Despite expanding rapidly over the past two decades, federal law enforcement agencies remain almost as male-dominated as they were during the Clinton administration, according to a new POLITICO survey — the first to assess the gender gap in federal law enforcement in nearly a decade. In 1996, women held about 14 percent of the country’s federal law enforcement jobs; today, women represent just 15 percent. At this rate, it will be 700 years before women hold half of these jobs.
From Customs and Border Protection to the Secret Service, large agencies are trundling along in a sort of time machine, with men dominating the ranks in ways they no longer do across the rest of government or even many large police departments. On a percentage basis, there are now more female members of Congress than female officers at the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The lowest ratio of all belongs to the Patrol. Just 5 percent of its agents are female, which means the Border Patrol employs fewer women than the U.S. Marines (at 8 percent). The active-duty military has three times as many women as the Border Patrol, on a proportional basis (at 16 percent).
There is no conclusive evidence that women are any better or worse at policing than men. Some studies have shown that women are less likely to be involved in police shootings or to prompt a complaint from civilians, but most of those studies are dated and the sample sizes are very small. As most cops will tell you, training and supervision matter more than biology, and the variation between individuals is much greater than between genders.
But there is reason to believe that a law enforcement agency that does not remotely resemble the population it serves risks losing the trust of those people. After last year’s presidential election, Hillary Clinton and others have accused former FBI Director James Comey of bowing to pressure from the bureau’s conservative New York City field office when he reopened an investigation into her private-server emails days before the election. Some critics noted that the claim might be easier to dismiss if the Bureau were not 80 percent male and 80 percent white.
Beyond symbolism, these imbalances also raise questions about the competence of these agencies. At the most obvious level, female agents are needed to do invasive searches of women — a not-uncommon occurrence at the border in particular (and one reason why Israel’s Border Guard Police has nearly 25 percent women). In other agencies, female officers are critical for undercover work. Most importantly, any organization that fails to engage half the population in its hiring is leaving behind serious talent.
Somewhat surprisingly, given the agency’s paltry percentage of female agents, the Border Patrol’s newest acting chief is a woman — for the first time in the agency’s 93-year history. Carla Provost is a veteran agent who commands respect up and down the ranks, and has vowed to do better. “There’s more we can do to recruit women,” she told POLITICO in an interview in her office in Washington this fall. “The more women, the more African-Americans, the more different groups — it just makes us better.”
Agents who don’t fit the stereotype can defuse tense situations, she says. “There’s a different approach when a female agent comes onto the scene,” Provost says. “I experienced this myself. In stressful situations, sometimes it’s a calming effect.” But the agency’s history suggests change will be difficult. When Provost started as a new agent 22 years ago, the Border Patrol had 5 percent women—the same ratio it has today.
At the other end of the spectrum, the most gender-balanced outfits include federal probation and pretrial services, whose officers are perfectly balanced at 50 percent women, as well as IRS special agents and various offices of inspectors general, which boast 28 percent women or more. But at the largest federal law enforcement agencies, the percentages of women have barely changed since the last such survey, conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2008.
Coming at a time when the Department of Justice has been urging local police departments to diversify their own ranks, this enduring imbalance is ironic — and a little mysterious.
Overall, the federal government is unusually equitable when it comes to gender. Women hold 43 percent of the jobs and more than a third of the leadership roles. Female government executives actually earn slightly more than their male counterparts.
It’s no surprise that more men go into law enforcement than women, but that doesn’t explain why the San Diego and Detroit police departments have more women on a percentage basis than the FBI. There seems to be something uniquely intractable about federal law enforcement, suggesting a problem beyond the simple math of gender equality. Combined, federal law enforcement agencies represent a police force almost three times the size of the New York City Police Department, with vast powers to arrest and detain civilians. The more skewed their demographics, generally speaking, the less effective they will be.
“I do think people want the government to look like them,” says Julie Myers Wood, the former head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under President George W. Bush. “On the cases I worked, sometimes the strongest agents were men and sometimes women. It’s the mixture that’s valuable. We’re enforcing all of our laws.”
Earlier this year, President Donald Trump issued executive orders directing the Department of Homeland Security to hire 5,000 more Border Patrol agents and 10,000 more immigration officers. Given these agencies’ longstanding troubles attracting and onboarding qualified candidates, they would need to persuade more than a million Americans to apply just to get anywhere near those goals, according to a July report from the Department’s Office of the Inspector General. Given past application rates, the chances of reaching those numbers before the hiring window ends in 2019 are virtually zero.
But there is nothing inevitable about the dearth of women in law enforcement. After surveying more than 40 agencies and interviewing current and former law enforcement officers of a variety of ranks, POLITICO has identified specific ways that departments could attract and retain more female officers, should they truly desire to do so.
The best lessons come not from federal agencies but from the most country’s most innovative municipal police forces. These departments are years ahead of many federal agencies, not just in their hiring but in their philosophy. They operate in different contexts, but they share the same fundamental problem: You cannot protect a community that will not talk to you.
“I honestly don’t think policing will have any chance of reclaiming lost ground or winning new hearts unless we are making an all-out blitzkrieg to incorporate diversity within our ranks,” says Michael Koval, the police chief of Madison, Wisconsin, where women have made up about 30 percent of the ranks for at least 17 years — one of the highest rates in the country. “Unless we can truly, authentically create a workforce that is reflective of our community, I think we will continue to slip and slide and lose whatever ground we may currently enjoy.”
Trouble on the border
As a computer science student at the University of Texas at El Paso, Erika King had never considered working for the Border Patrol. Then, one day 15 years ago, she met a recruiter at a career day fair who told her the Border Patrol was looking for more women. She started imagining a very different life for herself. “I felt like I had been going to school forever,” she says, and she missed being outside. “I was never really the type of girl to wear dresses and want to play with Barbies. I wanted to play in the dirt and ride my bike.”
At the Border Patrol’s training academy, then located in Charleston, South Carolina, she discovered that the agency was even more male-dominated than her computer science classes — and cultivated a very specific culture.
“The Border Patrol is paramilitary,” King says. The recruits ran in cadence; they polished their boots and their brass and presented themselves for inspection; they got screamed at by their instructors and tried to avoid making eye contact. The Border Patrol is not a military organization, but it often acts like it is — one of the many reasons for the agency’s yawning gender gap. Individuality is discouraged. Men cannot have beards, and women with longer hair must wear it up in a tight bun. But King found she liked the camaraderie and structure that the academy fostered, and she felt a growing sense of pride in the work she would do.
To join, female recruits have to meet the same physical standards as the male recruits — a point that King and other female agents stressed was non-negotiable. If there had been a double standard, they may not have been prepared for the job, they say, and it would have been far harder to overcome the doubts of men in their organization. But the Border Patrol’s physical challenges, which include scaling a 6.5-ft. wall, do not necessarily match up to the actual job tasks. And once agents pass, they never have to take the fitness test again—suggesting the ordeal may be as much a hazing ritual as it is a test of job readiness.
After she passed her fitness, Spanish and academic tests, King returned to El Paso to begin her new career. Once she was out on patrol, parked in her agency-issued vehicle on the levee overlooking the Rio Grande River on the edge of Mexico, King found out that the hardest part of the job was managing boredom. “Believe it or not, it is physically and mentally taxing to sit in a vehicle for up to 10 hours a day,” she says. “You need to try and keep yourself busy.”
King’s first job is to listen: to the dispatcher, who calls out the numbers of motion-detector sensors, hidden in the sand, that have been tripped by fleeing migrants; for the sounds of dogs barking in back yards, sometimes a sign there’s a stranger in someone’s backyard.
To pass the time, she also listens to “This American Life,” the “TED Radio Hour” and other podcasts. To stay alert, she sometimes goes on short hikes in the desert near her posting, watching out for cacti and snakes and looking for footprints. She tries to stay out of the sun and drink water—but not too much water. There are few places for a woman to go to the bathroom discreetly on the El Paso border without a camera watching, and agents are not allowed to leave their posting.
About once a shift, she hears something. And in that second, King’s job is to transform: to go from listening to chasing, at an all-out sprint sometimes, and then, just as quickly, from chasing to rescuing. A good Border Patrol agent must be able to quickly distinguish a man searching for work from a man smuggling drugs. The shift from humanitarian relief to combat can happen without warning, requiring agility that’s as much mental as physical.
The Border Patrol’s rhetoric focuses on its counterterrorism mission, a popular way to attract resources and prestige in the modern age, but most agents will never encounter anyone associated with terrorism. The vast majority of migrants are looking for work or fleeing violence or both. They tend to be worn down from the journey, and most surrender immediately. “For the most part, they are embarrassed,” King says. “They know they’re breaking the law.”
Being a female agent in this environment is a blessing and a curse, depending on the day. A critical part of King’s job is to gather information — to find out whether the migrant is afraid to return to his or her country and is applying for amnesty; to learn who the “coyote” is and how much he was paid to smuggle the group across the border; to find out whether a woman has been sexually assaulted on the journey. “I see the difference it makes whenever we’re processing a family group or females,” King says. “They’re more willing to open up to us as females, to tell us things they probably wouldn’t divulge to a male agent.”
This intelligence gathering is something that the Border Patrol as a whole does not do very well, according to researchers and immigration advocates who have witnessed these conversations or read the resulting paperwork. When agents fail to communicate, they can miss opportunities to pursue bigger cases against human traffickers, document forgers and drug smugglers — or, more often, they can doom a migrant’s legal case.
“That interview is crucial,” says Linda Rivas, managing attorney at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso. “That’s kind of [migrants’] first chance at proving to the U.S. government that they are to be believed.”
Coming from more traditional Latin American cultures, some migrants trust female agents more — while others underestimate them. King remembers finding birth control pills in one woman’s purse, and the woman’s quiet explanation that they were for her 12-year-old daughter, sitting nearby. The mother said that she’d known the girl might be raped on the perilous journey to America, so she had taken precautions — a desperate pragmatism that King has never forgotten.
Another time, a woman at a processing center would not allow any of the male agents to hold her infant so she could fill out the paperwork. When she saw King, she handed the baby over without question. King does not, in fact, have any children, but she took the baby and played her part — a common story told by female law enforcement officers. Rightly or wrongly, people see female cops differently than male cops, and those optics matter.
On other days, King’s job has been made more difficult by her gender. When women or minorities make up a very small percentage of any industry, they stand out. They are tokens, a term Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter coined in the 1970s. They do not have the critical mass to change the culture, so they must fit into it. But they are seen as so strange and exotic that they can never really blend in.
More than once, King says, she has been assaulted or otherwise toyed with because she was a female agent. One day, while she was apprehending a group of six undocumented migrants in El Paso, patting them down for weapons and handcuffing their wrists, one of the men bolted into the distance. She suspected he had smuggled the group across, and she spent the rest of the day in pursuit. That night, he tripped a sensor, and King snuck up on him in the darkness on the side of the I-10 freeway.
“Why did you run?” she asked.
“Because you’re a girl,” he said, “and you weren’t gonna catch up to me.”
“Well, this girl caught you,” she replied.
Telling this story, King shakes her head, embarrassed for both of them. “Then he actually started flirting, and he tells me, ‘If I would’ve known you were this pretty, I wouldn’t have run.’”
Three years ago, facing a surge of women and children crossing the border from Central America, the Border Patrol did something unprecedented to try to recruit more female agents. The agency got special permission from the Office of Personnel Management to run a special, women-only recruitment campaign. They posted ads asking for women “to protect American interests and secure our Nation while building a meaningful and rewarding career,” and local and national media outlets ran stories about the effort.
In 10 days, 4,800 women applied to the agency, suggesting the initiative was a success. But of all those women, only 33 — or less than 1 percent — were actually hired.
When asked what happened to the 99 percent of applicants who did not make it, Border Patrol officials, including Acting Chief Provost, referred questions to Assistant Commissioner Linda Jacksta, who oversees human resources management for Customs and Border Protection. Through her spokesperson, Jacksta declined to be interviewed. Her office, via email, explained that “CBP does not track gender-specific ‘drop out’ information during the hiring process,” citing federal regulations prohibiting such monitoring. But according to the Office of Personnel Management, there is no regulation preventing agencies from retroactively analyzing hiring decisions to try to understand where biases might exist. To the contrary, “OPM encourages agencies as part of their annual barrier analysis to review applicant, hiring and employee data for trends or outcomes related to different demographic groups,” according to an OPM spokesperson. Looking at this data could help reveal when and why women are falling out of the Border Patrol’s pipeline, but it appears CBP does not conduct this analysis, due to a misreading of federal regulations.
Around the same time as the women-only job announcement, the agency also set up a working group to study the concerns of women in the Border Patrol. Deputy Chief Gloria Chavez participated in this process and found it to be productive, leading, for example, to a better mentorship program for women across CBP. “Does the Border Patrol benefit from having women? The answer is absolutely yes,” says Chavez, who has been with the agency for 22 years and now oversees the law enforcement operations directorate. “I find it brings a sense of balance.”
When asked to share the after-action reports from this effort, however, a Border Patrol spokesperson responded that the document was “internal.”
In the past several years, the agency has tried to do a better job targeting women, visiting women’s colleges like Spelman in Atlanta and Smith in Northampton, Massachusetts, as well as female athletic competitions, including the Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament. But it has simultaneously increased its efforts to recruit military veterans who can speed through the application process faster under federal rules that preference veterans in government hiring.
On one level, this approach makes sense, since many veterans have some of the same skills required of agents. But veterans also tend to be disproportionately male. And the Border Patrol is not after all a military outfit. Indeed, its history suggests it needs to cultivate a more varied skill set.
According to an independent review conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum in 2013, Border Patrol agents have repeatedly taken unnecessarily aggressive actions that put agents and civilians in harm’s way. The last time the Border Patrol went on a hiring spree, after 9/11, the agency ended up employing people who should never be trusted with a badge, including drug cartel members. As POLITICO has chronicled in the past, agents have shot and killed at least 46 people since 2004. The agency has released almost no information about disciplinary measures taken in response. From 2005 to 2012, CBP officers were arrested for various kinds of misbehavior at the rate of almost one per day, according to a 2012 Government Accountability Office report.
Since then, the Border Patrol has worked to improve its training and its use-of-force policy. But through its hiring practices and its culture, the agency still preferences agents who act more like soldiers than guardians, and it will be hard to attract more women — and different kinds of men — with that mindset in place.
To witness its efforts to diversify, CBP invited POLITICO to a recruitment event at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, this fall. It was an informative event, with spirited, uniformed recruiters who explained the process clearly and handed out Border Patrol pens and water bottles. But Camp Lejeune is a Marine Corps base — not a place you’d naturally think to go to find women. Of the 14 attendees at the day’s two sessions, only one was female.
In all of 2016, CBP held 4,400 recruitment events. Of those events, 26 percent targeted veterans and 5 percent targeted women. Those ratios are almost exactly the same as the ratios of veterans and women in the Border Patrol overall. Not coincidentally, an outfit that talks mostly to men ends up being mostly male.
Some of the Border Patrol’s other problems with recruiting and retaining women cannot be easily fixed. Joining up requires relocating for four months to the agency’s residential academy in a remote part of New Mexico — a requirement that is impossible for most single parents to meet (and an approach that most police departments have moved away from). Like other federal law enforcement agencies, the Border Patrol also requires officers to move if they want to be promoted up the ranks — a disruptive mandate that can discourage women, who still tend to take on a majority of child care obligations.
“We’re not a standard police department,” Provost says. “You’re asking people to pick up and move to a little border town that maybe doesn’t have good school systems. We’re asking people to work night shifts in the desert, by themselves.”
Given these constraints, Provost tries to be realistic. “I don’t ever see our numbers being huge,” she says. She would like to reach 10 percent women, she says, but does not offer a timeline for achieving that goal.
It is easy to believe that the Border Patrol’s leadership would like to hire more women; it is hard to believe it is a priority, particularly since CBP, which oversees the hiring, does not analyze basic information that could help officials learn how to do better. In an email, CBP noted that more than 20 percent of new hires last year were female—helping to boost the percentage of female agents a little less than 1 percentage point. But of all those newly hired female agents, only 86 percent are still there—versus 92 percent of male agents. If CBP officials know why that is or how it could be improved, they are not saying.
A different view of policing
One way to glimpse how the Border Patrol and other federal law enforcement agencies might change if they had more women is to observe a department that has already made this transformation.
This fall, POLITICO visited one of the most gender diverse police departments in America. The Madison, Wisconsin, police department has had about 30 percent women since at least 2000, when it began keeping digital records. That is a magic number, according to research on group behavior: At around 25 to 30 percent, women reach critical mass and can begin influencing the culture of an organization instead of just trying to conform to it.
A few days before Halloween, Madison Police Officer Natalie Deibel put her long brown hair in a pony tail, pulled on her bulletproof vest, checked out a rifle and climbed into her department-issued SUV for her evening shift. Madison is a small city of a quarter of a million people, perched between two large lakes and home to the state capital and the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus. The city has problems with drug and alcohol use and a rising violent crime rate but fewer than a dozen homicides a year.
Nothing about Deibel fit the stereotype for a cop. She was relentlessly cheerful, for one thing. And she was wearing purple sunglasses featuring tiny cat faces, for another. “It’s one way to connect with people, and it also, frankly, is a benefit investigatively,” Deibel explained, laughing. When people see a female cop wearing ridiculous sunglasses, it disrupts their narrative about cops in general. Her earrings, featuring Leslie Knope from “Parks and Rec,” served the same purpose: to render her less like a cop and more human. “I can’t do my job if people don’t tell me things. So to me, it’s a no-brainer.”
Before becoming a police officer three years ago, Deibel worked as a teacher and then attended graduate school. Right before joining the department, she was working, improbably enough, on a Ph.D. dissertation on 17th century gender, class and ethnic power structures in the American colonies.
“What I found is that I missed people,” Deibel says. She’d spent time volunteering with nonprofits that help victims of sexual assault, where she got to see how some police officers interacted with victims. “I saw victims being re-traumatized by police officers who, simply because of their lack of life experience or a lack of training, did not [show] that level of compassion that I wanted to be there for those victims.”
Deibel read about the Madison police department’s focus on diversity and cold-called the recruiting sergeant (now the chief). He asked about her research, sounding genuinely curious, and he encouraged her to submit her application.
Madison’s Police Academy is the opposite of the Border Patrol Academy in almost every way. It is not residential; recruits go there for eight hours a day and then go home. “I don’t want our people eating, living, sleeping, cop shop 24/7,” says Chief Koval, “because that’s just a reinforcement of the sort of dichotomy of, ‘us versus them.’ We don’t want them to get caught up in this cop culture that is so insidious.”
Officers repeatedly described the academy as a “collaborative adult learning space,” using literally those words. It sounded less like a boot camp than a wellness center. “I found my academy experience to be very warm, empathetic place where people’s experiences were valued right away,” Deibel says.
If recruits are struggling with a certain class or skill, they get extra help. If they fail the pre-academy fitness test, they can now take it again a few months later. A third of Deibel’s class was female, and those recruits remain among her closest friends. This year’s class is 37 percent female.
“We just aren’t militaristic,” says Mary Schauf, Madison’s captain of training. “It doesn’t work for us. We treat them like we want them to treat our community, and I don’t want them to treat our community like militaristic robots.”
Over the years, Koval has found ways to target women and all kinds of atypical candidates. “We’re not looking for recovering Navy SEALs or U.S. Rangers,” he says. “We’re looking for critical thinkers, people who are empathetic, good communicators, great at crisis intervention.” The department has 20 percent minority officers, roughly mirroring the local population. Every year, the department sends a wave of recruitment letters to the coaches of female sports teams at universities around the Midwest, proven talent pools for the department. In July, the department helps run CampHERO, a two-week program to introduce girls to emergency services—including lessons in rappelling and handcuffing stuffed animals.
The applicants who tend to fare the worst are the ones from the military or other police departments, Koval says. During the interview process, when asked to explain their vision of law enforcement, they tend to talk only about enforcing the laws. “They don’t talk about the dimensions of the social work that are very, very real for us,” Koval says. “Enforcement of the law is about 20 percent of what we do. The other 80 percent is a lot of relational stuff, a lot of mediation, diagnostics, referral — a lot of collaboration that has nothing to do with law enforcement. Nothing.”
In interviews with a dozen of Madison’s 461 police officers, all of them spoke about policing in the same, unusual way. They talked about “connecting” with victims, witnesses and suspects, and making themselves “vulnerable” in order to build trust. Policing sounded more like speed dating than law enforcement, to hear them tell it.
Upon arriving at a crime scene, explains Detective Lieutenant Paige Valenta, officers need to figure out what happened. They need, as she puts it, someone to “make eye contact.” Then they can start to talk, which changes everything. But here’s the thing: It’s hard to predict who will get eye contact. Sometimes it’s the female officer, and sometimes it’s not. Maybe it’s the African-American officer with a goatee. That’s why police need to come in different varieties, she says. To increase the odds of connecting. “It’s very important to have a lot of different people to make eye contact with.”
During one four-hour period with Deibel, she went out on several calls, all of which involved different levels of eye contact. First, there was a large and profoundly inebriated man wearing cargo shorts, a black puffy jacket and one red sock, whom she was able to calm down almost immediately.
“I wasn’t even doing nothing,” the man protested after she approached him on a street corner downtown.
“Actually, three people called us on their way home from work, worried about you,” Deibel said in a loud, animated voice, not unlike a teacher talking to a child. “They were afraid you were walking into traffic.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the man said.
“What’s going on with the drinking?” Deibel asked, handing him her card.
“My sister died,” the man said. “My friend died. Everybody’s dying. My daughter almost died.”
“Is there someone you talk to? What’s your daughter’s name? Don’t close your eyes.”
While the conversation went on like this, another officer searched the man’s name on his laptop and discovered that he was violating the rules of his probation by drinking. He walked back and swiftly handcuffed the man, who was now calm, thanks to Deibel. As the man was led to a patrol car, he slowly turned Deibel’s card over and over in his hands, now cuffed behind his back. The officers emptied his pockets of coins and a fidget spinner, leaving him with only the card in his possession, on his way to jail.
But then, an hour later, when she was called to check out a semi-conscious man lying in the door of a downtown business, Deibel was not able to connect. The man, also intoxicated and passing in and out of consciousness, did not want to talk to her. She tried to calm him down and ask him questions, and it did not work. “Shut up, bitch. I don’t want to talk to you,” he yelled repeatedly.
Deibel let another officer — a male — do more of the talking. Then she helped the other officers get the man into a patrol car so that he could be taken to a detox facility to sleep it off. “That was actually like the nicest profanity I’ve heard this week,” Deibel commented.
While the Border Patrol does a very different job than the Madison Police Department, both organizations need to communicate with the public, work as unified teams and attract qualified people to do difficult and sometimes dangerous work. Their jobs require intelligence-gathering, problem-solving and social-service work, not just marksmanship and arrest tactics. Different kinds of people can bring more creative solutions to bear. Notably, female officers in Madison (and other, larger departments including New York City) report using force in their encounters with the public less often than male officers.
What Madison chiefs have learned over the years is that diversity needs to be a priority from the top down through the department. “It absolutely starts from the top,” says Assistant Chief Susan Williams, who has spent 29 years at the department. “You won’t have a department that embraces diversity unless that is something that is absolutely supported and emphasized by the chief.” Otherwise, without that continuous counterpressure, a police department will revert to homogeneity, Williams says. And that would make the job much harder, says Koval. “How would I look if we had 400 white guys with bad haircuts like me? It would be very hard to build those relationships if everyone had the same life experiences.”
Another key lesson is that the Academy needs to be a place where non-traditional recruits fit in. Otherwise, white men will be the most likely to persist, explains Training Team Lieutenant Marianne Flynn Statz. “When you automatically belong, you’re not aware that you feel like you belong when you walk in a room. Women don’t necessarily feel like that,” she says. That’s why it’s so important to offer people second chances if, say, they fail the fitness test. “When you make that invite, ‘Come on back,’ it says, ‘You belong here. You have a chance. We want you here.’”
Finally, the entire organization needs to shift from a warrior to a guardian mindset, an evolution that has been slow in coming to most municipal departments, let alone federal agencies. “We unapologetically market ourselves as social workers in uniform,” says Koval. That approach turns off some gung-ho recruits, he concedes, and that is the idea.
“I can teach a monkey how to shoot a Glock,” he says. “The cerebral skills, the relational skills, that is the elusive commodity that you have to search for if you really want to be true guardians.”
The work continues, even in Madison. There are currently no women on the SWAT team, though two were recently promoted out of it. The chief and his three assistant chiefs are all white. The city has paid out millions of dollars in civil cases related to at least three police shootings of civilians in recent years (though no criminal liability has been found). “We’re still experiencing the same issues many departments are,” Koval says. “We’re a constant work in progress."
Trying to reach a critical mass
Outside of Madison, Wisconsin, female officers do not, generally speaking, like to talk about their gender. When asked about it, most get a pained expression on their faces. They’ve spent their careers trying to transcend gender.
“I didn’t want to be known as the ‘first woman.’ I wanted to be known as someone selected by my merit,” says Jan Fedarcyk, who retired in 2012 as the first woman to lead the FBI’s New York field office, overseeing 2,000 agents. “You have to prove yourself constantly, and there’s a smaller margin of error. You want to be recognized as competent.”
Most high-ranking women had generous and career-changing mentors who were men. “The FBI was great to me,” says Kristy Kottis, who retired in 2014 after leading the Threat Response Squad of the Joint Terrorism Task Force in the New York office. “If it was not for fine, level-headed men, who do not see gender, I wouldn’t be where I was.”
One day, hopefully, more officers will not “see” gender — or at least see it differently. But when the gender imbalance is extreme, as it is in most federal agencies, it can cause all manner of distortions, some of which are hard to talk about openly.
At one large federal agency, for example, women who are promoted are routinely assumed by rank and file agents to have “slept their way to the top,” according a female agent who asked that her name be withheld out of concern for her job. That kind of talk creates a perverse incentive, making women think twice about how a promotion will be perceived, she says.
To build camaraderie, female agents keep many of their true feelings to themselves, like other minorities in the profession. And it’s not just a matter of fitting in; law enforcement agents need to rely upon each other as a matter of life and death, so trust trumps justice. “You don’t want to be that female,” the agent says. “Where all the guys are like ‘Shh, don’t say anything around her because she’s gonna get you in trouble.’ I don’t want to be that girl. I want them to trust me and feel comfortable around me.”
Her own rule, she says, is that her fellow officers can talk about other women’s “tits and ass” all they want as long as they don’t talk about her. It’s a sad compromise, she admits. “I’m sure they’re talking about my tits and ass with somebody else, you know? They’re just not doing it to my face. I guess, should I be grateful? ‘Oh thank you?’ It’s not easy, that’s for sure.”
Generally speaking, female police officers report higher levels of harassment and perceived bias in promotion and assignments, along with an insidious sense of being undersupported by their superiors, according to past surveys. One survey of female agents at the federal level identified a lack of respect as the biggest barrier facing women in the field. Six in 10 said there are not enough female role models. Many also complained about the lack of family friendly policies, including shift work and mandatory relocations in certain agencies. But the culture will be the hardest and most important problem to fix.
That culture is part of the warrior model of policing, which took decades to entrench itself in American law enforcement agencies, according to a 2016 report by the advocacy group Women in Federal Law Enforcement, and “has created an ‘us vs. them’ mentality that bleeds into many aspects of the profession.”
The fastest way to change that culture is to hire different people. “There is nothing more important to the future of law enforcement than the successful recruitment, retention, and promotion of highly qualified women and underrepresented minorities,” the report concludes.
Janette Sheil is currently the chief of the Program Oversight Branch at the Probation and Pretrial Services Office, the federal law enforcement agency with more women on a percentage basis than any other. When she first arrived there in 1990, after leaving her job as a special agent at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, she knew she was going to a much more gender-balanced agency. But she did not know what a difference it would make.
“As soon as I walked in the door, I knew I’d made the right choice. I was treated with respect from the first minute. Gender had no bearing on my job,” she says. Gender was irrelevant because women had reached a critical mass; their presence was normal, not bizarre. “I worked with a lot of very competent, well-educated women, and several were in management positions.”
When that tipping point is reached, agencies can become more effective, positive places to be — not just for women but for men, says Cathy Lanier, the first female police chief of Washington, D.C., and, now, the first woman to head up security for the National Football League.
“When I first started in the chief’s role, I was able to do a lot of things that my male counterparts couldn’t do,” she says. At crime scenes, for example, Lanier could be seen walking past the police tape and putting her arm around the mother of a victim. If an officer was injured, she would hold his hand.
“When I first started doing that, showing a little bit of compassion, people kind of looked a little shocked,” she remembers. “But I think I could pull it off a lot easier than a male chief. And after a while, it became more acceptable.” In this small way, she gave permission to officers — male and female — to be human, which could make their lives easier in all kinds of ways.
“Just because you’ve got a uniform on doesn’t mean you have to be devoid of any emotion.”
Reena Flores and Derek Robertson contributed to this report. Graphics by Sarah Frostenson and Jeremy CF Lin.