“If you are white, and you’re working in a black community, and you are racist, you need to be ashamed of yourself. You took an oath!”
Warrensville Heights, Ohio, police officer Nakia Jones’s impassioned, tearful message to her fellow officers went viral following the police shooting of Alton Sterling in Louisiana. Her empathy with the victim, her guilt, and her horror, stand in sharp contrast to the way in which police and their unions often obfuscate, deny, or flat-out destroy evidence following police misconduct. Jones says in the video that she is the first, and so far only, female African-American officer in Warrensville Heights. Watching her video, it seems like maybe one thing that might help reduce police shootings is hiring more officers like her.
In fact, there is some evidence that female officers are better at deescalating violent situations and are less likely to use unnecessary force. Louis Hayes, a working police officer who also trains fellow officers as part of the Chicago-based Virtus Group, told me that, “In my professional experiences, female police officers tend to read emotionally-charged situations more accurately than their male officer counterparts.”
Because police face a lot of emotionally-charged situations in which reading things right means life or death, Hayes suggests that female officers have an advantage.
His observations have been backed up in research. A 2007 paper using data from six police departments in the United States found that women police officers were less likely to use force, and they used less force in encounters with civilians than male officers. A 2015 study of police in Queensland found the same thing. Female officers were under-represented in complaints for every category of force complaint.
In the Australian study, women made up 25 percent of the police force but were responsible for:
• 9.9 percent of complaints involving assault with a weapon
• 13.9 percent of complaints involving assault without a weapon
• 17.5 percent of complaints involving verbal abuse
When there was a complaint against female officers, the complaint also disproportionately named a male officer as well. Only 30 percent of complaints against women involved a single female officer while 56 percent of those against men involved a single male officer. Male police officers, the statistics suggest, are disproportionately worse at their jobs.
Timothy Prenzler, the Australian study co-author, said that male police officers are basically a bad idea. “The evidence supports what is obvious to people anyway,” he told me. Whether because of biology or for cultural reasons, men tend to act more aggressively and tend to be perceived as more aggressive and dangerous.
“Men commit 80 percent of crime and 95 percent of violent crime, and most crime is committed by young males in the 15-to-24-year age bracket,” Prenzler said. “So if you employ large numbers of young males as police officers you are writing a prescription for trouble, especially because they are also dealing mainly with young male offenders.”
Intuition and research both suggest that hiring women officers would reduce police violence.
Intuition and research both suggest that hiring women officers would reduce police violence. So, are police departments trying to hire more women officers?
Not really, says Prenzler. The number of women in police forces had been rising since the 1970s. But in the U.S. especially, post-9/11 militarization of the police has put a brake on the move towards women officers. Overall, female officers make up only 12 percent of the police force in the United States, a staggeringly low number.
Police departments have removed obstacle course tests and other barriers that kept, and were designed to keep, women off the force. But there is not, according to Prenzler, much effort to deliberately increase the number of women officers. And discrimination against women law enforcement officers persists. This month the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the state of Michigan alleging institutional discrimination that limited the career opportunities of women.
The reluctance to recruit more women and the chronic police use of excessive force may be ideologically connected. According to Hayes, “Female officers can have a reputation, unfairly at times, with their law enforcement peers, of being indecisive with force, even when it’s absolutely necessary.”
In the 1992 Los Angeles beating of Rodney King, California Highway Patrol officer Melanie Singer gave testimony that she wanted to give King first aid, but she was afraid to do so because she thought the other officers would ridicule her. Policing is in many ways a masculine culture. Women may not be welcome in part precisely because they are less willing to use force.
Women police officers do sometimes use excessive force, of course. Sometimes this is because of peer pressure in a male policing culture. Sometimes it’s simply because women, like men, can be violent. Lynndie England, a woman, was one of the military personnel convicted of torturing Iraqis at Abu Ghraib.
Violence against black people in the United States isn’t accidental or a mistake. It has a long history.
Women aren’t a magical solution for policing. Violence against black people in the United States isn’t accidental or a mistake. It has a long history. The interests of the police, said activist Mariame Kaba in a recent interview, “Are with the state, and protecting whatever the sate values. And for the most part, the state does not value its most marginalized members.” As a result, she says, “I don’t think we can massage the police into something that doesn’t kill us.”
Adding women to the police force, from this perspective, would just be a cosmetic change. It wouldn’t fundamentally alter the purpose of the police, which, Kaba suggests, is to control marginalized people.
Still, the very fact that police have been so slow to increase women’s role in the force suggests that increasing that role might matter. In particular, black women like Nakia Jones are, as she herself noted, rare in police departments. Black women officers are unusual enough that Prenzler knew of no studies that compared black women’s use of force to other groups.
In order to get a police force that is composed largely of black women, then, police departments would have to change a lot. First of all, they’d need to sign onto an openly anti-racist, anti-sexist agenda. They’d also have to be committed to reducing the use of force. And they’d have to accept that part of the problem with police departments is their whiteness and their masculinity. A police force that was willing to do all those things would be a very different police force than the one we’ve got. And maybe that police force, with more officers like Nakia Jones, would be one that no longer shot and killed unarmed and non-threatening black people as a matter of course.