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She's Policing the Police

Law enforcement: Former Portland Chief Penny Harrington now watches out for the rights of women officers everywhere.

March 07, 1997|ANNE BEATTS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The story about the bulletproof vests is one of her favorites.

"Back in the '70s, when bulletproof vests first came in, they ordered the same vests for men and women police officers. Only the vests didn't fit the women at all. They were very stiff, and they stuck straight out in front of them. So the company sent another shipment of vests made specially for women--and they had just cut two holes in front for their breasts.

"The next version, they had tried to shape the material into bra cups. It looked like something Madonna would wear, these pointed metallic things. You could impale someone with them. The men were going into hysterics just looking at them."

When, finally, the manufacturer came up with a more flexible material, a new problem arose. "The supply officer in charge of measuring the women was feeling them up. I had all these complaints. But the lieutenant's attitude was that it was no big deal. I was so angry, I got right into his space and started to run my hands over his chest and down his front. By the time I got to his belt, he had agreed to let the women go to a female tailor."

The speaker is Penny Harrington, a petite, compact 55-year-old with a light brown bubble cut and big glasses who looks more like your favorite grade-school teacher than a cop. But 10 years ago, she was the first--and at that time, the only--woman to become the chief of police of a major American city: Portland, Ore.

Now she is in Los Angeles with a new job and a new agenda.

Chief Penny Harrington is the director of the L.A.-based National Center for Women and Policing, an organization with the ambitious goal of getting more women into police work, helping them to reach higher levels in their departments, and reforming the way women in policing are perceived and treated by their fellow officers.

If you're a woman in law enforcement anywhere in this country, the center is there to help you--and it's most likely Harrington who'll be on the other end of the phone.

*

This weekend, more than 350 police officers and their families will gather at the Sheraton Hotel in Anaheim to attend the organization's second annual conference, optimistically and somewhat wordily titled "Police Leadership for the 21st Century: Women Implementing Change." The conference is open to the public, so any Angelenos who are not made nervous by the idea of so many cops in one place are welcome to attend. Hunter S. Thompson is not expected. Janet Reno was invited but declined for the second year in a row. "It'll take over a thousand people for her to come out," Harrington says.

Among the issues dealt with at the three-day conference will be community policing, victims' rights, domestic violence--including police family violence--and preventing and eliminating sex discrimination and sexual harassment. Brig. Gen. Evelyn Pat Foote, who's spearheading the sexual harassment investigation in the U.S. Army, is a keynote speaker.

"Sexual harassment is not about sex, it's about power," Harrington says. "Sadly, the typical male cop's reaction to a female cop is: Either she'll sleep with me, and then she's frigid, or she's a lesbian. Those are your choices. I'm not saying this is true of all police officers, of course, but it's probably the most serious problem facing women in law enforcement."

*

Wind Harrington up on the issue of sexual harassment in the police force in general, and the Los Angeles Police Department in particular, and you'll get an earful. A fully documented earful.

Appointed to the Women's Advisory Council in 1992 by the L.A. Police Commission, she spent 18 months studying every aspect of the LAPD's personnel system.

"We looked at how they recruit, how they promote, how they assign, how they train, how they respond to domestic violence, all that kind of thing."

The result was "A Blueprint for Gender Equity in the LAPD," a report published in October 1993, containing more than 170 recommendations for change. "So now the Police Department is supposed to be implementing those recommendations. In truth, they have done little or nothing," Harrington says. (The LAPD has acknowledged that it has a problem with harassment in the ranks but says it is working on it.)

A reporter suggests that change may not occur until groups of women converge on the Beverly Center and threaten to burn it down. Harrington allows herself a smile and explains that there is, in fact, an economic basis for encouraging women in police work.

"It is beneficial for police departments to hire more women because statistics show that women officers engender fewer citizens' complaints and thus save taxpayers money that would be spent on lawsuits.

"Meanwhile all the studies show that women are just as good at the job as the men, by any measure you want to use."

The LAPD has just removed one way of measuring police recruits, by abolishing the 5-foot height requirement. Surely Harrington finds that encouraging news?

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