Margaret Moore

(WOMENSENEWS)–Margo Frasier says she’s ready for a new challenge and won’t run for reelection when her second four-year term as sheriff of Travis County, Texas, expires at the end of this year.

It remains to be seen how the county will honor Frasier, a 20-year veteran of the force and the first woman to head the sheriff’s department. She is also is openly gay, with a domestic partner and an 11-year-old daughter. But perhaps the greatest tribute to the ground Frasier brokehas already taken place far beyond the arid plains of Austin. From San Francisco to Boston, Detroit to Milwaukee, mayors of large U.S. cities are for the first time appointing women to head their police departments.

“Things need to be constantly changing to stay relevant . . . and women bring a different style,” said Margaret Moore, director of the National Center for Women and Policing in Arlington, Va. “The infusion of different points of view is essential. I’m not saying women are the answer to every police department’s problems, but they have to be given a chance.”

The growth of women in large law enforcement agencies–defined as employing 100 or more sworn personnel–has been slow-moving over the past decade. Women accounted for just 12.7 percent of all such law enforcement officers in 2001, down from 14.3 percent in 1999 and 13 percent in 2000, according to a 2002 survey by the National Center for Women and Policing. What’s more, women held just 7.3 percent of all top command positions in 2001.

Corruption and allegations of police brutality, stale public safety initiatives and a recent spike in the number of violent crimes have led a handful of big-city mayors to shake up their police departments with historic appointments of women in leading roles.

On Feb. 19, Kathleen O’Toole was sworn in as police commissioner of Boston, while Heather Fong was named interim police chief of San Francisco in late January. For two of the most liberal-leaning cities in the nation, it is the first time either has had a woman leading its police department. Other recent police chief appointments include Ella M. Bully Cummings in Detroit, Mich., and Nan Hegerty in Milwaukee, Wis.

A Different Sensibility

Each of the recently appointed woman have acknowledged their unique situations–“My whole career has been a tryout,” Fong told The Associated Press–yet most observers say it is that uniqueness that is each woman’s greatest asset. Because the vast majority of women lack the ability to physically intimidate others, Moore said, they are more adept at defusing volatile situations through words rather than force.

“There’s a militaristic culture in most law enforcement agencies,” Moore said. “Power, image, use of force. It’s a very authoritarian attitude. But good policing isn’t in the shoulders; it’s in the head.”

For their roles in an off-duty brawl and a subsequent cover-up, 10 officers from the San Francisco Police Department, including then-Chief Earl Sanders, were indicted last February. Most charges were dropped, but the veil of impropriety still weighed heavily atop the department. With the appointment of Fong, a 26-year veteran of the force, Mayor Gavin Newsom sought to instill a fresh set of sensibilities. (Newsom has now become a national symbol for breaking gender boundaries. On Feb. 11, he began granting marriage licenses to same sex couples and continued until barred by the state’s Supreme Court a month later.)

“We must reform the department and restore the full faith of our city in the department,” Newsom said in a Jan. 17 statement announcing Fong’s appointment.

Changing public opinion, said Frasier, the soon-to-step down Texas sheriff, is a mandate placed upon every minority–be it gender or racial–who takes on a leadership position.

“I often tell my deputies, ‘It’s really not your job to teach these nincompoops to be more culturally sensitive,'” said Frasier, 50, who oversees a staff of 1,340. “‘But the world would be a better place for it if you did.’

“What’s the point of owning the boat,” she added, “if you can’t rock it?”

Frasier said today’s female law enforcement personnel have it far easier than she did as a rookie officer 22 years ago, when her toughness and competency were regularly tested by male colleagues and the public alike. But even though the playing field has become more level over the years, Frasier said, today’s female officers still have to work harder and work longer than their male counterparts.

“It may not be fair, but that’s life,” she said.

The Role of Sexism

Although Penny Harrington became the first woman named chief of a major police department when she was appointed to head the force in Portland, Ore., in 1985, women have faced a slow climb to the highest levels of law enforcement. Some say sexism, however, had little to do with the sluggish ascension.

Teresa Chambers, the first woman to serve as chief of the U.S. Park Police, which was created in 1791, has the view that female law enforcement officers are finally getting their due because it wasn’t until just recently that many deserved the chance.

“I’ve long said we need not be impatient,” said Chambers, who was appointed to her post in 2002. Many have been on the job for 25 and 30 years, she said. “We’re coming of age.”

“You have to have that amount of experience to get these jobs,” she added.

Boston’s O’Toole, like other women recently named to top posts, certainly has the resume to support her appointment. O’Toole first joined the Boston Police Department in the late 1970s. She became a deputy superintendent of the state’s Metropolitan Police Department in 1986, and was promoted to superintendent four years later. O’Toole then joined the State Police Department, was appointed the state’s Secretary of Public Safety and started her own international consulting firm that specialized in crisis management. She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and a law degree.

Despite such qualifications, O’Toole and her female colleagues should still expect to be judged, to some degree, based upon their gender. Chambers knows that painful reality firsthand.

In early December, Chambers was placed on paid administrative leave for telling reporters that her department is under-funded and under-staffed to properly safeguard Washington, D.C.’s parks and national monuments. Nothing Chambers told the media was confidential information, yet the Interior Department’s National Park Service, which oversees the U.S. Park Police, said she violated a federal regulation that barred publicly discussing budget issues.

Deputy Parks Director Donald Murphy brought termination proceedings against Chambers, which she continues to fight.

Chambers declined to discuss the specifics of her current legal battle, but those close to the ordeal say gender is definitely a factor in how the Park Service has treated her. “The Washington Post” reported in December that Chambers’ predecessor, Robert Langston, repeatedly spoke publicly about budget and staffing issues during his tenure, yet he was never reprimanded.

“I don’t think I was hired because I was a woman,” said Chambers, who was chief of police in Durham, N.C., before being appointed to head the U.S. Park Police in 2002. “What they were looking for was what I brought to the position: ethics, integrity, experience.

“Today, it’s a question of what do you bring that we uniquely need here.”

Jeff Lemberg is a fellow at The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, located in Arlington, Va.

For more information:

National Center for Women and Policing:

International Association of Women Police: