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Why Aren’t U.S. Police Departments Recruiting More Women?

This simple tactic for reducing violent incidents with officers, addressing sexual assault, and more is rarely used in America.

The message is chillingly clear: If you’re raped or sexually assaulted in Baltimore these days, don’t expect much from the police.

Earlier this month, a Department of Justice investigation found the Baltimore Police department has been shockingly negligent in responding to sex crimes, including leaving the majority of rape kits untested and ignoring evidence. It described a culture of hostility towards victims, including officers who called women “whores” who are trying to “mess up guys’ lives,” according to the report. The inquiry  follows a 2010 investigation by The Baltimore Sun detailing how police dismissed as “unfounded” one in three rape and sexual assault reports, the highest in the nation.

Research shows that in the United States and abroad, the “negligence” described in the Justice Department report could be alleviated if law-enforcement agencies recruited more women officers. In total, 400 women officers serve on the police force in Baltimore, out of 2535 sworn members—that’s just 15.8 percent. Despite the criticisms in the report, James Handley, the director of recruitment of the Baltimore Police Department, said he was not changing his recruitment strategy to bring in more women. “That’s higher than the national average,” he said. “We’re doing pretty good.”

But many leading women police officers disagree. Deborah Friedl has 30 years with the Lowell Police Department in Massachusetts, and she is now deputy superintendent of police there, the first woman to hold that job. For at least a decade, she and an international cadre of women police leaders, including The National Center for Women and Policing in the U.S. have been promoting research showing that the best way to reduce rates of violence against women, sexual assault, rape, and homicide is to hire more women officers.

They’ve gotten almost no attention. “I’m so discouraged at this stage of my career,” said Friedl, who is also vice president of the International Association of Women Police Officers. “There’s no energy about doing anything to recruit women or show any effort to do your best to recruit women.”

The same goes for Carmit Segal, a professor at the University of Zurich, who has led research into the impact of women police officers on crime reduction, and specifically crimes against women. She read the Department of Justice report “out of curiosity” to see if it made recommendations to hire more officers. It did not.

“I’m amazed there was no mention of gender,” said Segal. “Some of these statements, like, ‘Did you enjoy yourself?’ to a woman who was raped … I don’t see how a woman police officer could make that statement.” She wrote a research report in 2014 with Amalia Miller of the University of Virginia that studied the integration of women in U.S. policing between the late 1970s and early 1990s on violent crime reporting and domestic violence escalation and found that female officers improved police quality. They also used crime-victimization data and found that as female representation increases among officers in an area, violent crime against women in that area, especially domestic violence, was reported to police at significantly higher rates.

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[Photo Credit: Jim Young / Reuters]
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