, it remained on the agency’s YouTube channel until a CNN reporter asked the department about it last week.
Female recruits also face barriers in passing fitness tests that are still required for many police departments around the country.
In New Jersey, about a third of female recruits (31%) failed the state police academy’s fitness test in 2017, while only 2% of male recruits did, according to an investigation by the Asbury Park Press and USA Today Network. In Colorado Springs, a federal judge ruled in 2017 that the local police department’s fitness test discriminated against women, leading the department to stop using the test and awarding the 12 plaintiffs a more than $2.4 million settlement. Half of female recruits failed that test, while only 6% of male recruits did, according to the judge’s ruling.
But experts say most police work is based more on interpersonal skills than upper body strength, and that those tests can arbitrarily make it more difficult for women to succeed.
Some departments have already started to reform fitness tests. In Texas, the state Department of Public Safety released a model policy that replaces tests involving push-ups, running, or pull-ups with a single rowing test that has differing requirements based on age, gender and weight. Several cities like Austin have adopted it.
However, even cities that have reformed their testing can still have biased recruiting processes. When Lt. Eve Stephens started a new role at the Austin department handling personnel, she realized how few women were graduating from the department’s police academy. Only 11% of the officers in Austin are female, one of the lowest percentages among the largest metro departments.
Stephens discovered several male academy instructors second-guessing them when they tried to use de-escalation tactics in their role playing exercises, she said. A recruit reported that an instructor told her that he was going to make it “his job” that she not graduate, Stephens told CNN. Another recruit, a stay-at-home mother, told Stephens that a male instructor told her, “are you even ready for this?”
Stephens said she successfully pushed for both instructors to be transferred from the academy.
“I just thought, ‘Where the hell are all the women?’” said Stephens, who started a mentoring program for female recruits in 2018. “We were recruiting a lot of women and a lot of women started at the academy, but attrition was twice that of the men.”
The Austin Police Department did not respond to the instances described by Stephens about academy instructors, but in a statement said it holds recruiting sessions focused on women where applicants can talk with women officers. Any incidents of inappropriate comments or behavior are prohibited, the department said, and if they are substantiated, the offending person will be reprimanded and could be fired.
‘Here, kitty, kitty’: What moving up the ranks can feel like
Once women become police officers, another huge barrier to keeping them in the profession is the treatment some face from their own male colleagues.
When Harteau started her policing career in Minneapolis in the late 1980s, she said, officers would regularly make sexually suggestive comments to her. “I could handle that,” she said.
But the harassment Harteau and her female partner faced escalated. Their patrol car was vandalized, she said, and property that should have gone to the evidence room mysteriously wound up in their car. Officers “consistently” wouldn’t respond to their calls for backup, she said.
“One time we had a chase with a stolen car and the guy bails, and I’m trying to air a description, and one of the guys gets on the radio and starts saying, ‘Here, kitty, kitty,’” Harteau recalled. “It was degrading.”
The Internal Affairs department didn’t take their complaints seriously, Harteau said, so she and her partner filed a discrimination and hostile work environment complaint with the state Department of Human Rights, which they won. The police department referred a request for comment about the case to the City Attorney’s Office, which declined to comment, and the state department did not respond to a request for comment.
Harteau had a choice: Quit or keep her badge and press on. She rose to chief “because I never went away,” she said. And even as chief, she faced second-guessing from the male-dominated department when she tried to promote more women, she said.
Harteau resigned at the mayor’s request in 2017 after an officer shot and killed a woman who had called 911 to report a rape. The officer was convicted of murder and manslaughter. There had been another controversial police shooting during her tenure.
But Harteau also tried to improve the department. Twice she brought in the US Department of Justice to review police practices. Those efforts, she said, resulted in the police creating a better system to track officer complaints and staff getting training on how to interact with protesters.
“Throughout my career I have always done considerable self-reflection, evaluating what I do,” she said. “Every day did I do my best? Probably not. Some days you are stronger and can get more accomplished, but did I make things better than when I [started]? I think so.”
About 14% of Minneapolis officers are female, according to the department.
More than 30 women officers from across the country shared similar stories with Natalie Todak, a University of Alabama criminology assistant professor. She interviewed women who’ve been promoted to elite police units such as bomb squads or SWAT teams. Their male colleagues told them things like the unit had been “pussified” since they joined, Todak said.
The women in the study are promised anonymity, Todak said, because to speak publicly about their harassment “would turn a woman into a pariah” and threaten her career.
Instead, she said, they find ways to cope. They use humor. They keep their head down.
That is what Wendy Stiver tried to do. At Dayton Police Department, where she worked for more than two decades, someone once left a feminine hygiene product affixed to an evidence slip on the windshield of the cruiser she shared with another female officer, she said.
Even after she rose to major, the sexist antics continued: A male sergeant’s name plate was placed on the woman’s bathroom door, she said, and a feminine hygiene product was stuck on another male sergeant’s door.
“They’re making these locker room jokes,” said Stiver, who now works as an executive with the Charleston, South Carolina, police department. “That was the locker room culture.”
Stiver said she never reported these incidents because she did not believe it would result in change. A Dayton police spokeswoman said the agency can’t verify those alleged incidents happened since they were not reported, adding that the department is trying to create a culture “inclusive of all people.”
How police departments can do better
Police leaders say departments are making more of an effort to increase the number of women in their ranks now than ever before – and the protests over Floyd’s death show how important that work is.
Roman, the former Newark chief, said she and other law enforcement professionals are fighting for what she’s calling “30 by 30 Initiative,” the ambitious goal of raising the percentage of female representation in law enforcement to 30% by 2030.
And it’s not just female police chiefs who are taking gender disparities seriously. Luther Reynolds, the police chief in Charleston, South Carolina, said recruiting women is one of his top priorities, and he recently removed or reassigned officers who had questioned his decision to promote a young female lieutenant.
“Some of the women I policed with I felt safer with, because they had patience, empathy… they knew how to talk to people,” Reynolds said. “Maybe they didn’t bench press 300 pounds, but they had other skills to navigate really gnarly situations.”
In Houston, Police Chief Art Acevedo said he has made a point of promoting more women. Now, just over half of the department’s assistant chiefs and division commanders are female.
Those leaders are “not placed there just because they’re a woman – it’s because they’re damn good,” Acevedo said. “It doesn’t require testosterone to do the job.”
How we reported this story
To study use of force by female officers, CNN analyzed public use of force data from four departments that include officers’ gender in their databases: Cincinnati, Indianapolis, New Orleans and Orlando.
None of the databases appear to include fatal uses of force. The data for Cincinnati, Indianapolis and New Orleans included each individual use of force by an officer against each individual suspect – so if one officer pointed their gun at three suspects in one incident, that could be counted as three uses of force. For the Orlando data, incidents were counted separately, so each officer counted may have used force against multiple people.
Correction: This story was corrected to reflect that Janee Harteau's policing career began in the 1980s, not 1990s.