(WOMENSENEWS)–Would the encounter between Eric Garner, who died last summer in Staten Island after being put in chokehold, and police officers have ended differently if a female officer handled the situation? Would Michael Brown, shot by a policeman in Ferguson, Mo., last August, still be alive if a female police officer had been on the scene?
Interviews with two women integrally involved with the question, along with a body of research data, suggest yes.
Katherine Spillar, executive director of the Feminist Majority Foundation, based in Arlington, Va., strongly believes both situations could have ended differently. "The encounters wouldn’t have ended in all likelihood in the death of the citizens," she said in a phone interview, adding that male officers tend to lean toward a paramilitary style of policing. Women, she said, are better at deescalating a potentially violent situation.
Spillar echoes several years of studies that indicate that women on a police force are less likely than male coworkers to use excessive and deadly force. They are also less likely to be involved in fights or acts of aggression on the job. Female officers rely more on interpersonal skills and deescalate potentially violent situations more often than men.
Women and men, for example, obtained similar results when handling angry or violent citizens, found a comparative study published in the 1990s by the Police Foundation in Washington, D.C. However, female patrol officers tended to be more effective than their male counterparts in avoiding and defusing violent situations. Researchers also found that women were less likely than men to engage in serious unbecoming conduct.
A more recent study, released in 2002 by the National Center for Women and Policing, a division of the Feminist Majority Foundation, came to the same conclusions after looking at seven U.S. police agencies.
Spillar describes women in policing as "social workers at heart." "Someone who wants to help the community solve problems," she said. "Male police officers are attracted to policing out of a belief that you should use force to gain compliance."
‘I Never Killed Anybody’
Carole Armstrong was a police officer in the 1980s in Norfolk, Va., though she quit the force years ago. Last month, she stood among protesters in New York City to denounce police violence. Armstrong got into a heated exchange with a man defending the way police officer Daniel Pantaleo arrested Garner last summer in Staten Island.
"I was a 100-pound policer officer and I never killed anybody," Armstrong shouted at the man. "I arrested men bigger than Eric Garner and I never killed them. How come a 100-pound woman can arrest men and not kill them? How come 10 police [officers] cannot arrest a man without killing him?"
Armstrong, who’s now a realtor in New York City, joined the police force after getting her bachelor’s degree and yearning for a government job. She spent a year as an undercover officer and over a year patrolling the streets of Norfolk.
She left the job, Armstrong said, because she feared for her life; not from the men she arrested but from the people she worked with. Several times after a work shift, for example, she said she found her car tires were slashed. "They really made it clear they were jealous … they made it really clear that I was not welcome as a co-worker."
Armstrong said she never killed anyone during her career, no matter the size of the suspect. Instead of using her weapon, which should be "your last resort," she said she relied on negotiation. "The way you approach someone, the way you speak to someone is going to dictate the outcome."
When Armstrong joined the Norfolk police force she was only 21 and barely weighed 100 pounds. Though she worked out, she knew her physical attributes would not play in her favor in a physical confrontation with bigger men. That is one of the reasons, Armstrong said, women tend to communicate and negotiate. That should have been the approach used with Garner, she added. "There were other ways to arrest that man without killing him. He didn’t have a knife, he didn’t have a gun . . . it is just over abuse of power."
Armstrong described most of the male officers she worked with as quick to fight. "If there was no immediate cooperation, they didn’t think twice about fighting."
Reluctance to Recruit
Various studies indicate a reluctance of police departments to recruit women and have them patrol the streets. When hired, women are traditionally assigned to "women’s work," such as clerical duties, working with youth or guarding female prisoners. Patrolling the "frontlines" of crime exposes women to violence and many police administrators have serious reservations about a woman’s ability to perform well in violent situations, the Police Foundation said on its website.
Spillar said this discrimination against female officers starts from recruitment and that police departments nationally use unfair standards. "The biggest discriminatory practice is that they continue to use physical agility tests that favor people with high upper body strength."
Yet, research has shown there is no correlation between upper body strength, physical strength and success as a police officer.
"If the police departments would stop using discriminatory tests and practices the number of women would start to shoot up," said Spillar, adding that communication and negotiation skills aren’t tested.
The number of women in law enforcement has barely changed nationally over the past decade; they made up 14 percent of police forces in 1998 and 15.2 percent in 2008, according to the latest data by the Bureau of Justice of Statistics. In the NYPD, the number of full-time female officers was 5,743 (15 percent) in 1997 and 6,151 (17 percent) in 2007.
The NYPD didn’t respond to an interview request for the most recent figures on women in their ranks and test practices.
Police violence is also expensive. In addition to costing some citizens their lives, it costs tax payers millions of dollars each year in liability lawsuits. A document released last year detailing every civil-rights lawsuit brought against the NYPD since 2009, for example, showed the city has spent $428 million on police-related settlements. The document did not detail which settlements were tied to police misconduct.
Spillar, a proponent of affirmative action who favors women as 50 percent of the police force, said even if women made up at least 35 percent policing style would change. "You would see that the number of male police involved in excessive force begin to drop off too because they would began to change their style of policing alongside the women."
The U.S. Border Patrol recently launched a call to hire more women. "As a police chief for a long time, I know that women in law enforcement bring a huge amount of positive to any law enforcement agency, and increasing those numbers for the Border Patrol will do exactly the same thing," Border Patrol Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske said in a recent Federal News Radio interview. "Women bring a perspective and negotiating skill to law enforcement that we very much need."
Only 5 percent of the U.S. Border Patrol agents are female, a low number considering the tens of thousands of migrant women who cross the Southwest border each year, many who experience sexual trauma along the way, the Washington Post reported.
Spillar said we could see improvements in New York City and across the country if policymakers were more aware of the studies on women in policing. "If [New York City] Mayor de Blasio and the City Council would look at the research they might decide to instruct the police department to go on a hiring spree and hire more women."
The mayor’s office wasn’t available for comment.
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