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NEW YORK, NY – MARCH 30: The newest members of the New York City Police Department (NYPD) attend their police academy graduation ceremony at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, March 30, 2017 in New York City. Over 600 new officers were sworn in during the ceremony. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Policing is male-dominated. That needs to change

Policing is male-dominated. That needs to change

NEW YORK, NY – MARCH 30: The newest members of the New York City Police Department (NYPD) attend their police academy graduation ceremony at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, March 30, 2017 in New York City. Over 600 new officers were sworn in during the ceremony. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

On both sides of the Atlantic, the police have an intractable cultural problem. As a former police chief in the US, Jeff Patterson has seen it first hand. Here he outlines how the force’s treatment of female officers has changed over the years – and why it needs to be improved further still

Twenty-seven years. That’s how long I served as a police officer in the United States, from 1979 to 2006, starting out as an auxiliary officer and retiring as a police chief.

While the work changed a lot over the years, law enforcement in the US – as in the UK – has one long-standing, unchanging characteristic: its culture. In four decades, police institutional culture hasn’t changed that much, especially in terms of its attitudes towards women. 

Why this story?

At our recent Policing Inquiry, one of the issues we talked about was police culture and its ability to resist change. We asked Jeff Patterson, a former police officer in the US whose career spanned multiple communities and two states, to write about the entrenched sexism and misogyny in America’s police force, as well as why – and how – it should change.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, many American cities were hiring women as full police officers for the first time, after a century of being relegated to jobs as typists, file clerks and matrons. But hiring women did little to change the entrenched workplace culture those new female officers found themselves in. Back then, we all read a magazine called Police Product News, with its signature feature: the “Do You Have Court Today?” calendar centerfold. Each month it showed a young woman – often posing in a (mostly unbuttoned) police uniform shirt and a gun belt. The dimensions were perfect for hanging inside your locker door. 

That was the image of women in law enforcement: pin-up pretty and posing as police officers. This wasn’t a culture that took women seriously. Popular media didn’t help. When police departments graduated the first academy cohorts to include women, local newspapers ran Sunday profiles with photos of the most attractive female graduates handling firearms – just like “real” police officers would.

Even now, police forces are not what you would describe as gender-equitable workplaces. Women remain wholly underrepresented in law enforcement. In 2020, Police Chief magazine – a publication of the International Association of Chiefs of Police – reported that only 12 per cent of all police officers in the US are women, and that number has been stagnant for 20 years. Numbers are even lower for state police organisations, although slightly better in larger cities and federal law enforcement agencies. None comes even close to the nation’s demographics. It remains headline news when a department hires its first female police chief.

Survey data from staff across several federal law enforcement agencies, published in a 2018 report by the Department of Justice, showed that 43 per cent of women in criminal investigator roles had experienced some form of gender discrimination over the previous five years. Many of the women who participated in the study reported feeling that they were “treated differently at their office or agency based on their gender.”

At the time I joined the police in the late 70s, crimes considered to be stereotypically “women’s issues” like domestic violence and sexual assault were disparaged. For any incident between a husband and wife that didn’t result in injuries serious enough to call an ambulance the approach had been to say: “OK. Settle down. Who’s leaving for the night? Don’t make me come back here again!” 

Police saw stalking as a nuisance. The man may have been pushing the legal limits of freedom of movement, but the woman seemed paranoid. 

As for sex crimes, police only considered it a “real rape” if a stranger either threatened the victim with a knife or gun or broke into the victim’s house. Otherwise, the victim was shamed for “asking for trouble” by putting herself in a bad situation. And if the two were acquainted, it was likely just a “difference of opinion” on consent.

In the 80s and 90s, police forces initiated policies and programmes to change police attitudes towards these crimes and their victims. Laws on domestic abuse, stalking and sex offences are more enlightened than they were. Training is better. Police and prosecutors have developed best practices, including special victims units, vertical prosecution and victim assistance programs. 

Yet victims are still reluctant to report such crimes, at least in part due to concerns over privacy and fears that they won’t be taken seriously. With police forces still so male-dominated it’s not hard to see where those perceptions about police attitudes come from.

Reforming our overwhelmingly male police culture will create a system that not only serves women better but also better meets the needs of the whole of society. Police Chief cites research that women officers are more trusted by the public in times of decreased police legitimacy, have higher levels of interpersonal communication skills, have a calming effect in stressful situations and are less likely to use excessive force than their male counterparts – valuable qualities when dealing with issues like homelessness, mental health problems and helping people in deep distress. 

Policing in both the US and the UK has always been a local issue, with forces based in individual communities and subject to local governing authorities. But, as the cliché goes, while we may be limited to acting locally, we shouldn’t fail to think globally. Because one lesson from my peripatetic career is that the challenges of police culture are the same everywhere. 

As a starting point, I propose a US-UK convention on police culture; its charter should start with reaffirmation of Sir Robert Peel’s Nine Policing Principles. Read them. Those aspirations are as relevant today as in 1829.

Police culture is universal. Our expectations and standards should be, too.

Jeff Patterson was a police officer in the US from 1979 to 2006.

Photograph by Drew Angerer/Getty Images