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More Policewomen Would Make L.A.'s Streets Safer : LAPD: The department's attempts to hire more female officers are praiseworthy. But entrenched male attitudes hinder their progress.

March 01, 1992|Kay Mills | Kay Mills is author of "A Place in the News: From the Women's Pages to the Front Page" (Columbia University Press)

Women's roles in the Los Angeles Police Department--and their numbers--could change dramatically in the wake of the beating of Rodney King by four of the department's officers. But any attempts to expand their presence and influence in the force must dislodge entrenched male attitudes that regard female officers not as colleagues but as just another support system.

Of the Los Angeles Police Department's 8,202 sworn officers, 1,114, or 13%, are female. That's higher than the national average--9%--and comparable to the larger New York Police Department, though not as good as the smaller departments in Washington and San Diego. The LAPD has, by most accounts, made a good-faith effort to comply with the hiring goals established in the 1980 consent decree settling Fanchon Blake's landmark sex-discrimination suit. Its chief recruiter says the 20%-female goal set by the decree should be reached in six to eight years.

The Christopher Commission investigating the King beating found no women among the 120 officers most frequently investigated for using excessive force on the job. To try to build bridges to Los Angeles' changing neighborhoods, the commission recommended moving toward more community policing, an approach at which some argue women excel. Now the City Council is considering a resolution that the LAPD dramatically increase the number of women on the force.

The commission also reported that despite a 1987 LAPD study concluding that female officers faced "a double standard and subtle harassment and were not accepted as part of the working culture . . . the problem has not abated in the last four years. Although female LAPD officers are in fact performing effectively, they are having a difficult time being accepted on a full and equal basis."

Against this backdrop--and the process of selecting a new police chief--what should the department--and the city--be doing to better support its female officers?

Female police officers, like their male colleagues, should be measured by their accomplishments, not by gender and generalizations. But, as the Christopher Commission found and women on patrol already knew, some men on the force still regard women as their own support system rather than as colleagues to be supported. After more than 10 years in the department, one officer says she has seen "little growth" in men's attitudes.

By and large, she complained, men in the department still don't listen to women. "Nobody knows anything but a male in LAPD," she said sarcastically. "The guys wanna see if you can kick ass," she added. Sometimes, she said, she would defuse family fights, only to be frustrated by male officers increasing the tension again.

Which brings us to community policing. Capt. Janice Carlson, the department's ranking woman and commander of its Pacific Division, oversees her station's growing emphasis on this approach. She says that officers who are successful at community-based work "have an ability to communicate honestly" and are high on "approachability." In this work, Carlson feels gender is irrelevant.

But Kathy Spillar of the Fund for a Feminist Majority, which wants more women in the LAPD, argues studies show that female police officers generally possess better communication skills. "It's not that some men don't have these (skills)," she says, "but women show real strengths in the skills that a successful community-policing approach needs."

Not all women on the force are sold on this policing approach. "This is not a police department," griped one detective, "it's a social work agency. We are so stretched." She dismisses the Police Commission as a "substation" for the American Civil Liberties Union; commission members, she asserts, have "no conception of what is going on out on the street."

For argument's sake, however, assume that Chief Daryl F. Gates will finally retire and that the City Council will demand gender balance on the LAPD along the line of Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky's proposal. What next?

Currently, there is a freeze on hiring new officers. The LAPD can't find more women candidates for the force unless it adds personnel to its recruitment office. Lt. Richard O. Gonzalez, who commands the division, says he would need at least four to six more female officers doing nothing but recruiting to carry out any council gender-balance order.

If the City Council tells the LAPD to hire more women, it must also tell the voters that they are going to have to pay more or higher taxes for recruitment and training. It would also be wise to prepare for a reverse-discrimination suit. To meet the goal of a force that is 20% female, the LAPD can hire one woman in every four recruits. Increasing that percentage dramatically, as the department would have to do to achieve gender balance, could stimulate new legal battles.

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